Author Fanny Singer reflects on life in and out of the kitchen with her mother Alice Waters, the role that art and design play in her life, Permanent Collection, and, of course, the great iron egg spoon.
Fanny Singer all but grew up in Chez Panisse. Her mother, Alice Waters’, famous Berkeley restaurant. She went on to become a curator, co-founder of the design brand Permanent Collection, and a writer contributing to Art Forum and other magazines. But she’s never strayed too far from Alice Waters’ food. In 2015, she co-wrote a cookbook with her mother, and this year she circled back to her childhood with a memoir and cookbook called Always Home: A Daughter’s Recipes and Stories. She joins me from her home in Berkeley, California. Fanny Singer, welcome to Design Matters.
Thank you, Debbie, it’s so nice to be here with you.
Fanny, I understand you have the same birthday as Julia Child.
I do. And Napoleon, I hasten to add.
I found the Julia Child one to be much more interesting.
But yes, no, and actually I remember being with Julia on at least one birthday one time in California when she was visiting. She was a friend of my mom’s and obviously a kind of mentor and a deep spiritual connection there, so yeah, a special birthday twin to have.
You are the only daughter of Alice Waters—farm-to-table pioneer, food activist, the Edible Schoolyard Project founder and creator of the legendary restaurant Chez Panisse—and Stephen Singer, the renowned winemaker, entrepreneur and artist. And I understand that you think you’re the only kid in Berkeley, maybe the world, who has seen the movie The Baker’s Wifemore times than The Little Mermaid. Is that true?
Yeah, I think that’s definitely a safe assertion. The Pagnol films from which my name was also derived were a kind of amniotic fluid from my mom. It was the inspiration for Chez Panisse, it was the inspiration for so much of the culture that she tried to develop at that restaurant, and of course for so many of the names. My name, and then when my dad opened a bar right next door, it was called Cesar, which was also named from the Marcel trilogy, which is where my name comes from. But The Baker’s Wife is a real favorite too and definitely a movie that’s been screened multiple times in this house when I was little, for sure. Although I wasn’t deprived of Disney, I will say. I did get to watch a lot of the films that my peers were watching.
You’ve written about how you don’t really remember a time in your life before taste and a world that wasn’t permeated by flavor, and I understand that breakfast was always an event in your household and that you were a merciless porridge critic. In what way?
I just had really strong feelings, even as a very young child, about how it should be prepared, and I didn’t like milk very much. This will probably surprise a lot of people, but my mom had this dated notion around the health of dairy products. It was coming from a post-1950s backlash against the eggs and bacon diet. She maintained that nonfat yogurt and nonfat milk were the healthiest things she could give me but it meant that I hated milk because nonfat milk is terrible empirically.
And yet it was the only milk that was available in our house. So I kind of had already a very conflicted relationship to milk but I still liked the way it added a touch of creaminess to porridge, so there was the cook in water and then at a late stage, addition of milk. My dad was usually … just batting me away from him, like “No, too hot, you’re boiling it.” And I mean I’m sure in general I was just a nightmare as a kid because I was encouraged to have such opinions and to actually look at my food and think about my food, and what it tasted like and be discerning. So sometimes it went I’m sure too far in that direction and then I was just insufferable. I’m sure.
Well, you were born 13 years after your mother founded Chez Panisse, and when you were little, as your mother was testing recipes I know she encouraged you to tell her when something was too salty or too bitter and to cultivate autonomy in your likes and your dislikes. And you’ve said that this gave you a sense of being able to implicitly trust your tongue and your nose from really early on, and I was wondering if there was anything that you particularly didn’t like as you were growing up and refused to eat?
I mean, I speak at great length about my dislike of anchovies. They were just so pungent, and I don’t think I was a supertaster or super sensor or whatever they’re called, where it’s like they actually can’t tolerate anything other than bland food because everything that’s outside of this margin is just deeply offensive to them. I liked some crazy tastes and I liked things that were fermented and I liked things that were really bitter, but anchovies were just my bugbear when I was a kid. Then, of course, now I adore anchovies.
I could just have toast with anchovies for dinner and that would be a perfect dinner for me. But there was a period that was actually relatively long-lasting because even when I worked at Chez Panisse as a young teenager in the salad department, I was tortured by having to watch and prepare and filet a can of anchovies, which went into almost it seemed every dish at Chez Panisse because there was always the need to, every single day, deal with the disgusting, stinky canister of them.
But no, I had Catholic tastes as a kid. I would just eat anything. Fat on meat was one other thing that I would always sort of bristle at. But I was open and my mom I think also, she quite genuinely never said, “You have to eat that.” There was just not that kind of rhetoric of more punitive relationship to eating or what’s on my plate or leaving leftovers or anything like that. So it felt like she would actually be responsive to what my reaction was and take it in stride, which I think is what also emboldened me and also gave me the sense of, like you said, autonomy.
You’ve stated that you believe you have an ultra-sensitive nose, so much so that there were many instances where your overactive sense of smell was such a source of parental grief that your dad used to compare you to the German Shepherds who sniff out drugs at airports. When did you first become aware of this trait? Do you have a memory of first realizing that your nose was so super sensitive?
God, from the very beginning. I think it’s why I have these taste memories, is b
ecause I think the smell is really the dominant thing. I have this actual memory from when I was three of eating ice cream but it’s really, I think, it was as much smell. You know the way that smell and taste become interwoven enhances that memory, so I just remember smell being a part of most of my memories and that, to me, is kind of an indication of how extensively developed that sense is, that it is the dominant way that I have even decoded my entire childhood. My history and all these stories.
But yeah, my dad would take me to go smell and taste wine when I was really little, and there was a real emphasis on actually smelling things. One of the great things about this trip, actually, a couple of years ago to Japan with my mom, was I realized there was a real culture of smelling the tea before you steep it, or smelling some of the herbs that go into a dish, and we kind of lost that in America. We don’t have that almost reverential relationship for the raw ingredient, and then having multiple different sensory experiences with it. You smell it first and then you taste it.
