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Alive and cooking
"For me, there should be no difference between healthy food and tasty food. Because of my heart condition everything I eat has to nourish me and so this isn't a lifestyle choice—it's a life or death choice." Sally Bee means that quite literally. In 2004, as a 36-year-old mother of three she suffered three massive heart attacks over the course of a week. Given only hours to live she survived, and was diagnosed with a rare heart condition. As part of her recovery she decided to take control of everything she ate and the healthy recipes she developed were published in her first book The Secret Ingredient. Her second healthy eating cookbook is published next January by Collins. The Recipe for Life contains more simple, easy to cook recipes. The list of ingredients for each dish is relatively short—no need to hunt down obscure herbs—and the cooking instructions are concise yet reassuringly complete for the novice cook. As Bee says: "This is everyday food, this isn't anything that should be challenging."
But healthy eating itself is often seen as a challenge, and Bee says: "I think many people get it wrong, [they] think eating for health means that they're on a diet, and that it means a massive change in their life. I believe that there's a missing piece of the puzzle which is our emotional attachment to food." This emotional attachment stems from childhood and "our memories of the kind of food that our parents fed us". Many of the dishes in The Recipe for Life are adaptations of these favourites—for example, bangers and mash becomes caramelised vegetables with sausage and baked sweet potato. "There is a way of doing it without having to feel like you are deprived," she insists, noting that "it's just not possible to live on mung beans and spinach alone—that's why people fall off the wagon."
Bee self-published her first healthy eating book, The Secret Ingredient, in 2008. The book developed from the counselling work Bee was doing with other heart patients at her local hospital, which she began about a year after her own heart attacks and continues to this day. She recalls: "I was amazed about how many tears people were crying because of the food they felt they could no longer eat, they were crying more tears over that than the fact they'd just had a heart attack."
She began giving out her own recipe sheets and the demand for them grew and grew. Realising there was possibly a wider demand she initially approached some TV companies (her background is in television presenting) with an idea for a healthy eating cooking programme but "it was an uphill battle at that point" and her husband suggested publishing a book.
Bee says she never thought about pitching the book to a major publisher and decided to do it herself. In 2008, she approached a local printer, who taught her how to use QuarkXPress, and her husband took all the photographs, "he didn't have a hot meal for weeks, I'd cook one of the dishes for the book . . . and he'd have to photograph his before he was allowed to eat it!" The Secret Ingredient's first print run was for 200 copies under her Luckypuddle Publishing imprint, and she remembers selling first to other mothers in the school playground before setting up her website.
Coverage in the local paper led to more sales and at the beginning of 2009 she was stocked by an initially reluctant Gardners. It was an order for 12 copies from the White House, which Bee sent out as a press release, that saw her story, and cookbook, picked up in the national press and "from there it went ballistic, and Gardners couldn't get it [in] quick enough".
The Secret Ingredient went to number one on Amazon.co.uk's food and drink chart and sold, Bee reckons, about 8,000 copies in all. Of self-publishing she says "as a way to getting published I would recommend it because you can only get other people to have faith in you, especially these days in this market, if you get out and do it yourself."
But such success attracted the attention of literary agents and publishers and, although Bee confesses with a smile to thinking she was doing pretty well all by herself, she acquired an agent—Clare Hulton—and, in August 2009, a deal with HarperCollins which saw The Secret Ingredient revised and repackaged, and published in 2010. "I was really impressed by their vision and patience, they clearly were prepared to listen to what I wanted . . . I was looking at building a brand.
"It's not about preaching, it's about educating and facilitating other people to eat healthily. Not just people who have had heart problems but anyone who wants to be healthier."