"The Silver Palate Cookbook" is back on the front tables at my local bookstore. People across the country are sharing stories of Chicken Marbella and raspberry vinaigrette and other flavors introduced to them by co-author Sheila Lukins, who died last week at age 66.
I have my own Silver Palate memories, but my main thoughts about Lukins are about her final cookbook, "Ten," which brought her on a book tour to Seattle last year with longtime assistant, Laurie Griffith. People at her level of fame are not always fun to meet: They’re often bored with interviews, wearing a politely crafted public persona, suffering through the experience for the sake of publicity.
Not Lukins. I don’t know what she was like in her pre-fame days, and in the days before her 1991 near-fatal brain hemorrhage, but the author I met was a vibrant, delightful straight-shooting character. We ate pizza (she sent me home with the leftovers). She talked in her raspy, cheerful voice about her balky wall oven, the one the repair guy could never seem to fix. (Griffiths suggested that, if Lukins – who succeeded Julia Child as food editor of Parade magazine – only told them who she was, the company might do a better job. Lukins didn’t get it. Didn’t the repair guy get her name every time she called?)
The woman who helped teach Americans how to entertain didn’t pretend to cook elaborate meals every night, saying that on Thursdays she lived to order out from Manhattan’s “Chirping Chicken” and curl up to watch "Grey’s Anatomy."
I asked Lukins if she was interested in seeing more product spinoffs from her books, or in doing TV shows, and got an answer I almost never hear: “I don’t love that,” she told me. What she did love, she said, was developing cookbooks, recipe by recipe, from the first glimmer of an idea to the final proofed page. She and Griffith tested their own recipes, and, from the first cookbook to the last, the recipes worked. By 2008, she could easily have coasted on her fame and farmed out the work, slipped up on the details. She did not.
What stayed with me the most from that brief meeting, though, is how she called up her cell phone messages so I could hear the archived ones she had saved from her young granddaughter. She was that charmed by her grandchildren, and missed them so on tour, and had a huge smile on her face just to share that sweet recorded voice. When I make "Silver Palate" recipes for my own relatives and friends, I’ll think of that delight and pleasure, the pride she took in all the important things in life.
Rebekah Denn writes at eatallaboutit.com.