But that’s actually what my childhood was like. Because everything you would smell first, and you would know it in that state, and then you would have the experience of tasting it prepared however it was going to be prepared. But even still, my mom has this massive garden of roses in the back. Throughout this pandemic, they’ve been gracing us with blooms, and every time one blooms she’s like, “Smell it.” Is the first thing. Not “look at how beautiful this thing is.” Like, “You have to smell this.” So it’s almost like an olfactory culture in this house.
One smell I know you love is the smell of a chicken roasting at high temperature. But I couldn’t help but connect that when you wrote about how when it’s cooked in the kitchen without ample ventilation, it led to your coining of a word. I’m wondering if you can share that word, both its meaning and its spelling.
Yes. It derives from the French. It’s to be pouleted. So poulet is the word for chicken in French. It’s spelled P-O-U-L-E-T, so it’s like to be pouleted. I think I spelled it, just added an ED at the end, but phonetically it would be P-O-O-L-A-Y–E-D.
But that term came because, for a time when I was in England doing my Ph.D, I lived in student quarters that had a shared, really perfunctory kitchen, and I was going through a period where I was trying to be really rigorous about going to the library. So sometimes I was trying to prepare something for dinner before so I could stay at the library really late, and I remember I was going through the succinct period of roasting chickens at 7 in the morning, and I set off a fire alarm in the entire building with one of these chickens.
And I mean, everyone in their pajamas at 7:15 in the morning. Everyone had to come into the courtyard, and I was the culprit with roasting a chicken. People were like, “are you insane?” And maybe I am but I will do almost anything for a good roast chicken.
Did you end up having to feed the entire dorm that night?
I definitely passed around some cookies in the next few days. I felt pretty contrite. But I was infuriating to everyone because I was the only one who took seriously the using of that kitchen. So I was like, “It’s me again.” Cooking a proper meal in here when you’re trying to make some ramen.
Well, I am definitely taking on that word for when our kitchen ventilation isn’t quite what it needs to be and the smoke alarm goes off, which happens from time to time. I live in a house with an avid cook as well.
It’s very important. But there’s a few I should elaborate the lexicon for you. There’s also to be steaked out if you cook a steak.
And there’s—you’ve gone fishing if you really just cover yourself in the smell of fish. The reason pouleted was given this French twist is because that episode in graduate school when I forced everyone out of their beds, I was dating a French biologist, so we would always talk about getting pouleted.
It really, it has a nice ring to it. I like the word very much. When you were 8 years old your mom published the first of two children’s books themed around your experiences at Chez Panisse, titled Fanny in France: Travel Adventures of a Chef’s Daughter, With Recipes. And at the time you thought that being a heroine of a picture book was terrific, and you’ve written about how you didn’t need to be coerced into tagging along with your mom to book signings and interviews.
And in March of this year, this very strange and surreal year, you published your first solo book, titled Always Home: A Daughter’s Recipes and Stories. How have these two experiences with sharing the limelight with your mom as an 8-year-old and now as an adult having your first book launched during a pandemic, how have they differed for you?
Massively. I mean, you know when I was 8 and Fanny at Chez Panisse first came out it was a very surreal experience. I had no point of reference for that, and I didn’t really have much to do with it, either. I was 8. So my mom decided to write this book, and she thought that it would be a fun way to tell stories of the Chez Panisse philosophy and share recipes with kids and I was like, yeah OK.
I mean, I didn’t really have a sense of what the extent or reach of that would be, but then here, so many years later, Andy Samberg is putting Fanny at Chez Panisse in his top 10 for his quarantine period because he’s reading it to his daughter.
It’s so good.
And that’s really sweet that it still has that longevity. So, Fanny in France was published much more recently. I mean, that was published in the last handful of years, and the idea there was to also … I think with my mom’s, especially her activism work with the Edible Schoolyard, was to try and talk about the foundational things that brought her into a relationship with food—that she thinks is the way that we should really educate children and be present and understand correlations to agriculture and production, which is something she really gleaned from spending time in France when she was in her 20s.
So it was a way for her to continue talking about these really salient issues right now. As a much older adult, I was like, “Do you have to do another book? Do you have to?” And then I was like, “Fine, whatever, of course.” But there was this period after the first book was published and then it sort of had its initial life span, and then I was in high school when someone adapted it for a Broadway play. And that was a different kettle of fish. I was wishing death upon that play. I was really just hoping it wouldn’t be good enough to go anywhere beyond a more local theater in San Francisco.
And I mean no offense to the lovely people who produced it, but it was just a relief to me that it was not something that ended up going particularly far, because as a teenager I was much more sensitive to the strangeness of having your life paraded out like that. And then I went for college and afterward, I traveled back East and to England, and I lived in England for 11 years, and I was really doing nothing to do with food. I mean, I was doing a Ph.D.
in Art History and it wasn’t that I was rejecting food, I just wasn’t choosing a career in food in a very direct way.
I was continuing of course to always cook for people and have people and the aforementioned fire alarm incident, forcing people out of their beds because I was cooking, but I was choosing a different route, and very intentionally. And I think that’s what allowed me to come back and then look at this relationship that I have with my mother and with food and with the restaurant, and do it in an intimate way without it feeling like it was getting away from me. Feeling like I was doing it on my own terms.
Your choice of the title, Always Home, had nothing to do with an impending pandemic. I mean, the timing is rather ironic.
Given that we’re always home now.
I mean, as far as book releases in the middle of a pandemic go, I probably hit the jackpot. It was like, I couldn’t have chosen a more ridiculous title. So I think some people were just buying it because of how over-the-top, almost tongue-in-cheek it seemed, and because you could take a photo of the cover and be like, this author hit the nail on the head with this one. So being always home and being back at my mom’s house, especially because I came here early on in the pandemic to be with her and help her.
I mean, obviously, we still don’t know very much about this pandemic or this virus but at the time it seemed really urgent to try and make sure that she was getting help and not going out and doing things herself. And then have the added bonus of we were able to do a bunch of events together, and we started making these little cooking videos, which we both love doing, and my friend Nod edits, and they’re just really exactly actually a reflection of our relationship, which is great. So it’s ended up being kind of serendipitous. I felt completely insane to be here instead of on a book tour, as planned, but at the same time, it was not the worst outcome, I suppose.
