Alice Waters, that larger-than-life figure often credited with pioneering farm-to-table cooking, has now reached an esteemed 76 years of age. Chez Panisse, the groundbreaking restaurant which she founded in Berkeley during the ‘70s when she was in her late twenties, is nearing its own 50 year anniversary. Despite some recent criticism, it’s hard to overstate the stature of this restaurant and personality in the canon of Californian cuisine. Waters herself has written numerous books and has been written about countless times.
And yet, someone’s got a hot take — her daughter. Fanny Singer, Waters’ only child, just released a memoir titled Always Home: A Daughter’s Recipes and Stories. It’s a wildly indulgent account from an adoring daughter, and yet, longtime fans of the restaurant may find a fresh and fascinating look at Waters as a Berkeley earth mother.
Singer is a singular narrator. Now in her thirties, she has a graduate degree in pop art and is the co-founder of a lifestyle brand selling clothing and accessories. She worked a few summers at the restaurant and clearly is a voracious eater and home cook, but of course, her major qualification to write the book is her famous mother. Anyone meeting Singer at a cocktail party would pepper her with questions. What was it like growing up with Waters? Were you allowed to eat sugar? Did you own a microwave? What did she pack you for lunch? In the book, Singer sates all of these curiosities. There are heady sensory descriptions, which are precisely and artfully worded: “This smell, of fruit cooking down quickly, entering a different state, is an amber-colored smell — a smell not of freshness but of warmth and concentration, of sugars beginning to caramelize.”
The book unfolds as a series of impressions. It’s rapturous at times: She describes her mother’s favorite color (maroon), her hands (covered in rings, reeking of anchovies), and in great detail, her routine for taking a bath. Apparently, when Singer was little, mother, father, and daughter would all three share an oversized antique tub. Vignettes veer from thoughts on simple green salads and perfectly ripe fruit to summers in the south of France. There is only one chapter set at Chez Panisse, where apparently, a young Singer was swaddled in tea towels and propped up in a salad bowl, and later liked to steal pinches of galette. There are several winding episodes dedicated to family vacations and open-hearth cooking across Europe, and enjoying lobster as a nine-year-old in a three-star restaurant. It’s a marvelous cast of characters, with cameos from various famous chefs.
The recipes are thought-provoking, not formatted traditionally whatsoever, but unfolding like prose. Alice Waters has already published many cookbooks and recipes, but these supporting accounts chat through her quirks, explaining how and why the legend likes to make everyday stock, roast a chicken, or whisk a vinaigrette just so. On the more aspirational end, Singer delves into the magic of hearth cooking. One example is Waters’ famous egg in the spoon, which is a single farmhouse egg, never refrigerated, cracked into a custom-blacksmithed spoon, and souffléd over an open fire. It’s a flirtatious trick that Waters only does for her daughter’s boyfriends that she really likes. Still, the garlic-rubbed sourdough, the smoke-tinged egg, and the tangle of perfect greens do sound enchanting.
This book might satisfy longtime fans who are looking for fresh tidbits on Waters. (Did you know she once ate a McDonald’s in the 90s? Can you imagine her hauling a mini fridge into a Yale dorm room?) And it might appeal to a younger generation of aesthetes who, like Singer, are into “beauty and purity and taste,” and also good breakfasts and dinner parties. It’s hard to imagine going on book tour with your mother or even wearing matching Breton striped tees, not on accident, while sunbathing side by side on the lawn. Well, okay. Maybe if your mother is Alice Waters.