Interview with Fanny Singer ––– author of Always Home.
1. Can you tell us about your new book, Always Home? How did it come to be, and what was your experience writing it?
In 2015 I collaborated with my mother (chef and activist, Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse) on a small cookbook called My Pantry. I had never ‘officially’ worked with my mother, but the experience of co-writing and illustrating the book was so fun and rewarding—even though I was living in England at the time and having to negotiate the time difference made both of us a bit crazy! The process—and the book tour that ensued—gave me occasion to reflect on the nature of our closeness. I knew that I wanted to write a book that dealt with the relationship uniquely from my perspective. And, in a way, I think I knew that a book about my mother and my childhood growing up in her unusual food world was a necessary first book: the book that I needed to write before I could move beyond it to other more autonomous subjects (I’m an art historian, after all, not a professional cook!)
2. You discuss how memoir doesn’t feel like “quite the right fit” as a descriptor. What books –– of any kind –– have influenced this one?
I love food writing that melds memory, sensory experience, and practical direction. I’m actually quite bad at following recipes properly—I always want stories more than quantities. It takes a bit of confidence in the kitchen, I suppose, to let your instincts and senses guide you, but the more you allow yourself to be intuitive the more I think you gain a true sense of your own likes and dislikes. Dishes become your own. Some of the writers whose culinary prose I feel is especially sensuous, generous, and elastic include David Tanis, Niloufer Ichaporia KIng, Tamar Adler, MFK Fisher, and Gay Bilson. I also thought a lot about Gerald Durrell’s hilarious, charming memoir My Family and Other Animals while I was writing.
3. Always Home has recipes intertwined with reflections on growing up, which food unlocks the most potent time travel –– and what is the memory? The “Proust’s Madeleine”.
When I sat down to write the stories and remembrances that became Always Home, it was rarely with a fully-formed narrative in mind—my memory doesn’t really work like that. Rather, I tried to summon the many smells and flavors that stood out to me from my childhood—the ones that shaped the way I think about food and flavor now (which are generally also tied to acts of generosity or conviviality). There’s no one ‘Proustian Madeleine,’ so to speak, but there are certain indelible flavors that feature in the book,: my French godmother, Martine’s fresh green coriander seed pasta gratin, for instance. Or the smell of summer stone fruit cooking on the stove; whenever it was starting to turn in the warm weather, my mom would cook it down to preserve it.
4. You’re now in Berkeley, CA. Can you tell us a bit about what Chez Panisse is up to, and are there other favorite restaurants or farms you would want people to know about and support during this time?
Early on, at the beginning of the pandemic, Chez Panisse was pretty much only selling vegetable boxes—we have one farmer, Bob Cannard, whose entire production comes to us, so my mom felt urgently that the restaurant needed to continue to support him (and our other local suppliers). Now we’re doing take-out meals and pizzas a couple times a week, but it’s been an extremely challenging transition—it’s an entirely different business model. I think the most important thing is to remember that small restaurants not only need our support so that they can still exist on the other side of this, but also because they in turn support their own networks of workers and farmers. Each restaurant is a small community, or ecosystem, and they desperately need our investment to stay afloat.
5. How has the pandemic affected your relationship to cooking at home? What have you been making lately?
I’ve been cooking constantly. I feel like I cook five times a day, it’s relentless! Our dishwasher I’m sure is on the brink of self-destruction—it’s getting a constant workout. I’ve been quarantining with my mother at my family home—I moved out of my San Francisco apartment to stay with her (she’s 76, so I was worried about her going out and buying food, etc.). Now it’s been close to seven months; I’ve never spent this much concentrated time as an adult living with her. It’s unprecedented territory. We’ve developed certain routines: a morning taco filled with whatever vegetable leftovers remain from the previous night’s dinner (a little succotash, say); a lunch of garden lettuces strewn with feta and herbs (my mother planted a robust victory garden in our front yard at the beginning of the pandemic); pesto pasta with Chez Panisse housemade rigatoni at least once a week.
6. What have you been working on outside of the kitchen? Are there any rituals you've had during this time?
At the beginning of the pandemic being in Berkeley as it transitioned into spring amounted to an almost ecstatic experience of nature. Berkeley is an incredibly green city—I always say that trees far outnumber people—and in March and April all the fruit trees were laden with blossoms; the air was saturated with birdsong and the thrum of pollinators. I kept my equilibrium by exploring the paths that thread the hills—paths I’d barely been aware of as a kid—meandering without any particular destination in mind, letting my mind decompress as I took in all the flowers and smelled the loamy aroma of the stands of urban Redwoods or Live Oaks. I’d also pick edible fruits: lemons or oranges for vinaigrettes or marmalade, plum blossoms to salt-pickle, green unripe plums to brine. I have a map now of all the sidewalk fruit trees in my neighborhood.
7. Can you tell us about your other project, Permanent Collection?
I started Permanent Collection—a line of objects, clothing, accessories, and publications—in 2016 with my friend Mariah Nielson. Mariah and I are both native Northern Californians, but we met in England in graduate school for art and design history. We struck up an unusual bond, I think largely because we both had pretty unusual—and unusually aesthetically-oriented—
8. Wine of the moment?
It’s not just nepotism, I swear, but I’ve really been loving my dad’s new ‘Field Study’ wine, a bright crisp Chardonnay he makes at his winery in Sonoma—nearly twenty years ago, my dad moved to Sebastopol to plant a biodynamic vineyard and olive orchard. It was always his fantasy to make wine and extra virgin olive oil, and I’m the lucky beneficiary of that dream!
See more of Fanny Singer here.
B&W photography by Brigitte Lacombe, see more of her work here.