You Don't Eat Well, and More Things I Learned on My Cookbook Tour

[Photograph: Penny de los Santos]

Just six days after my cookbook, Eat Mexico, hit shelves, I packed up my four-month-old baby, a breast pump and portable crib, a stroller, and my husband, and set off on a month-long book tour along the West Coast. Only the night before, I had celebrated the book's launch at a party in Brooklyn. It felt like a wedding—friends and strangers congratulated me, enthused about the book, and raved about the food.

I put on a cheery face, but inside I was anxious about what lay ahead. This was my first book (and my first baby). When I wasn't nursing and catching what little sleep I could, I had spent the month leading up to the tour planning our every move. I hired an assistant to help me organize events and promote them on social media, and a babysitter to come nearly every day so that I could write the hours of emails required to build out my calendar. As for childcare, my husband would be with me for the first leg of the tour to take care of the baby; then my mom would take over, and, finally, my mother-in-law.

Even with all that planning, though, things felt unpredictable at best. As the tour dates got closer, I became increasingly nervous that people wouldn't show up, or that I'd forgotten essential details. I didn't know what to expect, and, of course, I was stressed about doing it all with an infant.

While I was on the tour, some days felt like they'd never end. Others passed in a blur. Four dizzying weeks later, we were back. The baby's clothes no longer fit. I had a few more wrinkles around my eyes. We were all exhausted, but the book—huzzah times a thousand—was about to hit its second printing. The tour had been a success, at least on paper. As for the rest? Let's just say I learned a thing or five along the way.

1. Ironically, you don't eat well

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With nine cities on the list, my schedule was grueling. When I wasn't cooking for an upcoming TV demo, I was promoting the book in some other way—taking interviews with local press, Facebooking and tweeting my whereabouts, and sharing stories on social media. I answered emails and phone calls and tried to keep the details straight for the events I'd put together—lots of tweaking my listings on Eventbrite, updating headcounts, and making sure any cooking materials I'd need were on hand. The rest of the time, I nursed my baby.

In other words, most of my meals consisted of drive-through food from Carl's Jr. and Jack in the Box, deli sandwiches, or takeout pizza. Three times, I got to eat out at a real restaurant.

2. You can, and should, say no

As a cookbook author, I'm contractually obligated to sell my book: It's my job to get out there and hustle. But no one knows my limits except for me, and no one is going to look out for me except me. So, while I'm the kind of person who hates to say no to anything, I had to draw the line at leaving our hotel at 4 a.m. to fly to another city and do a televised cooking demo. Same for squeezing in cooking during the two-hour window I had between events—after driving for two hours the same day. I had a baby to nurse at the end of the day, and his erratic sleep schedule had me bursting into tears at night on a regular basis.

Still, I said yes to pretty much everything that came my way. Which means I did drive from San Diego to Los Angeles (three hours in rush-hour traffic), then to Rancho Cucamonga (one hour), and back to San Diego, all in the span of 24 hours. In that same period of time, I also made two batches each of pickled cactus and chicken in adobo sauce, gave a radio interview, and did a book signing at Barnes & Noble. When I did have a chance to catch some sleep, the baby woke up every two hours.

Over the next few days, I felt shattered—like I used to feel when I studied abroad in Spain and I'd party until 7 a.m., wake up two hours later, and go to class. If I do another book tour, I'll choose recipes with short ingredient lists to demo on TV. I'll plan ahead and spread everything across two or three days, instead of cramming it all into one. And I'll avoid, at all costs, having to wake up at 5 a.m. with a baby, facing back-to-back long drives. All that running around just wasn't worth it.

3. Pack carefully

I've spent nearly two decades honing my suitcase-packing skills. But traveling with a four-month-old for four weeks, and visiting several cities with very different weather, required an almost maniacal level of packing organization. Two days into the trip, I realized I'd forgotten lots of things: bottles for pumping, a towel for the baby, more short-sleeved onesies for warmer climes, and something I could wear on television that wasn't a maternity dress.

A week in, I bought an extra suitcase at Target and packed it with all new stuff. Then, at LAX, the curbside check-in folks placed all my luggage on the conveyor belt without tags. Unsurprisingly, it wasn't there to greet me on the other side. I had a television demo the next morning at 7 a.m., and my clothes were conveniently packed away in my lost luggage. Thankfully, the bags arrived safely the next morning at 5:30 a.m., but after that I started packing my dress, heels, two steel comales, and my salsa display items in my carry-on. It was heavy as hell, but I couldn't chance my stuff being lost again.

4. It takes a village

A lot of people asked me whether I had someone taking care of the baby on the tour. My answer: It'd be impossible to do this without help. Even if the baby hadn't been there, I needed someone to help me cook for 40 people in San Diego (props to my brother Chris, who did everything from cook to entertain the baby while I sweated over chicken tinga); to help me prep two fairly complicated dishes for a TV show in three hours; to help me find, in my limited time, a place to buy fresh tortilla masa made with nixtamal; and to shop for ingredients. My family and my husband helped with all of those details. And they kept me sane when I asked myself, for the thousandth time, "Why did I think I could tour with an infant? WHY?!"

Promoting the tour was a part-time job, too. I was criss-crossing the West Coast, but if nobody knew where I was, none of it mattered. So, in every city, I found someone who believed in my work and could help promote my events. My friend José Ralat killed it in Dallas by helping me sell out a discussion on the past and future of the city's taco scene. My friend Rebecca in the Bay Area mass-emailed her friends and got more than a dozen people to my book party at Cosecha in Oakland. And there were others in Portland, Phoenix, San Diego, and beyond. The book's publicist, Ron, set up media interviews and sent updated schedules as the tour chugged along . My assistant, Kate, updated the book website with media mentions and took care of pending details.

5. It's exhausting, yes. But it's also exhilarating and moving

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There were countless times when I found myself ready to fall on the floor after cooking all day on only four or five hours of sleep. Then I'd find myself at a signing event, talking to someone who'd never liked cactus until she tried my ensalada de nopales. Or chatting with a woman who was also Mexican-American and didn't speak Spanish and had always wanted to learn how to cook Mexican food. Or greeting a group of seven women who loved my blog and had driven to my event in Napa with a container of homemade salsa. And then there was the time Gigi, a student in my San Antonio cooking class, woke up at 6 a.m. to bring me Mexican cuernitos from a local bakery before my flight took off.

The book tour honored my years of work in conceiving, researching, and writing the cookbook—a fact that I hadn't acknowledged because I was busy giving birth, taking care of a colicky newborn, checking in with my tourism business, and then planning the tour itself. Writing a book had been my dream, yet I hadn't found time to tell myself: I f#&ing wrote a book. I DID IT! The people I met reminded me that I had indeed done it, and in a way that resonated with them. On my best days, I remembered that I would never be on my first book tour again, and that there'd been so many beautiful moments—showing my niece how to place a raw corn tortilla on the comal; staring out at the packed house in Dallas; the sign outside my hometown Barnes & Noble with my name on it. It also helped to sneak lots of peeks at Eat Mexico's Amazon page, where the little yellow tag glowed for a few weeks: #1 best-seller in Mexican Cooking.