Your book is a memoir, but in many ways it is also a love letter to your mother, one of the most important chefs and food activists of our time. What made you decide to write this particular book?
I think I honestly felt like it was the book that had to be written before I could write anything else. On the one hand, I’m aware, of course, that there is an appetite for stories about my mother, and a more intimate understanding of who she is. Her own autobiography sold very well as did, I think, the biography that was written about her.
People are inquisitive and interested in what it is that’s made her, her. But I think for me it wasn’t so much about satisfying that curiosity as it was a way for me to really look profoundly at this relationship that matters so much to me. I mean, it is the most important relationship in my life. I don’t have kids yet and it’s hard for me to consider being close in this way to anyone else and yet at the same time it was a difficult thing to navigate as a young adult, and as someone who’s trying to develop her set of interests independently from this very magnetic and very beloved person.
So it was kind of a way for me to almost diagnose and treat something and then just put it somewhere. Consolidate it and then say, “All right, I’ve done that, what’s the next thing?” Which is not to say there won’t be other food-related things or that there won’t be other projects with my mother. It would be really fun actually to do some kind of television show together, especially in light of discovering what we thought at the beginning would not be comic but is rather a buddy comedy cooking experience. But at the same time, it feels like it gives me some freedom to do whatever that next thing is.
For people that want to see the little films that you’re making with your mom, where would they go to look at them?
They are on both my mom’s and my Instagram feeds, and they’re little IGTV videos. We’ve got another one coming up. BLTs will be out any day now. They’re very funny.
They’re wonderful. Fanny, yours was not a childhood in which sugar reigned supreme, but in Always Home, you recount a memory that you alluded to a little while ago, of when you first tasted ice cream. I’m wondering if you could share that memory from your book with us now in this short excerpt?
Sure, yes. So this is, I’m in Italy, just to set the scene. I think we’re somewhere outside of Siena and it was after my parent’s wedding. I was already alive at that point, I attended that wedding, then we went to Italy together.
So when I received the golden waffle cone in hand with just a modest ball slotted into it I knew intuitively to apply it to my mouth.
The smell was seductive but muted by the cold. The taste on the other hand was intoxicating. The sugar used in that gelato produced a flavor that was completely indistinct from that of the fruit it was meant to intensify, which is to say it was exactly the right amount of sugar. Neither too much nor too little. It had a platonic taste of strawberry, of the ripest honied late summer berries so perfectly distilled that the taste seemed almost audible.
It could not be confined to the realm of the tongue. So much so that I forgot that my mouth was in fact the best place to receive this newfound mana. I began to use the cone like a melting frozen marker to draw over the whole of my face. I wanted to merge with this food, not just eat it, but to experience it. My clothes, my hair all were victims of the brief but unforgettable encounter.
I don’t remember anything else about that day and indeed very little, if anything, about that trip to Italy but I know that my memory of my communion with the Gods of sugar and ice cream is firsthand and real. Not merely something told to me or photographed. This etched onto my palate alongside the most indelible of my life’s food memories.
I don’t think my parents took a photo, nor did they try to stop me from sullying every inch of my dress. They just looked on at what happens in the moment that marks the end of two years of living on the planet ignorant of ice cream. And even though my parents returned to the sugar-free regime and adhered to it with lamentable rigor, I think they were both pleased to watch me fleetingly lose my mind in flavor.
It’s such a wonderful excerpt, Fanny, and so evocative. I can just see you with this little hand and this little cone and just trying to consume it from every possible pore in your body. Thank you for sharing that with us. You write so beautifully about how you were brought up with food and around food and you’ve written about how you don’t think you were ever once told to use your knife and fork. You go on to share, and it may have been the same trip to Italy, “I don’t know where pizza is consumed with a fork and a knife.” You were regarded as a feral child brought up by a pair of pitiful Americans. And I also wanted to ask, is it true that you like to toss salad with your hands?
I do, one of the greatest tragedies of this pandemic is that if you’re cooking for any more than just y
ourself, you have to use tongs or salad spoons or salad servers or whatever, and Tamara Adler actually, the two of us were talking about this early on in the pandemic—like you have to toss salad with your hands. You feel how much dressing is on there and whether you need more, whether you need more lettuce to help extend the dressing if it’s overdressed.
And then it allows you to just quickly taste a leaf and make sure it has the right amount of acid or enough salt. These things that we used to do with great ease, and especially I think restaurant cooks are very familiar with that, that the home cook I think should be emboldened to toss salads with their hands. It really acquaints you with what the dish needs and it helps you feel, I think, more intuitive about what the problems or the corrections that need to be made. But yeah, it’s been a very tong-filled last few months, sadly.
I have been somebody, for whatever reason—and I don’t know why—I’ve always borrowed food from other people’s plates, or maybe the better word is stolen. And I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember. I see something on somebody’s plate, maybe they’re not eating it fast enough or they don’t seem to want any more of it, and I’ll just take it off somebody’s plate. And I read years ago that when you do that, you’re really showing how affectionate you are with somebody because, I guess, of the intimacy. So whenever somebody complains about my doing it, I just remind them that this is actually a sign of true love and intimacy, and they should just allow me to take as much as I want.
It is. And you’d make very good bedfellows with my mother, who’s always trying to proffer things from her plate to the mouths of others, so you guys would be snug as a bug in a rug there with that behavior. But I think there is something very generous about the take and the give, you know? … I’ve always bristled at a date who’s like, “I’m ordering my dish, you’re ordering your dish and we’re not going to share.” I’m like, “What?” What’s the point?
I want, first of all, to taste as many things as I can when I go to a restaurant. I’m interested in just what might immediately appeal to me but maybe another 10 dishes on the menu.
See, I like to take food from other people’s dishes but I don’t like it when they take from mine. So I guess that makes me selfish.
Oh, I see, it’s a one-way street.
It’s a one-way street. I only want to take, I don’t want to give.
