Robert St. John Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 30, 2007

St. John’s sixth book’s debut brings him ‘deja-vu all over again’

Today is the fifth anniversary of the release of a cookbook that almost wasn’t.

Watercolor artist, Wyatt Waters, and I combined forces five years ago and published a coffee-table cookbook entitled A Southern Palate.

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The cookbook’s printer was located in Portland, Oregon, but the book was to be printed and bound in Asia and then shipped back to the United States. Once in port, the books would be loaded onto an 18-wheeler and trucked across the country to Mississippi.

The book-signing tour had been scheduled, the dates were set and confirmed, and hundreds of bookstores, museums, gift shops, and restaurants were waiting for books to arrive. Then I received a phone call.

Everything had been running smoothly and on schedule until the West Coast dock strike of 2002. A victim of bad timing, the books were sitting on a pier somewhere in San Diego, prisoners in the never ending battle of labor vs. management.

The timing of the book’s release had been down-to-the-wire from the outset. Now with the strike, every day — actually every minute — counted. The stress level increased as news of the strike changed with each update from the printer in Portland.  

Book sellers were counting on having the book for the upcoming Christmas season and the deadline was approaching rapidly. I had depleted my paltry savings and investment accounts to pay for the book. The pressure mounted.

I received reports updating the progress of the strike negotiation several times each day. No one had any idea as to when the dispute would be resolved. For three weeks the news changed hourly. One minute it looked as if the strike would end and the books would be loaded onto a truck that day. The next report had the books arriving sometime in January.

Time was running out. Most days it appeared that we had already run out of time. It was one of the most stressful, yet exciting, periods of my life.

In the end, the strike was resolved two days before the first scheduled book signing. A truck driver drove day and night to reach my hometown of Hattiesburg. The truckload of 10,000 books arrived at my restaurant office at 10 a.m. on October 30, 2002. The first book signing was scheduled for 5 p.m. that afternoon.

The frenzy began immediately. Wyatt and I traveled the region from top to bottom in a beat-up SUV with bald tires. Everyone wanted books. We delivered them ourselves. After three hectic weeks, the book had sold out.

We rushed to have the second printing completed before Christmas and were told the books wouldn’t arrive until January. Working from the hip, we designed a gift package that included a certificate for the book and a limited edition print by Wyatt. The second printing sold out in two weeks. The craziness had grown from people trying to purchase a book, to people purchasing the promise of a book.

Flash forward to 2007. San Diego is again in the news, this time for rampant wildfires. Wyatt and I have published a new coffee-table book, Southern Seasons. Five years in the making, this book is 100 pages longer with twice the artwork and all-new recipes. Though, instead of having the books printed overseas, we opted to stay on this continent and used a company out of Kentucky whose printing plant is located in Canada.

The book was scheduled to be released today. As I sit down to write this column I realize this is the same date the first book arrived.

Trying to avoid another mad frenzy like the one we endured in 2002, I put a lot of thought and planning into how the new books would arrive and where they would be stored, and then shipped out again. I set up a room to sign 9,000 of the pre-sold books. All was in order. Then I received a phone call.

“We have had some slow downs in production on the binding line. With this being a very large project, any slow downs get amplified.” After six books one would think I had the process mastered.

It’s deja-vu all over again — so much for all of the pre-planning. Throw foresight out the window, the craziness is about to begin. Buckle your seatbelt, lock your tray tables, make sure your seat is a full and upright position, hold on tight, and keep your fingers crossed. It’s cookbook time.

For this week’s recipe, Pork Tenderloin with Muscadine Glaze, go to the blog on <>  .

(Robert St.John is an author, chef, restaurateur, and world-class eater. He is the author of five books and the upcoming “Southern Seasons.” He can be reached at <>.)