Hamptons Epicure: Cooking Up Books with Workman Publishing’s Suzanne Rafer

Suzanne Rafer of Workman Publishing
Suzanne Rafer, Photo: Courtesy Workman Publishing

I’m thankful for the many surprises that living in the Hamptons brings. Turns out that a woman I barely know has been profoundly affecting my life since I was a child.

I’ve often run into Workman Publishing’s editor Suzanne Rafer at the Sag Harbor Farmers Market. I’ve been fascinated with her career for the last couple of years, since she mentioned that she edits cookbooks. We finally sat down together for the first time last month.

Fun fact: “Workman Publishing,” which was founded in 1968 and is renowned for publishing classic, practical books, was not given a descriptive name but rather an eponymous one. It’s named after its founder Peter Workman.

You probably grew up with Workman Publishing like I did, even if you don’t know it. Do you remember the very graphic Kliban Cats? Both my verbal development and my son’s were impacted by these misspeaking kitties. “Love them little mousies…Mousies what I love to eat! Bite they little heads off, nibble at they tiny feet!,” was a refrain first shared in Bernard “Hap” Kliban’s original book from Workman, Cat. Then it was printed across my mother’s favorite kitchen towels. When my son came along, my home still sported curtains made from Kliban Cat bed sheets. Ultimately, I think that Kliban’s advice to Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head, the title of his second book, has helped us both in life. And that book, like two-thirds of Workman’s books, remains in print to this day. That’s an extraordinarily high percentage of books to remain on any publisher’s backlist. Rafer points out, “you’re nothing without your backlist,” followed by “you’re nothing without your authors. Our authors are our partners.” Clearly they’re onto something there.

It’s hard to imagine now, but the iconic Kliban Cats were not an immediate hit. To gain exposure for the book, Peter Workman sent most of his staff, including Rafer, to the annual cat show at Madison Square Garden to hawk copies and wave blown-up images of the illustrations. For Rafer it was only natural—her first career was in street theater. Workman got requests for posters to sell and reached a licensing agreement with Kliban to print them. Other Cat merchandise followed, including mugs, pillows and ceramic collectibles. Workman’s famous Page-A-Day Calendars were born in 1979.

Who doesn’t love a good calendar? But you can’t eat ’em (even when they are smaller than one’s head). The Silver Palate Cookbook, on the other hand, was utterly edible and my future husband used it to seduce me. Chicken Marbella, anyone? “Chicken with prunes is not something that most Americans were familiar with,” Rafer points out, but she believed in the power of these recipes to expand the American palate and indeed they have.

Soon I was in need of a good book on pregnancy. Rafer notes, “I came up with the title—What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” Rafer is also the mother of an only child. Like me, she believes in extending classroom learning into the home—easily done with Brain Quest cards from Workman. The publisher recently released a series to fight off that summer slump, academic amnesia, that so many children experience.

Rafer does a lot more than edit cookbooks; she was delighted to share that she developed The Yogi Book with Yogi Bera—a New York Times Best Seller.

Super fun fact: Workman Publishing’s longtime editor Suzanne Rafer weekends in Sag Harbor and is willing to answer every question you’ve ever had about the fascinating history of Workman Publishing. Well, she was willing to answer all of my questions over coffee at Pierre’s. My inquisitive barrage may have exhausted her for a time.

Now that my kid is all grown up, I have more time to garden, using the principals explained in Workman’s The Four Season Farm by Barbara Damrosch. When it rains, I explore cookbooks like David Tanis’s latest  two from Workman, One Good Dish and Heart of the Artichoke. I hope it rains soon. Thank you Suzanne Rafer!

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