I have a lot of food jealousy, I have to admit. I see something on somebody’s plate and I want to try it too, but generally speaking, I like to eat everything on my plate, so I don’t want to share. Oh well, I guess I’ll talk about that with my therapist. I know you and your mom share some interesting kitchen characteristics as evidenced by your wonderful videos, but also some significant differences. And you’ve written about how anything requiring patience or exacting methodology or just about anything whatsoever that needs to be measured was bound to be foiled by what you refer to as her hummingbird attention span.
And you’re the same way. You cook with high heat, very fast, always with intense amounts of flavor and zero measuring. You have no interest in following recipes and generally exhibit what you’ve said or you described as a brazen ignorance of their wisdom when it comes to baking. So I was wondering if you can talk a bit about what happened during your first week of cooking in Chez Panisse as a teenager, making both gingerbread cake and custard?
Oh yeah, that was a dark period. I was about 15, I think, and I was kind of cycling through different departments in the restaurant doing these mini-stages. And I was in the pastry department for a scant few days because in the first day and a half I managed to put 50% too many eggs into a custard, and I mean 50%, that is a lot too many.
That’s a lot of eggs.
It came out the consistency of a coddled egg. It was just eggs, basically, and then the other thing I did was omit the molasses from a gingerbread cake and it was kind of a head-shaking, like we’re so sorry, but she’s got to go.
Were you demoted?
I was expelled, which is a hard thing to imagine, telling your boss that their daughter is too incompetent for your department and worried perhaps about some recrimination. But my mom was like, “Oh. I suspected that might be the case, I think.” I just didn’t have the mathematics or the reflexes for baking, that is required to do it well.
Yeah, I don’t either.
But I was very happy to go back to salad. That was my very happy home. So back in the salad station within the week.
Now, because you’ve written a book that includes recipes and your mom has written a number of books about you that include recipes, I’m wondering how you feel about following either your mom’s recipes, or your original recipes. Or are you continually improvising?
I really love recipes. Even though I say I like brazen ignorance of their wisdom, with baking that’s sort of half true. I will always read through, and especially if I’m trying to bake something, it’s mainly I just have a hard time following those instructions when I’m adding things at the right time because I am a very intuitive cook. So I love reading the savory recipes of a number of fabulous cooks, mainly to be inspired around flavor combinations and to think about ingredients in different ways. And certain preparations do require a method unfamiliar to me but there’s always a part of me that’s like, “Five basil leaves? 15 to like a huge bunch, come on.”
And I have enough knowledge of cooking to know that that actually will be good. So it’s like there’s always a sense of elasticity around a recipe, which is why my recipes are so open, because I know that people have tastes that will differ from mine and there’s not a strong sense of ‘if you don’t do this exactly’ … four garlic. What does four garlic cloves mean anyway? Some garlic cloves are this big, some are the size of thumbnails. Some are the size of your fist. You can’t really trust that anyway when it’s not a question of exact teaspoons and things.
So I love the cooks like David Tanis who are always so elastic about tasting and tweaking and trying new. … Just it feels like an experimentation, but guided by someone very knowledgeable. So I feel that shape in these recipes. … And especially with my mom’s books, they’re all being tested so much coming through the restaurant. Being tried and true dishes that have been served there for years, or through the Edible Schoolyard, or through her kitchen, so I feel like you can trust their wisdom for sure. And then also just trust yourself to embroider.
One of your biggest differences is your opinions on the contents of a refrigerator. She prefers a nearly empty fridge containing only what she’ll need for a specific meal, with rarely for more per person than what she can imagine eating herself. While you prefer an abundantly stocked fridge and tend to buy enough food for each guest to be able to eat at least seconds. I’m definitely more in that ca
mp myself. Now that different behavior, how is that manifesting now where you’re sharing a home again after not for decades?
Yeah, it’s a strain on our relationship. My mom and I—
The Waters, Singer wars.
Well, it really is because I feel like I inherit my relationship to food and to the aforementioned stocked refrigerator is the way I always joke that it’s like this post-war American Jewish need for abundance. It’s like my grandmother had no fewer than eight massive Tupperware containers containing Arugula, brownies, all her little cookies that she would make and they would go into the freezer, and if ever there were a need to defrost these extremely sweetened treats they would come out of the freezer. There was always an excess of that kind of stuff, and my dad’s refrigerator is predictable chaos.
I would just imagine it’s filled with wine.
Dipsomaniac is what he calls himself, which is a lover of alcohol, I think, and there’s just a landscape in the kitchen that’s all of the various liquors and other after-dinner drinks and booze and it’s the most expansive bar you could ever imagine seeing. It truly makes him look like he has a problem. But there are multiple wine fridges and wine storage areas around too but he’s a great cook and lover of food also, so I get it from both sides of the family.
My mom’s Spartan tendencies I didn’t chime with. I mean I was freaking out at the beginning of this pandemic so I was like we need to have lots of frozen meats and prepared pestos and I’m processing greens, and I was doing that at my apartment in the city before I came over here to my mom’s, and my mom just I think had this notion that we’re going to be fine. We’ll still get the vegetable box from Chez Panisse once a week. And now, yeah, there’s still a push/pull. I mean, I realize that the extreme level of anxiety over provisioning was unnecessary.
So we didn’t need to be stocking up for nuclear warfare but we still have this kind of, my mom’s like, “That’s too many bottles up there. Why did you get another jam?” I ordered some foods from—
Never enough jam.
She’s annexed all of my Japanese ingredients to a bag in her closet because she’s just like, “It’s too much stuff for the kitchen.”
That’s not fair.
So it’s a little bit of a push/pull, but on the whole decently harmonious.
So one of the things that I love to do is, when I don’t know somebody—I live in Manhattan most of the time; I’m not right now, I’m in California with my wife—but usually, I love to walk around Manhattan and look in people’s windows just to imagine what their lives are like. But when I know someone I love to look in their refrigerator to see the way they live. So if I were to pop into your house right now what would be in your fridge? What would I find?
So my mom has this wonderful, very charming way of keeping any leftovers or anything that’s been opened that can be decanted into these café labels, and then she puts a little dish on top, so we don’t have any Tupperware. There’s no more traditional containers or bags or any plastic wrap or foil in this house, generally. So there’s all of these little stacks but it requires … you really have to dedicate yourself to the search. You’re like, “OK, where’s the fucking feta cheese?” You’re like under this plate, under this plate, under this plate. You really have to do a little search to find these things but it is a charming landscape. There’s definitely some beautiful Meyer lemons that are preserved. I was doing a lot of preserving at the beginning of this, just out of interest, curiosity and boredom.
