“But there would be no book without our agent Neil Salkind, whose amazing perseverance on our behalf and whose constant stream of positive words cannot be matched.” I wrote this in the acknowledgments section of our cookbook The Cook’s Book of Intense Flavors, which was published in 2010. It’s accurate to say that I wouldn’t have published anything without Neil. I found out yesterday that he died and I am so saddened by his passing; he had such an influence on my life.
I met Neil and his wife Leni by serving them in our restaurant. You can tell a lot about a person by waiting on them. Neil was polite, complimentary, asked about my kids and mom and was generous. If I didn’t already like Neil so much, I would never have had the nerve to ask him about his work. I knew that he was an academic, but until I overheard him during a meal talk about publishing, I had no idea that he was a widely published writer and literary agent. I mentioned that I had been blogging about the food life and that I was thinking of trying to do something else with it.
He lit up with a smile and asked me to send him what I had been working on, which I immediately did. When he told me he wanted to sign me and be my agent, I thought he was just being nice. I worked hard on developing a proposal for an idea I was working on the time called The Chef’s Wife. Neil read everything I sent him, encouraged me to keep going and informed me that there is only one space after a period. When I confessed to him that I wasn’t sure I had a book in me, he smiled and told me he knew I did. My identity as a writer started to form in that moment.
In the summer of 2008, Robert, the girls and I were scheduled to go to Europe for a two-month cooking trip. I told Neil that my goal was to get a laptop as a reward if I got a book deal. Another smile and then he said, “Pal, why don’t you lower the bar some? Get yourself a laptop.” But I wouldn’t, so he loaned me his. While we were in Paris, we got a deal to write a cookbook with a nice advance – all because of Neil’s efforts. I started writing that cookbook on the laptop he loaned me while taking breaks from our cooking duties.
After I stepped away from the cooking life, I reached out often to Neil for advice, who had since retired. I really wanted to make him proud. I drove to his house when I got printed postcards for my book lunch party on December 1st for my memoir Float On. With no one answering the bell, I left it on their porch. I was delighted to see him in the row ahead of us at Liberty Hall when author George Saunders came to speak in October. He told me had been thinking of me and that he had received the invitation and wanted to make sure that I had placed it in the community calendars, which I since have. He smiled but the program started and he left before I did, so that I didn’t say goodbye.
As we approach Thanksgiving, I’m acutely aware of how much I have to be grateful for. As I looked up the acknowledgment that I wrote to Neil, I saw that I also included my friend Sandra Moran in it as well. She’s gone too now and it’s a reminder that life is fleeting and to go ahead and say out loud how much someone means to you. Maybe we’ll have the chance this weekend. Knowing how much of an impact Neil had on me also inspires me to be that for someone else. Teaching writing is yet another thing I am grateful to have in my life. Neil also continued to pursue his creative interests after retirement and gifted me with a couple of his prints, including this one…
Neil told me that this quote captured how blessed he felt in his life, isn’t it perfect for Thanksgiving?
Thank you for including me in your lives. I hope that you are surrounded my love this weekend and that you go ahead and tell someone how important they are to you.