Sweet As Vinegar Pie


Two decades ago, when I was trying to sell my first book from a 30-page outline, my New York  agent called and announced, “I have absolutely splendid news.”

Richard, a native Manhattanite, who had suggested that I write a book on what he called “the secrets of Southern womanhood” had read the outline then made a call to an editor at Random House.

“She said they would pay whatever we want for this book!”

Stunned, I sat up straight on the sofa then jumped to my feet. It was incredible, unexpected news. I had just sold my first book. I swallowed hard, my heart pounding. “How much do we want?” I whispered in shock.

He laughed. “We’re not taking any offers. If Random House wants it this much, other publishers will, too. Come up and lay some of your Southern charm on them.”

I booked a flight, he arranged meetings and, one by one, we hurried excitedly from one well-known publisher to another. It was the Time-Life Building on the Avenue of Americas that brought tears to my eyes. I remembered watching the opening credits of the TV show, That Girl, and how she scurried across the walkway in front of that building. I could not believe my blessing. It was too good to feel real.

We met with Warner Books at Time-Life amidst an assembly of editors, marketing people, and a wonderful young publicist, Tina, who has now risen to the top media position at HarperCollins. In fact, everyone in that room would go on to become major publishing stars. One was a young editor named Amy Einhorn who was the one who was considering the acquisition of What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should).

The meeting was spirited and fun though the Warner people were tough and straight forward with their questions. It became apparent that they liked my answers as they began looking at each other, nodding, then expressing opinions on why they thought my outline could turn into a bestselling book. At one point, Amy leaned forward and said earnestly, “What I really want to know is how you Southern women can say anything you want and make it so charming. I had a Southern woman once for a boss. She could have told me to jump in the lake and I would have said ‘Yes!’”

Thanks to Amy’s comment, I added a chapter called “Sweet As Vinegar Pie” and explained that a criticism should be preceded by two compliments then completed with another compliment. No one had ever heard of vinegar pie but the people of the Appalachians knew it well: the vinegar is the acidity like a lemon but its bitterness is covered in a cup and a half of sugar.

 Just like a typical Southern woman.

I thought of this recently when the Wall Street Journal had a story about the merits of vinegar pie which the writer said was once called “desperation pies” since the vinegar was added when people didn’t have other ingredients. If you haven’t tried one, you should. It’s delicious.

Amy was the first to place a bid during the auction for my book though, eventually, it was won by Penguin Putnam. I was so grateful for her thoughtful suggestion that added depth to the book that when I discovered she was expecting a baby, I crocheted a baby blanket and mailed it to her at the Time-Life Building.

In the years that have passed, Amy Einhorn’s genius has been proven. She has edited so many bestsellers that she was awarded the highest honor in the industry: her own publishing imprint of Amy Einhorn which published the megahit The Help. She is now president of Macmillian’s prestigious Holt.

It’s hard to know if she still has the blanket I made for her baby but the gift she gave me — that chapter — will always be cherished by me.

[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “Let Me Tell You Something.” Please visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for our free weekly newsletter.]