So one of the things we have in there are these little Persian pickled plums. You get the green plums and then you salt pickle them in a brine, and the flavor’s amazing. They taste like nothing when you eat them green, I mean, really sour, and then when you pickle them they start to taste like a floral almond flavor. And those can get eaten alongside cheese and herbs and flatbreads, but they also are great in stews and things like that. So there’s that stuff lurking in the back, and then there’s always at least three bottles of Domaines Tempier Rose that my mom will reliably dispatch with a course of a few days.
And then, yeah, still like a village of jars and jams and things like that, that seem to never be dislodged, and then as much salad as we can fit in there at any given time. And then she always washes it methodically. It’s really a kind of ritualistic thing that I think helps to calm her nerves. So she’ll pick lettuce. My mom really expanded our victory garden situation in Berkeley during the pandemic. So she ripped up what was not at all edible landscape in the front garden and planted a lot of salad and cucumbers and squash out there so that people could also see that she was growing food in the garden.
So we’ve had a nice, at least enough salad for the two of us, which is the one thing both of us need in abundance. So there’s usually a towel that is rolled around a layer of lettuce and then in a bag so that it stays fresh.
That sounds wonderful.
And some other less savory things that I’m going to spare you.
OK. Fanny, for your 18th birthday, a month before you headed off to Yale University, your family gave you a handmade book called Fanny’s Exclusive College Survival Cookbook, and you write about it so wonderfully in your memoir. This book was a collection of more than 55 recipes from virtually every dear family friend in your life. Some of your favorites were Calvin Trillin’s scrambled eggs that stick to the pan every time. Sue Murphy’s recipe for a perfect back scratch, and David King’s wake-up snack. So I was wondering if you could describe for us two of them. If you can, Calvin Trillin’s sticky scramble and why they were so sticky, and the recipe for David King’s wake-up snack, which is the strangest snack for waking up that I’ve ever read about.
I thought I might have it nearby so I could read you Calvin’s wonderful recipe verbatim, but he talks about how he’s like, make sure as you pat around for the little bit of butter in the back of the fridge, discuss riboflavin content of various cereals with daughters. Like while discussing riboflavin content of various cereals, burn toast in the adjacent toaster and then serve with a wan smile, I think, is what the final line is.
Calvin, whose known is Bud to his friends and family and to me, that is someone who’s one of the closest people in my life, and so now it’s actually when I go to New York, I usually stay with him and prepare him deftly not burned scrambled eggs. He’s always happy to have me come make some kind of frittata or something. But that’s really one of the great recipes in there. And then David King’s, I was heading off to my freshman year of college so even though David and his wife Niloufer Ichaporia King had written one of my favorite cookbooks, it’s called My Bombay Kitchen and it’s really one of just … I wrote a chapter about Niloufer because she’s such a huge influence on me.
But David is her husband, and he’s actually a wonderful cook but instead of giving me a recipe—and Niloufer had contributed a beautifu
l recipe to the book—he just gives me this disgusting “snack” of instant coffee mixed with tap water from the dorm bathroom, eaten with a spoon, chased by more tap water, which was he said, “guaranteed to keep you up all night for those college freshmen all-nighters that you’ll need.”
But you’d be in the bathroom.
Oh yeah, definitely.
I can’t even imagine you doing that. Did you ever consume it?
No. I mean I stayed awake plenty of nights all night, as one does when one is 18, to write a terrible philosophy paper or whatever, but I definitely never went the instant coffee paced route. Still, I love that recipe. I love that it’s in there.
Let’s talk a little bit about what you studied at Yale. You graduated with a degree in fine art and the history of art. What were you hoping to do professionally at that point?
Fabulous question for anyone in the humanities who likes to do anything that’s emphatically untethered to any kind of concrete profession, but yeah, I was really into making art when I was a teenager and had this creative streak, so I think I actually really wanted to go to art school and then it was my parents who were interested in me studying art at a more traditional four-year college instead of just going directly into a BFA. Which I was thankful for because I actually had a real interest in academics. It wasn’t for a lack of that I was interested in art.
So it was kind of a way of doing both and it was—yeah, I mean, Yale has an amazing art program and fine art program, especially at the graduate level, so there were lots of really extraordinary professors who taught undergrad as well. And I don’t think I ever thought I was going to be a practicing artist but the skills that I honed there as a printmaker, especially—I did work both one summer at a printing press. A Natalia printing press in Berkeley, and again after college, I worked at Pace Editions, which is one of the really great fine art printing presses in New York.
And I loved doing that actually. I mean, it’s completely manual labor and there’s certain conceptual decisions or decisions that are mostly based on a technique that you can help steer an artist into because, usually, an artist comes to work in a press without any knowledge of the medium, so it’s about figuring out how to realize some kind of design intent or idea, and then collaborating on that to figure out how it comes to life in the form of a two-dimensional printed artwork. And I love that kind of problem solving, and also just loved the manual labor of it.
I never found it redundant or tedious, and may have actually ended up doing that if I hadn’t at the time been dating a much more academically inclined young man named Tom Schmidt, who was a classicist. He was still at Yale when I was in New York that first year after college, and he got this fellowship to go to Cambridge, so I applied just to be able to go to England. I didn’t even think I was going to end up necessarily pursuing a much longer degree. And actually, in a kind of reversal of expectation, I ended up staying for a Ph.D. and he ended up going back to the states.
I continued my studies in art history but in this more focused way, because there wasn’t a fine art program at Cambridge. I couldn’t have even done a more practical art practice there. So I really talk about doing that Ph.D. as walking backwards into it. It was not something I had in my sights and was trying to pursue. Which, maybe like you never would do a Ph.D. if you thought you were going to because it’s such a bizarre existential hell. To put it lightly.
