Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sheila Lukins – Great Friend In The Kitchen

I never met Sheila Lukins, but if Julia’s books are like having a teacher right next to you in the kitchen, then Sheila’s are like having a good friend. That’s why I was so sad to learn that Sheila Lukins, co-author of The Silver Palate Cookbook, died at 66 last week after a short bout of brain cancer. She was an extraordinary cook and a formidable person.

I don’t even remember a time when I WASN’T cooking from The Silver Palate, which was published 30 years ago, although there seems to be some dispute about the date. (My copy says 1979, many sites say 1982). In either case, Chicken Marbella is probably one of the most well-known recipes in the universe.

It had already travelled the world when I was introduced to it by an Australian in the 1980’s while we were both living in Spain. She had brought the recipe with her to serve at dinner parties.

It amazes me when I think of the many, many times I’ve made Chicken Marbella from my increasingly worn Silver Palate book. I probably never (even once) made it exactly as written, but it never failed to delight me (and all for whom I served it) with its ingenious mix of sweet, salty and piquant flavors. Plus all those lovely juices, studded with prunes, olives and capers, became the most marvelous sauce. That was pretty ground-breaking back in the day. And it does give me pause when I realize that the last time I made it was only days before Sheila died.

The word sad is the one I keep coming back to. In 1991, at 47, Sheila suffered a serious stroke that forced her to spend 4 months in rehab and took years to recover from. But she didn’t just travel on the road to recovery. Amazingly, very shortly after, she began traveling the world for research on her Around the World book. As she says in its introduction, she journeyed for 730 days on and off, all around the world gathering material for her book. The result was a huge comprehensive cookbook, chock a block full of fabulous ethnic recipes and exciting menus. That she accomplished this volume at all is amazing; that she did it with her physical limitations is awe-inspiring.

I don’t think our cookbooks mean the same to us as they used to. We get so many of our recipes online or from television that, to me anyway, they aren’t the same source of inspiration.

I’m looking at my cookbook shelves. James, Craig, Julia…all gone. Marcella and Maida still around, but getting on.

But Sheila…It’s funny. I never thought of her as a culinary icon, although her books outsold many of them.

She was more like one of us.

Of course, she was an accomplished professional, but she made it seem like she was cooking to have fun, cooking to entertain her friends and family. She had a big hearted, open kitchen approach that was so evident on every page of her books. Her delightful drawings only added to their charm.

I know a lot of younger folks treasure The New Basics, but I used the Silver Palate, probably on more occasions than any other cookbook. You’re not going to learn the tenets of consommé making (there IS a salmon consommé in The New Basics) or chicken deboning from either Silver Palate. But you will make darn good food and in some cases great food, which, if you’re anything like me, you’ll keep coming back to time after time. THAT is what I’ll remember Sheila Lukins for.


j e t s e t WISDOM said...

Sue, I feel so sad, about Sheila passing. I started cooking at 28 - with Silver Palate. I always told non-cooking friends, for years, start with this, it will never ever let you down.
How sad I am. But what a legacy she left behind. Thank you Sue for taking the time to write about her, and thank you for finding me today as a friend, oherwise I would not know this...I will look at my 4 books ( I have 2 copies of the first book since 1st is ruined from overusez- with such good thoughts and much pleasure. Sheila. Greatest friend in my kitchen!

Diddywy said...

I too feel awful about Sheila Lukins passing. As a young bride, some 26 years ago, I just got interested in serious cooking. I had one cook book, the Fannie Farmer Cook Book. My next book, The Silver Palate was a gift from a friend a wonderful cook herself. That book opened me up to a world of wonderful flavors and I cooked from it often. Since then I've collected "Great Good Food", "All Around The World" and "USA". I loved her comments and stories about her recipes and will remember her with great pleasure.

DebCarol said...

Thank you for posting this Sue. And I second all the thoughts about the legacy she left behind. That is the mark of a life well-lived.
I LOVED that you posted picture of your cookbook shelves. What a fun idea if all your faithful readers sent in pics of their cookbook shelves, maybe you could have a post of all our "collections". I'll send you mine tomorrow.

Emily said...

Thank you for writing this post about Sheila and the Silver Palate cookbook. I admit I haven't picked up the book before, but now I want to buy a copy.

Sue said...

Hi JW,
That is exactly the way I feel too. I loved Sheila’s books. And like you, I have been cooking with them forever.

Hiya Diddywy,
It is so sad, but it is wonderful that we have Shelia’s books. I’ve given the Silver Palate to at least one wonderful friend myself and I would recommend both of them to any cook.

Thanks, DC,
Okay, I’m waiting for your pictures. The pictures I posted were just the tip of the iceberg of my cookbook collection and, as you can see, I didn’t edit out the well-used ones. I did limit myself to the top three shelves though... this time.

You have to get both Silver Palates books. Are you sure your mom doesn't have them?

Tom said...

Sad news. I take the New Basics with me when we go on a vacation to a place with a kitchen, so it's an old friend.