It’s something akin to a culinary lunar eclipse that at the moment we’re all immersed in the celebration of Julia Child, Sheila Lukins of Silver Palate fame died of brain cancer. Julia’s gift to the kitchens of America was to introduce us to French cooking. And thanks to the movie bearing her name, we are greedily rediscovering the pleasures of choux and beurre blanc. But it was Sheila Lukins who, 18 years later, did as much to shape the way Americans cook as anyone else who came before or after.
Julia Child is rightly given credit for rapping us on the knuckles with a ladle with Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961. Cooks all across the country set about making potages, coq au vin, and pâte brisée with delight and purpose.
But The Silver Palate, co-authored with Julee Rosso, took us by the shoulders and shook us out of culinary complacency. Sheila didn’t discover balsamic vinegar, or sundried tomatoes or phyllo dough. But Sheila did take us firmly by the hand, introduce us to these exciting and as of yet unfamilar ingredients, and offer them space in our pantries. And showed us how to work with these new ingredients in fun and exciting ways. Within moments, we were all making our own gravlax and carrot and orange soups. And copious amounts of that genius dish, Chicken Marbella.
I don’t remember meeting Sheila Lukins, though I must have been around 9 or 10 at the time. My father published The Silver Palate in 1979, and remains her publisher then all the way up until today. In person, she was gracious, generous, loving, prickly, stubborn, loyal, and protective, both of herself and those she loved.
For many of us, she really was our Julia Child. We taught ourselves to cook from her books, we felt like she showed us the way, she gave us confidence in the kitchen. Julia Child made us fall in love with French food; Sheila made us fall in love with American food, and made us realize that the definition of American food was in fact a welcoming and evolving one.
Julia said of Sauce Brune, “Its preliminaries are somewhat exactly, and it requires at least two hours of simmering.” Sheila said of Tapanade Dip, “It seems barely tamed by civilization and still full of secrets.” Respectful of other cuisines, but determined to blaze a different path, Sheila and Julee weren’t bound to any traditions, and so were free to create their own, which became the springboard for much of what we think of as American food today. And Sheila also gave us the courage to entertain in a different way. I remember my college roommate’s father asking me why dinner was taking so long, and I felt a little bit sorry for him for not understanding that Chicken Monterey couldn’t be rushed.
The genius of Julia Child actually frames Sheila Lukins’ life and death and a very poignant way. This is of course is true of all generations of the best artists, who couldn’t exist without one another, but carve out very different areas of brilliance. But by the way, Sheila’s coq au vin is pretty damn good, too.
Originally published on thekitchn.com.