You ended up going to get your Ph.D. in England but stayed for over a decade, and you’ve written quite a bit about how you’ve lived your whole life as Alice Waters’ child, the fact of parentage being a kind of epithet for any introduction to you. This is Alice Waters’ daughter, Fanny. And you go on to state in the book that even when you were being introduced in that way, which you still are but are never particularly resentful of, it just reinforced your sense of needing to figure out who you were going to be as an individual beyond the associations with a famous parent. Did being in the U.K. for that long help you forge your own identity?
Absolutely. I mean, going to England was a real way to sever that connection in a very obvious public way, in a sense. I spoke to my mom all the time, it wasn’t like I was cutting her out of my life. I was never identified that way in the way that I had been before.
Thanks to my mother, Yale planted an incredible farm and started a Yale sustainable food project, and because of that the food improved massively for me and for many others, and it was a gift that she did that. But at the same time, it did prolong the association between me and her in this way that I never quite felt like … it’s making her sound like she’s been a helicopter parent and she never was, but there was still this umbilical tension that I feel like I needed to get beyond the ken of that experience or her ken really.
To get into territory and intellectual waters that were just different, and in a way kind of inaccessible to her. I mean, my mom’s not … she loves art and she’s very aesthetically attuned and sensitive and intelligent, but there’s just not a huge interest in the more academic side of it, and it’s like I was doing something that was not intentionally inaccessible exactly, but just kind of inaccessible, and it meant that it created for me a real sense of autonomy. It was both kind of frustrating on the one hand, but then also a relief.
So being there, I mean obviously, there were restaurateurs in London who I would get to know who loved my mom and admired her, including Sally Clark, who’s had a restaurant for dozens of years, 35 years I think or more, who was one of my mom’s cooks at Chez Panisse for years and who’s one of her closest friends. So there’s definitely a legacy of Chez Panisse even as far as London, but it just wasn’t something that I felt as an oppressive association. Not in terms of “will I ever figure out who I am outside of that identification?”
And I think I actually did kind of manage. I was cooking food and gathering people but it was so much on my own terms. No one was comparing it to how my mom might have done it or what the food was like or anything like that. It was just delicious because I cared about it and I was investing time and effort in it and that was foreign to a lot of my English friends, needless to say. But also I was writing art reviews and I was carving out a career that was more in that world in vain. And I think actually it’s only been since coming back to California that I’ve felt like these things are so much more integrated in who I am than I thought.
Like, I’d really created these two quite compartmentalized selves. There was the Alice Waters and the food world, and that was one thing, and then there was me as an art critic and art writer. It’s like I’m still getting commissions from the Frederick [inaudible] in Germany to write a catalog essay, and I’m at the same time publishing goofy videos of cooking with my mom. And it’s like you can actually contain those things.
The multitudes, yeah.
You have range. You’ve got good r
There’s range. Whether it’s good, the jury’s still out, Debbie. We’ll see.
You got your Ph.D. in the history of art at Cambridge and wrote your thesis on the British pop artist Richard Hamilton. You first met Hamilton in 2007. You were 23 and you had been trying to engineer a meeting for months. When you finally did get to meet him I understand that he sternly questioned your use of the word morph? What was that about?
Oh no, it was great actually. Well, I needed to get image rights from him. He controlled every image of his work that existed, so you couldn’t publish something with images if he didn’t approve of the text. And he was a pretty truculent, exacting captious kind of individual and he was in his 80s already at that point. I had written this article in the first year of my Ph.D. that was going to be published in this academic publication called Print Quarterly and, of course, you needed the images, otherwise you’re referring to these things that no one’s ever seen. You can’t search online even really.
So I remember printing out the piece and I took it to him physically at his house outside of Oxford, and I’d never visited with him before, or I’d maybe met him once before but I’d never been to his house and I just remember sitting in his beautiful atulea. He was very close friends with Marcel Duchamp, and there were all of these replicas that were sanctioned by Duchamp that they’d collaborated on of different pieces of the large glass, which is one of Duchamp’s most famous sculptures.
And just being surrounded by all of these extraordinary artworks and sitting and just waiting for him to read this essay in front of me and possibly hate it. And he was sitting there with a pen in hand and I could see him just occasionally circling a word or some little check and he very kindly wrote 10 out of 10 on the bottom as if he was grading a paper. But yeah, he took issue with this one word because I think, you know, I was writing about this period that was well beyond his association with the pop movement.
He started to work with a computer to make a lot of works from the late ’80s onward, and started getting really interested in computer technology as early as the ’70s, and even built his own computers and learned a version of Unix and would write code and kept his entire art catalog, like his archive in code and stuff. It was elaborate. And I think the word morphed was, for him, it meant something very specific for computer technologies and it was like he wanted it to be a different—it was just being so exacting about language and what does the meaning of that word meant in the context of something that actually involved a computer technology that did morph.
He’s like, “That’s not the right word for this.” But I got off relatively easy given what a hard time he would sometimes give to other writers, so I had a really nice relationship with him up until he passed away just a year before I submitted my Ph.D. So I benefited from many visits and interviews and getting to work with him closely.
Over the years you’ve worked as the Bay Area restaurant critic for Gourmet Magazine. You’ve been a contributing editor at The Wall Street Journal writing on arts and culture. You’ve written and/or illustrated pieces in Pop, Lucky Peach, Cherry Bomb, and did an article on art papers several years ago. You stated with the subject of food gaining increasing traction within artistic communities it’s tempting to attribute the recent flurry of convivial projects toward prevailing cultural condition of digital dependency. And I’m wondering what you think now of the food culture that has emerged on social sites, and ways in which we share what we’re eating and how we’re eating and how we’re cooking what we’re eating.
Yeah, I mean I think it’s a very interesting time for that. I wrote in a more recent piece for Frieze Magazine about the spectacularization of food and there have been artists and someone like Laila Gohar who makes these beautiful food installations, and she’s a good friend. She makes beautiful and delicious food; I mean she’s an interesting example of someone who’s almost Dali-esque in the artistic scope of what she does. But she has a very earthy palate and love of artisanal beans and bread, and that I can really get down with.
