The cookbook author Sheila Lukins, who co-wrote “The Silver Palate Cookbook,” was responsible for a tectonic shift in American cooking.
This text was drawn from the anthology “Women on Food,” by Charlotte Druckman, which includes a collection of thank-you letters from one food-world woman to another. The book will be published on October 29th, by Abrams Press.
Dear Sheila Lukins,
Sometimes when I’m in a certain snippy kind of mood, I flip through cooking magazines and Web sites and count how many stories open with memory: “Ever since I was a kid,” or “For as long as I can remember,” or “When I was younger.” There are always a lot. Too many. I’ll roll my eyes, indulge in a mild performance of despair, and flip to the next page. But, really, what else can our stories about food say? They begin where we begin. We learn the smells and tastes and colors of our own small world of childhood, and, no matter how wide that sphere expands in the years that follow, the time-capsule sensory memories of childhood will always be at the heart. Maybe not always in the very first sentence, and maybe not nearly so often under the same cover, but sometimes you have to start where it starts and go from there.
Where it starts: on January 4, 1982, “The Silver Palate Cookbook”—your first book, written with Julee Rosso—was published, and two days after that, in an entirely unrelated event, I was born. A little more than two decades later, I ended up in an office at Workman Publishing, saying yes to a job offer that would involve filing invoices and making photocopies and generally basking in the wise and creative glow of Suzanne Rafer, the legendary cookbook editor who had brought your books into the world.
“We’ve got big plans for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the ‘Silver Palate,’ ” I remember Suzanne saying, or something like that. “Are you familiar with the book?” She may as well have asked me if I knew the pattern on the sheets of my childhood bed, or the name of the cat that I used to stare at through two windows, in the apartment across the airshaft from ours. The blocky Marimekko cars-and-trucks print. Snowball. A white cover with an oxblood-red windowpane check and a photo of a storefront overflowing with greenery; pages full of stippled, slightly off-kilter black-and-white illustrations; recipes that felt louche and worldly and grownup. By the time I sat there in Suzanne’s office, the book had sold nearly three million copies, though I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that, ever since I was a kid, for as long as I can remember, we had “The Silver Palate Cookbook.”
Soon enough, I met you. You’d whirl into the office in a blaze of red hair, a tiny human flame, with your wide grin and patrician drawl, and you’d talk about your other books—“All Around the World Cookbook,” the “U.S.A. Cookbook”—and all the big, big, big ideas that you put into action after the “Silver Palate” era ended, after you sold the little shop in Manhattan where it all began, after you and Julee split up, the Simon and Garfunkel of the spice aisle. There was such fanfare when you reunited, briefly, for the “Silver Palate Cookbook 25th Anniversary Edition”—“Yes, Chicken Marbella in full color!”—the two of you back together, still crazy after all these years. Julee signed my copy of the book at the launch party (at the Central Park boathouse, of course, the ideal time machine to bridge the early eighties and the late aughts), and in the flurry of festivities I couldn’t quite track you down. A week later, your assistant, Laurie, almost indescribably kind, handed me another copy of the book, this one with your signature and a lovely personal note.
The history of American home cooking is measured in unruly women who win book contracts:
Irma Rombauer gives way to Julia Child, who gives way to you. It was a tectonic shift from Francophilia and staid Americana to a sort of flirtatious Mediterranean epicureanism: pesto, raspberry vinegar, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, fancy olive oil, brie, chilled fruit soups. Everyone in the eighties bought olives and prunes and made Chicken Marbella, or had been to the dinner party of someone who had. “That page was covered in stains,” my mother recalled, when I asked her to verify my memories. Like Julia Child, you’d taken classes at Le Cordon Bleu while overseas for your husband’s job. Like Julia, you became the food editor of Parade magazine, shifting almost imperceptibly from a cook of accessible aspiration to one of accessible populism. Like Julia, although your later books were watertight—someone once told me that you were the only cookbook author who really tested her recipes; you and Laurie, both of you with sleeves pushed up, in the kitchen of your apartment in the Dakota, going at it with fierceness and rigor, making sure not a single teaspoon of flour went amiss—they still never quite captured the world-shaking magic of the first few volumes. History keeps moving: the “Silver Palate” era gave way to the next extraordinary women: Martha Stewart, Ina Garten, Edna Lewis, Nigella Lawson.
When you died, in 2009, it was the first time I experienced public mourning for a person I had known privately. I didn’t know how to grieve. I had moved on from book publishing and was making a go as a writer, sort of, and someone who knew that I’d known you asked me to write an obituary. I couldn’t; I didn’t deserve to. I wouldn’t pretend that we were close—to you, I was probably the thousandth in an endless string of young editorial assistants. And, to me, you were the surreally human and actual embodiment of a time and a memory that I had once thought belonged only to me.