Breaking Bread: ‘Silver Palate Cookbook’ changed the palate of America
In the spring of 1982, “The Silver Palate Cookbook” hit bookstore shelves with recipes that established a foundation for an emerging American cuisine.
The book, marking its 35th anniversary this year with more than 2.5 million copies sold, added products such as blueberry chutney and raspberry sauce to our food repertoire.
“The thing I really take credit for is arugula,” said Julee Rosso, one of the two women behind the cookbook. “I made arugula happen in this country.”
The magic created by “The Silver Palate” began with a chance friendship between Rosso, a single New York marketing executive, and Sheila Lukins, a married mother of two who had started a catering company out of her home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Lukins’ business, the Other Woman Catering Company, was started with the idea of cooking for New York bachelors who wanted to entertain but needed someone to do the cooking. She and Rosso met after Rosso’s boyfriend at the time hired Lukins for such a party.
Rosso, the businesswoman, and Lukins, the chef, partnered in 1977 to open a gourmet shop, the Silver Palate on Columbus Avenue, just a block from Lukins’ home in the Dakota apartment building.
They sold prepared foods and eventually a line of products -- including jams, chutneys and sauces -- which helped pave the way for Dean and Deluca and other prominent gourmet shops that followed.
Just as Julia Child had taught Americans how to cook 15 years earlier, Lukins and Rosso helped launch the country on the road to a distinctly American cuisine: Big, bold flavors for a new generation of cooks.
Rosso, now 73 and living near Saugatuck, Michigan, recalled in a recent phone interview how the country, at the time, was just beginning to come out of the cake-mix-and-condensed-soup haze that had dominated American fare.
“It was a time when, if there was fresh dill at the market down the street, or even Italian parsley, it was a big deal,” Rosso said. “Fresh ingredients just weren’t around.”
Formal dining always meant French cuisine, but the “Silver Palate” offered a new approach.
“I like a ‘wow’ when I taste something,” said Rosso, explaining how the pair saturated their dishes with garlic, dill, lemon and other flavors to create boldness.
“We cooked with magnified flavors. A lot of those things weren’t part of anyone’s America repertoire.”
She and Lukins embraced European flavors but set out to simplify the complicated style of French cooking that had dominated cuisine.
New Yorkers, it turned out, were ready for their food.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono, neighbors of Lukins’ at the Dakota, became regular customers.
Once, during a snowstorm, Rosso recalled arriving at the Dakota to transport beef bourguignon from Lukins’ apartment to the shop about a block away. Lennon was in the lobby and offered to help -- so together they toted beef bourguignon down Columbus Avenue in a snowstorm. Once they arrived, Lennon bought some of the dish to take back home to eat.
“He used to hang out at the store,” recalled Rosso, noting that many customers failed to recognize the music legend. “He sat around and talked to people, and he could look pretty scrungy.”
For months after Lennon’s slaying in 1980, Rosso said, Ono would order pecan pie from the shop every day.
“At first, we thought, ‘She’s feeding that to guests who are stopping by,’” Rosso recalled. “Then we realized she was living on pecan pie.”
The idea for a cookbook came about as a lark one day when Rosso and Lukins were hosting a tasting of some of their products: Raspberry sauce, mustards and chutneys, which became the first food items sold at Saks Fifth Avenue.
An editor from Vogue was there and suggested that they compile their recipes into a cookbook.
With Lukins kicking her under the table, Rosso lied and told her that one was already in the works. The editor, it turned out, also worked part time at Workman Publishing -- so she began pestering them for an outline.
“We had no idea how to write a cookbook,” Rosso said. “We sat down with a bottle of scotch, drank the whole bottle (while working on it). That’s terribly unorthodox, but that’s how it came to be.”
The book, too, was a bit unorthodox, with an emphasis on vegetables, bold seasonings and entertaining. The pages were decorated with Lukins’ hand-drawn artwork because they couldn’t afford professional photography.
Their families, Rosso said, worried that giving away the recipes would mean the end of the business. Instead, the book gave the store credibility and propelled sales of their products nationwide.
Rosso said she began to appreciate the book’s impact only after an employee from Kansas City returned from a Mother’s Day trip home to report that everyone there was serving dinner from the book.
“We were very, very lucky,” Rosso said. “People were still discovering food in those days.”
Two more “Silver Palate” cookbooks followed before the pair sold the business in 1986. The shop closed several years later, but the sauces continue to be sold under a different owner.
Lukins went on to become food editor of Parade magazine for 30 years and penned several more cookbooks of her own. She died in 2009 of brain cancer at age 66.
For the past 26 years, Rosso has operated the Wickwood Inn in Saugatuck on Lake Michigan.
Two years before Lukins’ death, she and Rosso reunited to revise the original book for a 25th-anniversary edition.
Some considerable revisions were needed, Rosso noted, including a line that read: “There is no good bread in America.”
The country’s foodscape has changed considerably since 1982, with artisan bakers, cheesemakers and brewers in every state.
One dish that wasn’t touched was the iconic Chicken Marbella, a recipe for marinated chicken roasted with prunes, capers, olives and garlic, which the pair created together on a whim, while Lukins was preparing for a dinner party at Rosso’s boyfriend’s apartment.
“It was on the menu from the very first day,” Rosso said of the dish, which became the most famous.
With its party-size portioning, the Chicken Marbella is perfect for celebrating an important anniversary.
Recipe from The Silver Palate Cookbook (1982) by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins
Makes 16 pieces
4 chickens (2 1/2 pounds each), quartered
1 head of garlic, peeled and finely pureed
1/4 cup dried oregano
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup pitted prunes
1/2 cup pitted Spanish green olives
1/2 cup capers with a bit of juice
6 bay leaves
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley or fresh cilantro, finely chopped
In a large bowl, combine the chicken quarters, garlic, oregano, pepper and coarse salt, vinegar, olive oil, prunes, olives, capers and juice, bay leaves. Cover and let marinate, refrigerated, overnight.
Preheat the oven to 350.
Arrange the chicken in a single layer in one or two large, shallow baking pans and spoon the marinade over it evenly. Sprinkle the chicken pieces with brown sugar and pour white wine around them.
Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, basting frequently with the pan juices. Chicken is done when thigh pieces, pricked with a fork at their thickest, yield clear yellow (rather than pink) juice.
With a slotted spoon, transfer the chicken, prunes, olives, and capers to a serving platter. Moisten with a few spoonfuls of the pan juices and sprinkle generously with the parsley or cilantro. Pass the remaining pan juices in a sauceboat.
To serve Chicken Marbella cold, cool to room temperature in the cooking juices before transferring the pieces to a serving platter. If the chicken has been covered and refrigerated, reheat it in the juices, then allow it to come to room temperature before serving. Spoon some of the reserved juice over the chicken.
Editor’s note: Chicken Marbella is intended as a party dish and the recipe was presented in quantities to serve 10 or more. The recipe is easily divided in two. When dividing, however, use the same amount of vinegar and oil for the marinade.
PER SERVING: 744 calories, 51 g protein, 21 g carbohydrates, 1 g fiber, 16 g sugars, 49 g fat (4 saturated), 216 mg cholesterol, 467 mg sodium.
-- Lisa Abraham writes about food for The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch. Email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @DispatchKitchen.