And then there’s this strange other world on Instagram of people slamming their faces into bread or whatever, and that becomes the Breadface Blog, I think is what that’s called. I mean it’s a strange and very, very dated world now, and people of course in the more quotidian end of things are just daily posting photos of what they’re eating, which I’m also someone who succumbs to that tendency or that impulse. But I do think that there’s something, it can kind of be good and bad. I think there’s inspiration to be had from it that I think encourages you to do something yourself.
So it’s like seeing the way people are gathering virtually is also sometimes I think a kind of call to action, and “oh, that looked beautiful, let’s have a picnic with friends.” I get lots of comments when I post something, like an interesting preparation of grilling peaches on fig leaves the other day, and so many people were like, “I’m going to do that tonight.” And a feeling of there being a real sense of reciprocity and realness to that, that something can really inspire someone to do something else in that vein that is a real connection.
But I do think the way that digital culture has really atomized and compartmentalized us has had this really deleterious effect on how we gather, and we just think we are with people because we’re with them virtually, and I mean right now we have to be, there’s no other option, but I’m always—I mean, it’s been part of why I’ve been so depressed in this time. I’m used to cooking for people three or four times a week, and to not have that feeling of just proximity to people and sharing tasting in real time …
For me, cooking is really about cooking for others. I’m not just someone who likes to experiment madly on my own in pursuit of some flavor or something. I really like to give to others. So yeah, that’s been a very alienating aspect of this, and I think it’s also potentially something that’s just—or rather, it’s been happening in culture more broadly as a trend. I hope that actually, coming out of this, people feel really a drive to gather and cook together and be together in a real physical way.
I loved what Gloria Steinem said when she was at the city arts and lectures this last … 100 years ago now. She was out here in San Francisco and she was talking about why she decided ultimately to be more an activist and a speaker than a writer. She’s like, “I just felt like the important thing was people, human bodies were together. When we’re together and we’re physically gathered we have a real chemical response. Oxytocin increases and our serotonin levels increase and we actually have a real physical response to the proximity of bodies. It’s that simple—the chemistry of togetherness. That brings us happiness.” And I think you add a beautiful meal to that, and you have even an amplification of that sense of fulfillment, which is really just an animal sense of comfort and—
And care, which is why also there’s a chapter in the book called “Beauty is a Language of Care,” which is really about that, too. Making a meal for someone, making a beautiful environment is also a way of communicating to them that they’re cared for and loved, which is the foundational ethos of the Edible Schoolyard.
In 2016, you and your college friend Mariah Nielson launched Permanent Collection. Can you describe what Permanent Collection is, and what made you decide to start it?
So yeah, so Mariah, actually, I crazily didn’t meet her until I was in England and we were at different universities. So she was getting her master’s at the Royal College and I was getting my Ph.D. at Cambridge, but we met through a mutual friend from California. And we were just magnetically drawn to each other. I think there was a real sense of sorority instantly. I mean, she’s a beautiful creature and she’s always impeccably dressed, and she was wearing this coat that I wanted to bludgeon her and take off her shoulders immediately. It was some vintage piece that was perfect.
And that, actually, in a weird way was sort of the kernel of the collection because it did start with a big emphasis on not just objects and design pieces that we make now but also quite a bit of clothing. But I think both of us, you know, she’d studied design history and [inaudible] history and her father was this very well-known sculptor in California named J.B. Blunk, and she spent her later career really shoring up his legacy and taking care of the estate and helping to secure shows and exhibitions around the world for that work.
And actually she just made a beautiful monograph of J.B. Blunk’s work. And I think kind of both having these parents who were very important influences on us in terms of the aesthetic of our environments—I mean, she grew up in a hand-built house that her father had made in the wilderness, and every single thing in the house was made by hand, from the ceramics to the light poles to everything. So Mariah and I had, I think, there was a shared genetics in terms of what we felt like we’d been educated in from a very young age.
Just nothing was disposable, but at the same time, nothing was precious. It was like beauty was just something that was a kind of atmosphere, really, and it was a totally unpretentious kind of beauty. But just a care around selecting a few beautiful branches of bay when you’re out on a walk and arranging them in a wooden vessel that her father had made, or simple things that my mom would do too. Just grab, rummaging around and picking some flowers and arranging them simply from the garden and never having disposable stuff around.
And also, just using the things that she loved and had collected. So the idea of Permanent Collection was to make things like that. To identify really essential pieces in the kitchen, in the home and maybe in the wardrobe, and even accessories. We work with her father’s estate to make some of his beautiful historical jewelry designs. But things that had historical significance; we worked with the Alexander Calder Estate to make two of his designs into two beautiful silk scarves. But increasingly stuff, especially with the pandemic because everyone’s at home, increasingly things for the kitchen and home. And a lot of those are influenced by my mom’s kitchen. So the things that she uses the most, and I’m sure you’ll ask me about the egg spoon.
That’s my next question.
That was one of your first items. So I was one of the first people that bought the egg spoon in 2016. I actually, I thought you’d love this, I actually took it with me camping.
I love that. I need pictures, Debbie.
I was so excited. Oh, this was back in 2016 when I first got it. I love it so much and I very intentionally, I bought a house and very intentionally had one of the fireplaces cleared out and made beautiful so that I could use the egg spoon in my house.
I love it. It’s like the egg spoon before the fireplace is like the new chicken or egg dilemma.
Yeah. So for the listeners that might not be familiar with this famous egg spoon, if you could talk about the origin of the egg spoon.
Of course, yeah. I will note that it is to date our bestselling product by such an extraordinary margin it’s kind of amazing. It really hit some kind of vein. There was something very resonant.
Yeah, it is the perfect, perfect instrument.
And the people who buy it send us endless emails about how much they love it. Anyway, it’s this forged iron, long-handled sort of shallow cupped spoon that’s intended for frying an egg in a fireplace. And this was a tool that my mom became aware of because she was reading this wonderful book by William Rubel called The Magic of Fire,and my mom is really a deft cook with fireplace cooking. I mean she just has an unbelievable knowledge of fire cooking. I mean uncanny really.
It’s like she’s much more comfortable there than she is in front of the stove. And so this really appealed to her when she saw this illustration because, of course, there’s no photograph of this thing, it’s a 17th century French culinary antique. And it was meant for precisely that purpose. What I imagine when I think about why it would have been developed even in 17th century France is because there were those huge, huge fireplaces in the kitchens that would have been going 24 hours a day.
