Palate Tease

Sara Dickerman conducted this interview with Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso in 2007. Lukins passed away on August 30, 2009.

Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso, whose Upper West Side gourmet shop the Silver Palate opened in 1977, almost single-handedly redirected the way Americans ate. They didn’t quite teach us how to cook—Fannie Farmer, Irma Rombauer, James Beard, and Julia helped us with that. Rather, The Silver Palate Cookbook—recently released in a 25th anniversary edition (see my review)—as well as The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook and The New Basics Cookbook, reimagined food as a playground, teaching Americans a way of entertaining that was technically easy but gently pushed at the boundaries of the conventional.

The Beatles-like Rosso-Lukins partnership couldn’t remain charmed forever; the women had an ugly public split in the early ’90s, but they have reunited for the promotion of their book, and their banter comes easily, with perhaps the slightest tinge of competitiveness below the surface. Rosso, the former adwoman, who now runs a Michigan inn, speaks in Midwest-softened tones, and makes it clear that no small part of the team’s genius was in promotions. Lukins, the food editor of Parade Magazine, whose wavy hair still has a drama of its own (as a girl I remember trying to duplicate her neo–Gibson Girl coif with my stick-straight locks), comes across as the technician, with detailed sense-memories of the cheeses they sold in the shop, the pickles they made by hand before finally tracking down a reliable food-packaging plant, the techniques for roasting tomatoes.

Together they talked to CHOW about food life BSP (Before Silver Palate), why caterers write more useful cookbooks than chefs, and the role of antique French armoires in the Silver Palate’s success.

I’d love it if you could paint a picture for me of what the food scene was like when you first opened the shop.

JR: Bleak. I mean there just wasn’t what there is today. There wasn’t even any Italian parsley, except on alternate Tuesdays.

SL: It wasn’t imaginative, creative, fun, new … and it wasn’t the kind of thing that was embracing younger people or bringing them into the kitchen. ... There were more traditional foods. There was no pizazz in the kitchen, no pizazz enticing people to say, “Oh wow! This is great. This is fun. This is new.”

JR: [I] remember there was a little place on 56th Street, and he used to bring in arugula when it was in season in Italy, but that was very, very unusual.

SL: And the young people weren’t getting together on the weekends and having dinner parties, and men and women weren’t cooking together. It wasn’t like the excitement of a new food thing, of a new food decade. It was just so different.

JR: I think that’s one of the reasons that we had so much attention, because the whole food thing was just happening. New ingredients were coming into the country; people were starting to import cheeses—in those days, you had Gouda and Jarlsberg. There were new cheeses coming in from France.

SL: Brie de Meaux …

JR: A Bûcheron maybe. So you had two women and a little food shop with this idea of food to go, with everything from soups to entrées: ham, fillet, chicken Marbella, all of that. ... Just walk in and take it out, and pretend it’s yours and serve it to guests. Or take it for a picnic in the park, or whatever. Julia was around, certainly, and James Beard, Barbara Kafka, but I think one of the reasons that our book hit a nerve was that it conveyed our enthusiasm, and our passion for what we were doing, which we were just making up as we went along, every day. I think people got that.

SL: It made good home-cooking fun. And it was easy. Easier than some of the more pedantic cookbooks.

I think one thing that it did was it took a little bit of that perceived or real snobbery out of gourmet cooking.

SL: That’s right.

And your drawings had something to do with that.

JR: That had a lot to do with it. People used to say they’d take the book to bed with them and read it. It increased their confidence because it was cozy and charming, and had a bit of wit to it. And they felt comfortable with it from reading it; it intrigued them and gave them the confidence to go look for those ingredients.

I know you rewrote the cheese section, and you added something on charcuterie—what else did you change in this edition?

JR: Everything. [At first] we thought the book was just swell the way it was, we’d just add pictures, and then all of the sudden we’d read the chapter that said you have to go to the kitchen to make bread because there’s no good bread in the stores—there just wasn’t. ... So every single chapter had to be rewritten.

SL: It needed to be updated. ... We added some recipes, we corrected some recipes—we went through all the recipes as a matter of fact.

JR: All the recipes were rewritten, because they were written in old-fashioned language.

What kind of old-fashioned language?

JR: This was before there were style sheets on how to write recipes. We just wanted to write recipes that worked; we weren’t being stylistic about it.

What was your creative process when you were first writing the book?

JR: They were just all the recipes from the store—we wrote it nights and weekends.

SL: We didn’t write down recipes before that. That was a huge job. We knew what we were doing, but we never had to write them down. But those were the foods we made in the store.

JR: And it really was the cookbook that we wanted: It wasn’t organized in any normal fashion; it had no photographs, which everybody said we needed. Sheila was afraid to write the book because we would no longer have a business.

SL: I thought that with all the recipes they wouldn’t come to our store …

JR: I thought we should do it because we had these products all over the country and I thought it would give credibility to these products we had out there. And lo and behold, we didn’t go out of business.

Could you believe that when you went around the country and would see your stuff?

SL and JR: No.

JR: We’d have our products in their stores, and they’d invite me back into the kitchen and they’d have a battered copy of our cookbook.

I have a theory that caterers write much better general-interest cookbooks than restaurant chefs.

SL: I worked with a lot of restaurant-chef cookbooks, and they just don’t work.

JR: They’re just doing it on the side.

It also seems like caterers are approaching the whole idea of entertaining maybe more than chefs—tactically, for example, dishes that could be served cold or room temperature.

JR: I used to call it survival food—you know, let it marinate and hang around for a while or reheat it or whatever—but I agree with you.

SL: Chefs cook very differently; they cook beautifully, it’s beautiful to watch them cook. But they do cook very differently.

JR: Think of all their prepped stuff, so they’re just finishing; you know, they’ve got all their mise en place. I remember being somewhere with a lot of chefs who were selling their cookbooks, and Jean-Louis Palladin came over and said, “How do you sell so many books?”

SL: We were creating a business out of the cookbook, and [the chefs all decided] they could make a business out of it. ... And then every chef wrote a cookbook.

JR: Now it’s part of their whole shtick.

How did you decide to package food?

JR: We were really trying to dance as fast as we could. Oh my God, cash flow was a drama. The first summers we were open, we just filled the shelves with some things that we canned. And [executives from] Crate and Barrel and Saks proposed that they put our stuff [in their stores]. People were buying [our food] and putting [it] high on their shelves for decorative purposes, and we wanted them to eat it … and sell. I mean, who wants to just sell it once? We wanted to keep selling it. ... For our food shows, we’d rented an armoire—you know, a country-French armoire. And lo and behold, when I’d go around the country, people [in food stores] had bought not necessarily French armoires, but hutches. Everyone had these armoires, and it was great.

I just wanted to get a little update on what the two of you are doing these days.

SL: I’m food editor of Parade Magazine; I have been for 25 years. I’ve just finished a book, which I’m going to hand in—the theme is still quiet. I have a little granddaughter. And Julie has a fabulous …

JR: Husband? I live in Michigan, much to my surprise; I grew up in Kalamazoo, and ended up going home for a variety of reasons at the time, and own an inn in an arts community on the shore of Lake Michigan.