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The New Sun-Dried Lifestyle

 

This is an excerpt from the book The United States of Arugula, by David Kamp. Published by Broadway Books
Chapter Seven

"What Dean & Deluca did was give the food market a clean artistry that made it very now, very tied into the moment when SoHo was being noticed," says Florence Fabricant, the New York Times food-beat scoopmeister, who wrote about the store nearly from its inception. "Jack Ceglic was responsible for a lot of that, the industrial look. And Giorgio and Joel were really fanatic about ferreting out product. It all tied together. And the other important thing they tapped into was the need for prepared foods."

 

Indeed, the time had at last arrived when it was socially and economically acceptable for young professionals -- and even harried moms in the suburbs -- to take home freshly prepared entrées, along with salads and sides purchased by the pound. In an earlier era, prepared foods were problematic: they seemed too fancy and expensive (as Jean Vergnes found out during his brief experiment with Stop & Shop in the sixties), and, for women, they seemed a cop-out, a betrayal of their domestic duties. But with more women in the professional workforce and more people amenable to the general idea of "gourmet" eating, especially if it had the imprimatur of a prestigious shop like Dean & DeLuca or E.A.T., prepared foods started to take off -- Rob Kaufelt, who grew up in the supermarket business and now runs Murray's, the beloved New York cheese store, calls the rise of prepared foods "the biggest change in the grocery-store business over the last thirty years."

Dean & DeLuca's secret weapon in this regard was Felipe Rojas-Lombardi, who for a time was a partner in the store with the namesake owners and Ceglic. Peruvian by birth, Rojas-Lombardi had come to Dean & DeLuca by way of the James Beard Cooking School, where he'd risen up through the ranks to become the master's right-hand man in the kitchen. Rojas-Lombardi had also worked as New York magazine's in-house chef, their go-to man for testing recipes. This pedigree proved helpful not only in eliciting constant plugs for the store in Beard's syndicated column and in New York but in the fact that Rojas-Lombardi was a skilled, inventive cook: he roasted chickens tandoori-style, grilled salmon on cedar planks, and went out on a limb with such oddball entrées as elk steak and his notorious rabbit with forty cloves of garlic. "Felipe did some of the first pasta salads that people had ever seen," says Ceglic. "He did everything with the products we sold, and people cottoned to it."

"The idea was that if you didn't know what a sun-dried tomato was, well, here it was, in a pasta salad,"
said Dean.

The third point in New York's prepared-foods triangle, with Dean & DeLuca downtown and E.A.T. serving the Upper East Side, was the Silver Palate, a tiny shop on the Upper West Side, on what was then a drab stretch of Columbus Avenue. The Silver Palate's genesis lay in a mid-seventies catering company called The Other Woman, a single-person operation run by Sheila Lukins, a young mother of two who cooked out of her apartment on Central Park West. As her company's name and slogan ("So discreet, so delicious, and I deliver") suggested, Lukins's clientele was mostly male: professional men who wanted their dinner parties catered but not in an inordinately fussy, Edith Whartonian fashion.

Lukins was a self-taught cook, more or less -- she had taken a course at the London Cordon Bleu while she and her husband lived there, but "it was the dilettante course," she says. Her greatest inspiration was not Child and company's Mastering the Art of French Cooking but the more practical, less labor-intensive recipes of Craig Claiborne's New York Times cookbooks and his Sunday pieces for the Times Magazine. Lukins's cooking was eclectic but somehow all of a piece -- aspirational comfort food: moussaka, lasagna, ratatouille, stuffed grape leaves, and the quintessential Lukins dish, Chicken Marbella, the quartered bird baked after a long soak in a Mediterranean-style marinade of oil, vinegar, garlic, prunes, olives, and capers.

 

While running The Other Woman Catering Company, Lukins became acquainted with Julee Rosso, a young professional who worked in the advertising division of Burlington Mills, the textile company. Rosso had attended many events catered by Lukins, and was so impressed that one day, she hit up Lukins with a proposal. "She said, 'So many women are working late now. What if we opened up a shop for them?'" Lukins remembers. The two went into business as the Silver Palate in the summer of 1977, with Lukins as the cook -- carting food over from her apartment several times a day to the then kitchenless store -- and Rosso as the marketer and front-woman.