And so you wouldn’t have to necessarily start a fire in the iron stoves, which would have also been used in the 17th century. For breakfast, you could just put a spoon over the flame in these larger hearths and make a perfect egg. So my mom asked a friend of ours who’s a wonderful Sicilian blacksmith named Angelo Garro—who actually mainly now does Omnivore salt; I don’t know if he’s doing much smithing—but at the time, this is the early to mid ’90s, she asked him to make this egg spoon, and he made this egg spoon that became a beloved piece in our kitchen and a thing that featured in a 60 Minutes episode of my mom.
So many, many years later when we were first starting Permanent Collection and thinking about what kitchen items to add, even though you wouldn’t think it’s the most basic and intuitive thing to—you know, cornerstone of the kitchen—we were like, “Maybe we should do that. It just doesn’t exist anywhere and it’s such a special implement and it really makes a great egg.” And my mom was like, “Yeah, you should definitely make that.” So we actually work with this wonderful female blacksmith named Shawn Lovell who is located in Alameda, not too far from here.
And she kind of tweaked the design a bit actually because it needed to be more of a round cup. Angelo’s is a little bit more oval, which just made holding the egg and the cup a little harder. So this really, I mean, it’s actually cooking the egg and spoon for dummies. It’s quite easy to use and Shawn made these beautiful spoons that she hand forges, and it turned out to be this implement that of course also comes charged with all kinds of conversations around my mom’s cooking. Anthony Bourdain loved to call her precious because she was using this egg
spoon to cook an egg, even though it was in a fire pit, which couldn’t seem less precious to me.
But then this New York Times article came out that sort of established it as this almost Me Too moment gender-division lightning rod, and then the egg spoon is featured prominently, and then we sold 1,000 egg spoons. Shawn was making egg spoons for six solid months, bless her. It was such a crazy episode. But it remains something that we’ll keep in the collection ad infinitum, and it’s a special thing for sure.
Yeah. If anything happened in my house and I had to leave immediately, it would be one of the things that I grabbed. Just so you know, it’s that important to me.
I’m going to quote you and put you on our website, Debbie.
Happily, happily, happily.
I love that.
Fanny, I only have a few last questions for you.
When the pandemic first started you left San Francisco and, as we’ve discussed, moved in with your mom in Berkeley. Are bell peppers and broccoli still frowned upon in the Waters/Singer household?
They’re definitely not ingredients that find their way into our fridge very often. I can’t remember the last time I saw either. Although, I mean, I love broccoli and peppers; if you roast a bell pepper, my mom will eat it. She loves roasted peppers, and roasting peppers in general is one of the most beautiful fragrances that you can concoct in your kitchen.
But why the ban on broccoli?
There’s something about these—I think because they’d been so badly prepared through the ’40s and ’50s. My mom’s childhood, those were vegetables that were readily around, and they were just, it was like chunks of bell pepper in the salad, and it was broccoli, just steamed or cooked beyond until it had that sulfurous aroma and mushy texture. My mom loves broccoli rabe and broccolini and the kinds of things that have a little bit more of a flavor edge to them.
I think too what happened is the American versions so bred the flavor out of them. I mean, they’re not particularly interesting vegetables compared to their older and more wild counterparts, which is why broccoli rabe is one of the favorite things in this house. When that’s in season, there’s bags and bags of it. But I do love roasted broccoli and I make it for myself, but it just doesn’t crop up too much in Berkeley at my mom’s house, anyway.
And my last question for you today is this: I understand that every evening you are walking the neighborhood around you, and you’re searching for the 137 paths that reportedly thread through the hills of Berkeley, and you’re determined to find and travel them all. What number are you up to?
I haven’t been keeping an exact tally because one will suddenly come out of nowhere, and you’re like, “Oh.” And I don’t walk with anything, but I think I’ve probably gotten up to the 80s for sure.
I’ve just stayed mostly in North Berkeley, so I’m definitely not hitting more of the South Berkeley paths that I’m sure exist. But I’ve really discovered places and corners and little total wildernesses in the middle of this city that I’d never seen before. A pair of chairs in the middle of what looks like this beautiful sword on the side of a hillside that overlooks the entirety of the bay, or there’s all this rock—I want to say it’s a kind of granite—that’s apparently over 100 million years old, and it comes up, and there’s one called Indian Rock nearby, and then there are other rock parks that are smaller.
But then they’re also just between two houses. There will be a chunk of rock that I’d never seen before, and they’ll just be little stairs that you can walk up and sit on the top of it, and perch and look out over the bay, and there’s some unbelievable mystery and magic to this town that I never, never knew. And that’s what’s kind of astounding to me is I lived on this planet 36 years ignorant of these many beautiful paths.
What I have been very assiduously marking down have actually been all of the fruit trees that are easily accessible. And my friend Amelia and I have one designation in particular, which is called fair use fig, which is any fig tree that’s definitely not in someone’s yard or it’s like overhanging their yard enough that it’s a fair use fig, as opposed to just an off-limits fig. And definitely any figs that are in between the sidewalk and the road that are planted in that, those are totally fair use figs.
We’ve got fair use figs, we’ve got the over-productive Meyer lemon trees, the limes, the loquats, the plums. We thought we were past plum season, and then we were walking the night before last and we hit a plum. And we didn’t even communicate that we were going to stop; me and my friend Alex and Amelia, we were just standing there, just eating plums, talking about depression and ravaging this plum tree. It’s such a magical thing to have that kind of relationship to, well, nature, and still be in the city but also to have this kind of free food while you’re walking. Which has also led of course to the aforementioned various preservation projects.
Well, thank you so, so much for joining me on today’s episode. Thank you so much for writing this really beautiful, beautiful book and also thank you for the recipe of the strawberry gelato. We’re making it tonight.
I’ll let you know how it comes out. Fanny Singer’s latest book is titled Always Home: A Daughter’s Recipes and Stories. You can read more about her at permanentcollection.com, and you can see her absolutely marvelous videos on her Instagram. This is the 16th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters, and I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.