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by Mona Bavar
"It is around the table and in the preparation of food that we learn about ourselves and about the world."
~ Alice Waters
For author, Fanny Singer, home is not a place, it is a feeling. As the daughter of altruistic culinary deity, Alice Waters, Singer’s new memoir, Always Home: A Daughter’s Recipes & Stories, is a collection of vivid memories as well as palatable recipes. Among the many colorful stories, Singer recalls culinary travels through France, endless lobster salads, gelatos in Sicily and her mother’s graceful movements in front of an open flame.
The compendium of lush stories and remembrances pays homage to a life filled with beauty, adventure and taste as well as a mother who, regardless of location, creates a feeling of home.
Mona Bavar: What was the inspiration behind your memoir Always Home?
Fanny Singer: On some level I knew that if I was ever going to write a book, it was going to have to be this one, or at least something resembling this one: a close look at the most important relationship in my life, and also the one that has most governed the way I'm perceived by the outside world. As the daughter of the "Mother of the Farm-to-Table Movement," there were certain expectations about what my childhood was like, who my mom really is, and what I'm like. I felt I needed to use this book to, in a sense, set the record, but also to do it in my own voice, to both affirm and deny (where appropriate) any preconceived notions. It was also a way for me to "collaborate" with my mom without collaborating—in 2015 we published My Pantry which I co-wrote and illustrated. With this project, I could continue looking at what I see as both a familial and creative relationship, but do so from my perspective entirely.
MB: In Always Home you write that “beauty was the total fabric” of your existence. Can you tell us a little about what that means?
FS: What that means to me is that "beauty" was always a consideration in our household. My mom thinks about the relationship of all things to one another in the domestic environment, but also at her restaurant, and even when we traveled. She always eschewed plastics or other synthetic materials. She preferred old and worn (but beautifully made) objects to new things. Our beds were cloaked in heavy smooth linens she'd find at flea markets. There were always flowers in the house. A bowl of fruit on the kitchen table. She was rigorous, but unsentimental. Particular, but not tyrannical. I absorbed her aesthetic values osmotically. I didn't have to be told what was what, I could just feel and taste the difference.
MB: What is one of your most memorable stories from Always Home?
FS: I think one of the funniest—and therefore most memorable—has got to be the tale of my extreme carsickness, followed by my ordering a lobster salad at a fancy restaurant in France. I was nine and had no sense of how absurd a notion it was to follow an episode of gas station bathroom vomiting with a blithe order of something so rarefied and "gourmet" (not to mention rich) as lobster, but then again, my childhood was not exactly "normal" when it came to food.
MB: You and your mother have been doing some cooking on Instagram. How is cooking with Alice Waters?
FS: For comic effect, it's fun to play up our differences in either flavor or approach (I like more garlic and herbs and chili), but it's amazing to me that after all these years of being her daughter and cooking with her, I'm still learning valuable lessons and culinary wisdom from her all the time.
MB: How has it been self-isolating with your mom?
FS: It's a privilege to be able to say this, but it's been good. Staying in my one-bedroom flat in San Francisco wasn't tenable and I also wanted to be near my mom to help her and make sure that she didn't get sick or endanger herself in some way. But it's been more than 10 weeks now and I haven't felt a yearning to be elsewhere. I lived in England for 11 years, and during that time I really pushed my family to the periphery—I thought of them and spoke with them often, but I was working out my own path, my own life. Being not just back in California, but back in my childhood home, has reminded me of all the things about this place, and this woman, that I cherish. And it's tender and intimate too, to spend so much time with one person, have to negotiate space and time and appetites. Always appetites!
MB: How has it been promoting your book virtually?
FS: It's been very strange! I'm a very social person who loves to travel and meet new people! I certainly chose a prophetic title.... Still, I often feel like I'm screaming into the void—without bodies in seats, and hands to shake, the whole "virtual" process of bringing my work to the public has been pretty alienating. But it's been nice to hear how much people have been seeking solace in the book though. I'm glad it feels like a refuge in these strange times.
MB: What’s the recipe that makes you feel always home?
FS: DEFINITELY 'Coming Home Pasta', though given the frequency of its preparation in quarantine, we've renamed it 'Always Home Pasta'
MB: What do you think the impact of COVID-19 will be on the world and the food industry in particular?
FS: I think—and hope—that people will realize the value and resiliency in local and sustainable networks of food production and distribution and that this time will condition people to support the small people who are taking care of our land and cooking our meals on the other side of this pandemic. I know a lot of restaurants will close, but I know that many are also adapting to this period and proving themselves to be fleet-footed and creative. My mom and I are both really obsessed with drawing attention to the small, regenerative organic farms that need our support and patronage more than ever.
Click here to learn more about Fanny Singer and her work.