"It was a big deal for two women to go into business together in 1977," says Lukins, who thinks this angle helped the shop get press coverage almost as fawning and widespread as Dean & DeLuca's. Zabar was the odd man out where press was concerned. E.A.T. was flourishing, and it offered an even more extensive and dazzling line of prepared foods than the Silver Palate, but the proprietor's truculence precluded him from ever being a press favorite, a circumstance that only got worse in the eighties, when he let loose on the writer Julie Baumgold, the wife of New York's then editor Edward Kosner, for trying to return some item she'd purchased. ("I told her to go ---- herself, 'cause there was nothing wrong with it," Zabar says.)

"Eli's a great merchandiser, and his shop was always spectacular, but I don't think he liked us at all," says Lukins. "I think he thought we copied him -- and we didn't. I mean, we were one tiny corner of his shop! But we got the publicity and the good reviews." Within a year of its opening, the Silver Palate was selling its own product line at Saks Fifth Avenue, including such items as winter fruit compote, Damson plums in brandy, and blueberry vinegar.

Four years later, The Silver Palate Cookbook was published by Workman and became the cookbook of the eighties, not just in Manhattan but throughout the United States. More disciplined and earthbound than The Moosewood Cookbook, yet less intimidating and grown-up than the two volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Lukins and Rosso's book was perfect for have-it-all, multitasking baby boomers who wanted to cook well but not all the time. Its introduction recalled the state of affairs that led the two ladies to their decision to open their shop: a new era in which women found themselves juggling "school schedules, business appointments, political activities, art projects, sculpting classes, movie going, exercising, theater, chamber music concerts, tennis, squash, weekends in the country or at the beach, friends, family, fund raisers, books to read, [and] shopping," and yet were still compelled "to prepare creative, well-balanced meals and the occasional dinner party at home." The Silver Palate lifestyle offered two solutions: you could use Lukins and Rosso's recipes, or buy their products and prepared foods.

The very emergence of the word "lifestyle" in the late seventies signaled a progression in America's food culture. Stylish living wasn't just for wealthy boulevardiers anymore, but for anyone who considered himself upwardly mobile -- and eating, cooking, and food-shopping were about as lifestylish as things got. In 1976, when The New York Times expanded from two to four sections a day, introducing a new daily business section and a rotating fourth section devoted to soft news and service journalism, the first two "fourth sections" to appear were Weekend (on Fridays) and the Living section (on Wednesdays), both of which had a heavy food component. The Weekend section carried the restaurant-review column, which ran longer and held greater weight than it had when Claiborne introduced the column in the early sixties. Whereas Claiborne's early columns were often roundups, devoting just a blurb or a short paragraph to each restaurant, the new version evaluated no more than two restaurants at a time, with much more intimate, first-person critiques by the Times' new reviewer, Mimi Sheraton.

The Living section was even more gastronomically inclined, with shopping news and product evaluations from Florence Fabricant; a wine column by Frank Prial (a metro-desk reporter who happened to be an oenophile); health and nutrition news from Jane Brody; recipes, essays, and travelogues from Claiborne; and a new column by Pierre Franey, bylined at last, called "60-Minute Gourmet." Arthur Gelb, who was put in charge of the new culture sections by the paper's executive editor, Abe Rosenthal, had wanted to appeal to time-strapped upwardly mobile home cooks by running a column called "30-Minute Gourmet"; Gelb and his wife, Barbara, had been impressed by Franey's ability to whip up quick, simple, delicious meals in the Hamptons -- flounder in a butter sauce, say, or pork chops with capers -- after a long day of fishing.

But Franey was still too much of a purist to limit himself to thirty minutes. (Like a lot of chefs, he was also made queasy by the word "gourmet" and preferred the title "60-Minute Chef," but he yielded to Gelb on that matter.) The first "60-Minute Gourmet" column featured a recipe for crevettes "margarita" -- an invention of Franey's that called for shrimp to be cooked in a sauce of tequila, shallots, and cream, with avocado slices tossed in at the end -- and began with a statement of intent (written by Claiborne) that declared, "With inventiveness and a little planning, there is no reason why a working wife, a bachelor, or a husband who likes to cook cannot prepare an elegant meal in under an hour."

Excerpted from The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation by David Kamp copyright © 2006 by David Kamp. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Author
David Kamp has been a writer and editor for Vanity Fair and GQ for more than a decade. He lives in New York.  For more information, please visit www.davidkamp.com
 

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