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Emily Cale (l) and Linda Coffee were working at a school district when they wrote their multi-million dollar selling Four Ingredient Cookbooks. Photo by Phil Houseal

To order any of the Four Ingredient Cookbooks go to www.fouringredientcookbook.com.


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Only Four Ingredients

by Phil Houseal
Apr 22, 2015


While immersed in my education career, I harbored a secret desire: to be a published writer. I schemed and dreamed even while happily mired in mid-management. In 1993 I took a job as Director at a nearby school. On the first day, I met my new secretary.

She was delightful, positive, and amazingly competent. But she had one thing that put me in absolute awe: she was a published writer.

Emily Cale –and another schoolteacher, Linda Coffee–were best-selling cookbook authors. They created the famous Four Ingredient Cookbooks. Here I was, aching to be published, and they had done it, almost accidentally.

Their story is epic in the publishing industry. The young mothers and career women met at a school function. Discovering their common interest in cooking, they got together to share simple recipes that were quick and easy to make.

“We wanted to see how many recipes we could come up with that only used four ingredients,” Emily said.

It was a game.

“It became the challenge of ‘can we do this?’ Linda explained. “We were not trying to build an empire; we just enjoyed the camaraderie and fun of seeing it grow.”

They gathered 200 recipes, and decided to put them in a cookbook. On a whim, they sent a letter to the food editor at a San Antonio newspaper, describing their idea. The editor interviewed them and ran a front page story. The day the article ran, they took orders for 500 cookbooks.

It was great. Except they had yet to print a single book. They went to a local printer, who was reluctant to take on the project. It took a call from another community leader to convince the printer this book was going to be a pretty big deal. The printer acquiesced. It was a good decision. Because after filling those first few orders, the book went on to sell more than 2 million copies.

At first they hauled the books from tent shows to flea markets, sitting at cold, drafty barns between the almond vendor and goat soap booth.

“We had a lot of fun doing that, but we were younger,” Emily said. “We both worked full time, yet would drive to Dallas for a show on the weekend, then drive back to be at work on Monday morning. I don’t know how we did it, actually.”

Eventually they gave up the shows and went with distributors who placed their book in warehouse stores and large retail bookstore chains.

Ease in publishing and the advent of electronic or “ebooks” has opened up a new marketing avenue for the authors, who now sell their series of Four Ingredient Cookbooks online. The days of the mega bookstores are gone, and now words are merely pixels on monitors.

While the media format has changed, so has the type of person who loves the Four Ingredient Cookbooks.

“When we were doing shows, a lot of young men would come up and tell us their wife didn’t like to cook, so they were buying it for themselves,” Emily said. “Now, a lot of older people are buying it for their grandchildren. People who used the book are now passing it on to their children because they liked it.”

Another thing that has changed is that people just don’t cook as much as they used to.

“There are so many prepared foods you can get at the store,” Emily said. “You can buy chicken marsala, so you don’t have to make it. But it won’t taste as good as our recipe.”

I continue to be impressed by their track record in the publishing industry. I have since written and published half a dozen books, raking in one two-hundredth of one percent of their sales. I celebrate their success. It is proof of what you can accomplish with only four ingredients: authenticity, passion, hard work... and a good idea.