The Savory Life of Sheila Lukins

To the post-Julia Child generation, Sheila Lukins’ Silver Palate Cookbook was an everyday gourmet bible. Sara Nelson remembers their smorgasbord of friendship and fine food.

The first time I met Sheila Lukins, she sent me out to get parsley.

I came back with chives.

She forgave me–and we were instantly friends.

I honestly didn’t appreciate the moment, because, not being much of a foodie (obviously) I didn’t really know who Sheila Lukins was at the time. I supposed I’d heard of The Silver Palate Cookbook, but I certainly didn’t know that Sheila, along with her then partner, Julee Rosso, had “awakened taste buds,” as the New York Times put it in its obituary of Lukins, who died of brain cancer last Sunday at 66. The Silver Palate was an era-defining Upper West Side food store in the late 1970s, a catering business that grew into a groundbreaking cookbook. This was the post-Julia Child era, and most working women weren’t so interested in cooking Cordon Bleu. Sheila and Rosso “experimented by serving Greek mezes, Moroccan chicken pies, and gazpacho at a time when only French-style standards like duck à l’orange were considered elegant enough for entertaining,” said the Times.

“Darling,” she’d say to me in her slightly drawly falsetto. “Let’s go to Per Se. I can get us a table in the kitchen.” Never mind that I didn’t know what Per Se was.

Over the years we were friends, Sheila talked to me about food–and even cooked for me once, soft-shell crabs–but comestibles were not our currency. Thinking about her today, I realize that that parsley incident was not our first introduction, that we had, in fact, connected over cuisine years before in the Dakota apartment in which she began her catering business. It was the 1990s, and Sheila was hosting a party for a mutual friend of ours, Richard Klein, who’d written a marvelous book called Eat Fat. Greeting guests at the door was a, tiny, fiftyish woman with boing-y hair–if this had been the Plaza, you’d have thought her a grown-up Eloise. I swear she was wearing a beret and striped tights, but I might be imagining that. But about this, I am positive: she was passing around a plate of fois-gras-stuffed figs, and I remember that because I’d never before or since thought of much less enjoyed such a delicacy. Eat fat, indeed.

So the East Hampton garnish incident was officially my second Sheila sighting, but we both always thought of it as our first time.After that, we slipped effortlessly into a pattern of regular emails, less frequent but still regular dinners (always at the coolest new restaurants), dinner parties in her Central Park West apartment (she’d since moved up the block from the Dakota) “Darling,” she’d say to me in her slightly drawly falsetto. “Let’s go to Per Se. I can get us a table in the kitchen.”

Never mind that I didn’t know what Per Se was.

When you went out to dinner with Sheila, you could count on getting the star treatment. Chefs, owners, waitstaff–everybody knew the sprite with the springy hair.One after another, a guy in white would slip into a booth or squat down by our table, and pay homage to Sheila.And while she didn’t lack for self-regard about her knowledge of food, she wasn’t a snob. On the Sunday afternoon of that East Hampton weekend, when my then-9-year-old son and I gave Sheila a lift back to the city, she insisted we stop by her favorite haunt in Greenwich Village. Turn left here, right here, she’d say–until we ended up at the Gray’s Papaya on Sixth Avenue and 9th street. And though I’d been there many, many times in the past, it was Sheila whom the counterman greeted happily; we bought two dogs apiece and two for my son, and savored them all the way uptown.

At trying times in my life, Sheila was always there.When I lost a job, she was among the first to call me up, not to ask questions, but to invite me to eat.When I told her I was getting divorced, she quickly arranged a dinner party to re-introduce me to the world: her guests were musicians who’d played with Levon Helm, TV producers, and Columbia students.She had been cooking all day with her beloved assistant, Laurie, she said, but if she was feeling anxious about how her meal would be received, I couldn’t tell. She just seemed happy to have good food, good friends, and good gossip.

And when she wasn’t throwing dinner parties, Sheila took me to the best restaurants, Ouest, DB, and Balthazar—the last with my son, whom she adored.(“That’s where we went with silly Sheila that time,” he has said to me every time we pass the Soho brasserie, which is often.)The last time I saw her was this past winter, pre-diagnosis, at Babbo, after blowing off an editor from this very Web site because a deadline was interfering with our dinner plans.She was still, as always, a little unsteady on her feet, the legacy of a stroke she’d suffered more than a decade ago. But she was unmistakably Sheila, wearing a beautiful enamel necklace (she loved jewelry), flirting with young waiters, talking about her elderly mother who’d just died but to whom she had spoken by telephone every day of her life and of course about her daughters, Annabel and Molly, and their babies, born and expected. She gave me a copy of her latest book, Ten—which has a recipe for the perfect hamburger!—and giggled. “Even you could cook from this,” she said.

I put her in a cab uptown that night and we said what we always said: “Love you, darling. See you soon.”Then she waved her little-girl wave, and was off.

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Sara Nelson is a critic for The Daily Beast and the former editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. She is the author of the bestselling So Many Books, So Little Time.

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