Laguna Beach resident Lucy Mercer began her professional culinary journey years ago in Warsaw, Ind., when a friend opened a restaurant and asked her to supervise lunches.
That led her to write a cooking column for a local paper and later for the Charlotte Observer. After a return to school for a master’s degree in writing, Mercer landed in Laguna Beach about 1994 and took up business and promotional writing, though cooking remained her passion.
So, four years ago, when friend Carol Griset approached Mercer about teaching disadvantaged mothers to cook healthy meals through Morning Garden, part of the Santa Ana-based nonprofit preschool and daycare program Hands Together, she took the bait.
That culinary trajectory led to an engagement this Saturday, June 23, at Laguna Beach’s Zinc Cafe from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. where Mercer is selling and signing copies of “Morning Garden Comes to Your Table,” a cookbook she compiled for the Santa Ana program.
The Morning Garden aims to provide early education for homeless families and families in transition, many of whom are single moms of preschool aged children. While children engage in learning activities to prepare them for entering school, their moms are schooled in financial literacy, interview skills, resume preparation and obtaining a high school diploma, as well as nutrition and low-cost meal preparation.
For many of these moms, meals meant grabbing a plate and getting in line at a shelter, Mercer said, adding that teaching them to make meals for their own children built self-esteem along with culinary knowledge.
Insisting on fresh, seasonal ingredients, Mercer started modestly with the simplest of dishes requiring minimal preparation, such as macaroni and cheese. But soon the Wednesday Morning Garden brunch boasted a dozen moms in the kitchen and enough hands to accomplish more complicated prep work.
Including the moms, kids, staff from the parish and special guests, “we’d have 25 to 30 people sitting down for lunch,” said Hands Together’s founding president, Rev. Bradford Karelius, known as Father Brad. What Mercer concocted with the help of these moms “was so good I would happily pay for it,” he said.
While the Morning Garden program continued to grow, the weekly meal and spirit that infused the kitchen “was magical,” said Karelius, as women from different cultures shared their hardships with each other as they chopped, washed and stirred. “It was a kind of holy communion” to see those mothers in action, he said.
Dave Peters, executive director of Hands Together, called Mercer’s cooking lessons for the struggling moms a “phenomenal” addition to the Morning Garden program, which receives no government assistance and is funded entirely by private donations.
The cookbook project came to a simmer when lunch guests began asking for recipes, which volunteer Ann Campbell typed up. Bringing it to a boil fell to Mercer.
She culled 35 menus that reflect the seasons from four years’ worth of recipes. “This book highlights our winners,” she said, and added that the recipe for “Our Best Chocolate Cookies” alone merits the cover price of $24.95.
Mercer not only compiled the recipes and heartwarming testimonies from some of the moms in the program, she designed and edited the entire book, cover to cover. She did balk at the $800 price tag for publishing software. Instead, she downloaded a 30-day trial edition and scrambled to finish it within that period. To ensure hands-on quality control she opted for a local printer, eschewing cheaper production costs overseas.
Mercer herself footed the $7,000 bill to get 500 copies of the cookbook published, since she wants all of the proceeds from its sale to benefit the Morning Garden program.
Since the book’s publication, though, Mercer discovered a gap in her own knowledge, admitting to a new appreciation for salesmanship. “You have to present it and tell people why they really need this cookbook,” she explained. Karelius is doing his part, too. Father Brad sent a copy to fresh food advocate and culinary icon Alice Waters. He thought it was worth a shot, having met her through a mutual friend at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse just three months after it opened in 1971.
Zinc’s owner, John Secretan, first offered her shelf space in both of his shops and then suggested the book signing. “I’ve know Lucy for many years, and her cookbook looks great and the recipes sound delicious,” he said.
Thanks to Zinc’s and a handful of other Orange County shops displaying the cookbook, 200 copies have sold so far. Mercer hopes the book signing Saturday will make a dent in the remaining 300.
To sweeten the deal, she’s baking the prized chocolate cookies for the occasion.