Talking Shop and Friendsgiving with Emily Stephenson

Thanksgiving is easily my favorite holiday.

Okay, so it’s partly about the food. But more than that, I love the spirit of gratitude, love, and friendship surrounding the day, and the celebrated act of gathering with the special people in our lives.

One of my favorite Thanksgiving memories — dinner at Great Wolf Lodge, spending time with my family after spending eighteen months away in Mozambique.

And it’s not just family. Friendsgiving has emerged as one of the most treasured traditions of the holiday, allowing us to cherish not only our flesh-and-blood relationships, but the connections we share with the friends and colleagues who support us day-to-day. Long live Friendsgiving! Now, here’s where Emily Stephenson comes in.

Not only is Emily a cookbook writer, recipe developer, and organizer of The Food Writer’s Workshop, but she’s a Friendsgiving expert. Her recently-released book The Friendsgiving Handbook offers guidance and recipes for throwing the perfect party for your closest posse.

On today’s Talking Shop, we chat pie, the world of food writing, and “Old Town Road.” Everyone, meet Emily!

About You:

Tell us a little about yourself.

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, went to the University of St. Andrews and studied International Relations and somehow found myself living in Brooklyn, NY writing cookbooks and living with my boyfriend and cat. It’s been a wild ride!

How did you get your start in recipe development and cookbook writing?

I’d always loved cooking and wanted to make it my job (plus was a little aimless out of college and 2008 was a very bad year to graduate lol) but had zero idea how to do that. In 2013, I think, I had bought a new cookbook and was reading the into and was like “wait, this is a job and I want this job”. I had made a whole plan to work in restaurant kitchens for a few years instead of culinary school but my break was actually applying to an internship to work on a book with Foo52. Once I got my foot in the door that way, everything kind of took off (or, I can say that now, it was five years between deciding I wanted to do this and getting a book deal).

What is one thing that would surprise people about what you do?

Freelancing is always hard, and also there are way more people working on cookbooks than you realize! Especially the books of famous chefs/writers. I was developing recipes for someone else for a few years and there was a whole team of us.

How did The Food Writers Workshop get its start? What has been the most rewarding part of putting on the annual event?

We started it because most of the food media conferences are outrageously expensive. And honestly, in an industry that doesn’t pay well and is full of freelancers, that’s just not fair. So the three founders—Alicia Kennedy, Layla Schlack and myself—decided to do a very DIY conference. It’s been a huge success. Everyone wants to connect and learn, but it shouldn’t cost $800 to do so.

Tell us about The Friendsgiving Handbook. How did it come about? What was the creation process like?

The book idea came from the publisher, and they knew I was looking for projects, so when they emailed me and asked if I had any experience with Friendsgiving, I was like “I’ve been hosting for over a decade!” Needless to say, they went with me. The creation process was fun—researching, looking through old food magazines, figuring out what’s essential at most Thanksgiving tables—and testing was fun, if hot (it was August). I had to take a long break from butter and turkey after that.

What is your best tip for a successful Friendsgiving? 

You need to do a medium amount of planning! Don’t micromanage every little detail (guests pick up on that) but also my attempts to be very “chill” and “laid back” have been my less successful—but still super fun and delicious—years.

What is one of your favorite recipes to make?

The concord grape pie! It’s also everyone’s favorite to eat.

What advice would you give to aspiring food writers and recipe developers?

People are way more willing to help aspiring food writers than I expected—but you have to have specific questions. When you reach out to someone you admire, ask them more about how they got to where they are than if they can help you. And the kind of sad fact is that it is still about who you know and networking. So do it with the aim to learn, and not just piggyback off people.

Oh, and you’ll need a day job. Writing doesn’t pay well until you get to the big leagues! I have a day job as a copywriter for a women’s apparel brand that has been helpful for covering the basics like, you know, health insurance.

Anything you can tell us about your second book?

Yes! It’s a pantry cooking book that I think is going to be super useful. This round I had a bunch of my friends cook some recipes after testing and they all seem excited about doable weeknight cooking.

The Fun Qs:

Your latest Netflix/Hulu binge?

“Billy on the Street” just got added to Netflix and I’ve been loving that.

What makes you laugh?

The weirder the meme, the better! (I spend way too much time on Instagram)

What is your favorite treat?

I live a block from a really wonderful little place called Saraghina Bakery and after a long week, I love to sit on the bench outside with my boyfriend and get a pastry and coffee and people watch.

Your favorite cookbook to cook from?

Probably not what you want to hear, but I don’t use a ton of cookbooks outside of work! I collect them, but I’m also constantly trying new stuff. Recently I’ve been turning to Bon Appetit a lot of weeknight cooking ideas and have tried some new, great stuff.

What is your favorite out-of-office activity?


What song is currently stuck in your head?

Any song in my head stays there for about five days. I just got “Old Town Road” out after it mysteriously re-appeared last week.

Buy The Friendsgiving Handbook here and follow Emily on Instagram @emaweee.

*Giveaway! I’m giving away a copy of The Friendsgiving Handbook! Simply enter by following me and Emily on Instagram and sharing your favorite Thanksgiving tradition in the comments below.

(US residents only. Giveaway is not endorsed or sponsored by Emily Stephenson. Giveaway will be closed at 11:59 pm CT 11/13. Winner announced 11/14. Good luck!)

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