You might not think to read the acknowledgments pages of "Sacred Spaces: Princeton Parties, Gatherings, and Celebrations" (actually subtitled "A Happy Accident"). But you can really learn a lot about a book – and its author – by doing so.
When I heard that someone had self-published a lushly-produced, four-color coffee table book about giving parties in Princeton, I rolled my eyes and thought, absolutely undoable, what does her husband do for a living? Having spent 10 years as a nonfiction book editor, I know it takes beaucoup bucks to produce a tome like "Sacred Spaces" – you have to pay the photographer, designer, recipe tester, food stylist, prop stylist, copyeditor, proofreader, indexer, and of course, one of the biggest ticket items, the printer.
The last celebrity cookbook I produced commanded a $150,000 budget and that did not include printing. Even with the necessary resources, I thought, who is going to buy a book about parties in Princeton – for 65 bucks a pop – save for the people actually photographed in the book?
However, a careful reading of the acknowledgments and a phone call with author Debbie Tunnell from her second home in Austin, Texas, revealed a few answers, especially about the budget. Tunnell is a Fort Worth, Texas, native. Her first home is off of Edgerstoune Road, a prestigious Princeton neighborhood, and her husband, Doug Tunnell, is a former Bristol-Myers Squibb VP, now owner and partner of the Princeton biotech firm Clearview Projects.
Through years of hosting white collar dinner parties for her husband’s BMS crowd and catering other parties through Country Gourmet, a company she ran in the early 1980s, Tunnell had accrued blue-chip relationships with top vendors in the area like Jack Morrison of Nassau Street Seafood and Ann Bartholomay, the new queen of desserts for QVC (the TV shopping channel) who produces extraordinary
confections from her Newtown bakery, Annie B’s.
Through her own connections and through friends and colleagues, Tunnell also got in tight with the creme-de-la-creme Ivy town
cognoscente – well-connected bluebloods and A-list Princetonians like the husband and wife architect-designer team Janet Lasley and Marc Brahaney; Liz and Zaki Hosny, who, after 20 years of international corporate travel, settled into a 1915 colonial (renovated by Lasley-Brahaney) on Battle Road; Anne Reeves, the Hosny’s neighbor and executive director of the Arts Council of Princeton; and Elizabeth Hague Sword, better known as Puddie to her friends, executive director
of the Children’s Health and Environmental Coalition (whose spokesperson is Olivia Newton-John).
So when Tunnell dreamed up the idea of a Princeton party book in 2000 – and her proposal was rejected out of hand by the very insular book publishing world (and the cookbook publishing circle is even more insular, a singularly snobbish clan who trip over each other in the scramble to publish the next Nigella or Jean-Georges), she decided to self-publish. She first turned to her friends, designers Dale Engelbert and Susan Syzmanski (whose first job was as an ad typesetter for U.S.1 many years ago), and formed an LLC, recipeas4u, specifically to produce the book.
All are college graduates and business owners (Engelbert is the owner and creative director of Princeton Media Group and Syzmanski’s company is Moonlight Design). Then Tunnell got on the horn and over the course of the next three years, staged eight beautiful parties with beautiful people and beautiful food – using absolutely every connection she had to keep the costs down.
"Virtually no one took a salary," says Tunnell, referring not only to herself, Engelbert, and Syzmanski, but a slew of professionals who worked for no fee or at extremely reduced cost, including Ricardo Barros, principal photographer at Grounds for Sculpture, whose work is included in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and other prominent museums; Marek Butaj, staff photographer for Michael Graves & Associates (where Syzmanski used to work); chef Ed Batejan; event planner Mary Harrison of Euphorbia; the
aforementioned Bartholomay – who, coincidentally, I know is good for her word because she cancelled a camping trip 11 years ago to make a fondant-iced wedding cake the morning of my August wedding since it was too humid to make the day before – and about a gazillion others, all given their due in the acknowledgments. Tunnell even convinced a Connecticut printer, Rich Kaplan of Finlay Printing, to print the book at a reduced cost.
"For each of these people, the book is a wonderful portfolio of their work," says Tunnell. Reason enough to forego fees and expenses. As of mid-December "Sacred Spaces" – which is available at a number of area stores including the U Store, Micawber’s (co-owner Margaret Griffin shows up in one of the photos), Barnes & Noble, as well as on bn.com and borders.com – has sold 500 copies from an initial print run of 3,500. It has also been spotted in unlikely places, like the waiting room of prosthedontist Robert Weiner at 182 North Harrison Street, who received the book for a Christmas gift from a relative. The 368-page book (printed on luxe 100-lb. stock) combines photographs, menus, inspirational quotes and poems, and text to tell the stories of eight parties held in "sacred spaces" – be it a Japanese garden, an artist’s studio, a yarn shop, or Drumthwacket.
Does the book have a market outside of Princeton? "I’ve given the book to people in California and Austin," says Tunnell, "and they say they love the stories. I think people are intrigued by a small East coast town that has that small community feel. It’s like reading about Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard." Recipeas4u has signed with a distributor – Koen in Moorestown – and is in the process of hiring a New York public relations firm.
At first blush, the book reads rather like a self-indulgent who’s who of Princeton, a paginated pillow stuffed with recipes for dishes like Glazed Yellowfin Tuna Bites in Wonton Cups and anecdotes about the quainter details of life in an Ivy League town – or at least life in what less well-heeled Princetonians call "the exclusive Western section." And the food photography would have looked more appealing if it had been shot in a studio allowing for control of styling and lighting (it appears to have been shot on site just minutes before serving the guests). But skipping over the frivolity of comments like "we discussed the party over lunch at our favorite sushi restaurant," what emerges is a rather strong post 9/11 message about the seismic shift in entertaining since that fateful day.
"I really think not only our community but all of us were shocked, living on the East Coast; it deeply affected me to see that you can live so close to something that is so devasting," says Tunnell. "We are not that protected in Princeton – you realize the safety we had in our community is something to be treasured. (After 9/11) I knew at that point we couldn’t write about frivolous 1990s parties. I found no one was socializing, but people were getting together for coffee, on a much more personal level."
September 11 deeply affected Tunnell’s younger son, then 10, who has since refused to go to New York for any reason (his friend’s father died in the tragedy). She says the book communicates a more intimate,
less glam, but ultimately more rewarding style of entertaining. "Parties are no longer just for show. Now I give more thought to who I’m having and to showing that I enjoy being with them."Which leads to Tunnell’s bottom-line about giving parties: "The most important thing is to just relax. Don’t make yourself crazy. Don’t be afraid to pick out a tablecloth – nothing is going to be wrong. Food
now is so easy – you can go to Wegman’s or Nassau Street Seafood, you don’t have to spend hours making meals. People are going to be so thrilled just to be invited. Relax and enjoy the moment." "Sacred Spaces: Princeton Parties, Gatherings, and Celebrations" book signing, Sunday, February 13, 11 a.m., Go for
Baroque, 20 Nassau Street. 609-306-1413.