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At Home with Alice Waters and Fanny Singer

By Anh-Minh Le

Like mother, like daughter: In her new cookbook-slash-memoir, Fanny Singer describes in charming detail what it was like growing up the only child of culinary trailblazer and activist Alice Waters. (Cody Pickens)

Fanny Singer talks her new memoir, shares her must-have kitchen tools, and makes one of her mom’s signature dishes

It’s my first time visiting the Berkeley home of Alice Waters — the pioneering chef and food activist — yet as soon as I set foot in her kitchen, there’s an instant familiarity. The floor-to-ceiling brick hearth, outfitted with a pizza and bread oven along with a waist-high open fireplace for cooking, is pretty much as I had pictured it. Nearby, on a slate-topped dining table, sit a ceramic bowl brimming with citrus and a redwood bowl waiting to be piled with chicories. Stacked in the dark-olive cabinets are more colorful, patterned ceramic bowls, along with jars holding various dried and preserved provisions.

So vivid are the descriptions in the just-released Always Home: A Daughter’s Recipes & Stories, I sensed that I already knew this kitchen. Written by Fanny Singer, Waters’ only child, who was raised in this 1908 Craftsman bungalow, the cookbook-memoir begins by detailing what makes a place home — for instance, her mother’s high regard for aesthetics and proclivity for keeping Ziplocs full of chicken stock in the freezer. Gourmands will especially appreciate the behind-the-scenes glimpses of Chez Panisse, Waters’ farm-to-table Berkeley restaurant that opened in 1971, 12 years before Singer was born (when Waters arrived to work with baby in tow, dish towel-lined salad bowls served as “kitchen cribs”); not to mention cameos by culinary luminaries in her orbit, such as Lulu Peyraud, the102-year-old winemaker and cook whose family runs Domaine Tempier.

Always Home had been germinating since Singer and Waters co-authored the cookbook My Pantry in 2015. “We had such a wonderful time on book tour together,” recalls Singer, who illustrated the joint effort as well. “We were together every day, and I was thinking a lot about the relationship. That was really the seed of inspiration — being immersed in the relationship in a way that I hadn’t been since I was a kid.

Sixty narrative-style recipes punctuate her latest literary achievement. “The recipes feel like a natural continuation of the stories that they’re tethered to,” says Singer. “I don’t really cook from recipes and love when people just tell you how they make something.” Waters hopes readers will be inspired to cook: “Buy your food from the people who are taking care of the land. Buy it from the farmers’ market,” she suggests. “Gather with your friends, cook together and sit at the table.” Singer adds that “it’s so important to gather people and connect.”

And, yes, in Always Home, Singer includes the recipe for an egg fried in a spoon in the fireplace — a preparation made famous in a 2009 60 Minutes segment that showed Waters cooking for journalist Lesley Stahl. Nine years later, Permanent Collection, a design company launched by Singer and Mariah Nielson, began purveying a version of the spoon. Five percent of every purchase of Alice’s Egg Spoon, hand-forged by Alameda blacksmith Shawn Lovell, is donated to The Edible Schoolyard Project, which Waters founded in 1995.

Alice Waters and Fanny Singer pose in Waters’ Berkeley home. In 2015, the mother-daughter duo co-authored the cookbook ‘My Pantry.’ Of Singer’s memoir, Waters says, “Fanny’s language is so special.” (Cody Pickens)

The spoon performs well with a gas stove, too, which is how Singer uses it in the San Francisco apartment she shares with photographer boyfriend Andrew Owen. (Keep the spoon centered on the burner, she advises.) Upon moving in, she remediated the kitchen’s linoleum countertop, sheathing it in a butcher block commissioned from a woodworker on Etsy. According to Singer, a butcher-block surface, or at least a good wooden cutting board, is a must-have. As is a mortar and pestle; hers is employed daily to whip up salad dressing and grind spices. Both Singer and Waters prize a sharp knife with a squared-off edge that doubles as a spatula of sorts, picking up whatever was just chopped.“A cast-iron pan is essential,” Waters further chimes in. “And maybe tongs.  And a Chinese trainer — a spider — to take out pasta or vegetables.” For Waters — who is currently working on a pair of tomes herself, a school-lunch cookbook and a “manifesto” exploring the links between food, agriculture and climate — Always Home was transportive. “It’s so interesting because there are stories that I’ve heard over and over again, there are recipes that I know, there are friends … but it’s like somebody else was in the room and talking about it from a different point of view,” she says. “And Fanny’s language is so special.”

Among the heartfelt and hilarious accounts are a 9-year-old Singer dining at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in France with her parents (her father, artist and winemaker Stephen Singer, and her mother divorced when Fanny was 13); Waters’ campaign to bring fresh, seasonal fare to Yale, initiated during Singer’s freshman orientation and leading to the creation of the university’s garden and sustainable food program; and a mother-daughter road trip from Telluride to Berkeley, taken shortly before Singer decamped to London for a dozen years (she earned her Ph.D in art history from the University of Cambridge).

In her book and in conversation, Singer’s love of food and cooking is evident. So has she ever considered following in her mother’s footsteps? The question elicits a drawn-out laugh from Waters. “Never seriously,” says Singer. “Just the remotest little fantasy. It’s the curse of growing up in a restaurant. You see intimately what it takes to do it right. And then you’re like, Never could I do that, unless it was my singular passion.”

Singer, who has written for publications such as WSJ. Magazine, Vogue and Artforum, was initially approached to pen a memoir when she was 18 years old, but the timing was off. “I was too close still and too undifferentiated and also way, way too immature to write something good,” she explains. In the preface of Always Home, she notes that the protagonist is her mother and the book a paean to Waters. Singer tells me: “This felt like the first moment to really look at this subject, and really this felt like the only subject for me.” Reflecting on the process of gathering vignettes for the volume, she likens it to “steeping myself in a warm, pleasant bath of memory. Of course, since I wrote it, there were hundreds of other things that came to mind. Maybe there’s a sequel in there sometime, but not anytime soon.”

Fried Egg in the Fireplace

There’s an entire chapter of Always Home devoted to this dish; it’s even the subject of one of Waters’ Masterclass lessons. During the Gazette’s morning visit to chez Waters, Singer brews a pot of green tea and lights a fire in the kitchen.

Once the coals are hot, she arranges them in an “oven shape”: “Coals on the bottom,” she explains, “smoldering logs on both sides, and balanced across overtop.” This allows the heat to surround the egg during cooking.

She cracks an egg in a bowl and then seasons it with salt, a little Marash/Aleppo pepper and a grind of black pepper. Next, Singer pours a touch of olive oil into her mother’s iron egg spoon— which was crafted by Shawn Lovell for Permanent Collection and inspired by an original piece made in the 1990s by Angelo Garro, the master blacksmith who started the seasoning and condiment enterprise Omnivore. (Garro’s spoon is modeled after an illustration of a 17th-century design depicted in William Rubel’s The Magic of Fire: Hearth Cooking.)

Singer makes sure the olive oil coats all sides of the spoon’s cup and proceeds to briefly heat it in the fire. Upon taking it out, she quickly drops the egg into the spoon before returning it to the fireplace. After a couple of minutes, the white puffs up and bubbles over the yolk. As the yolk begins to set, she plates the egg for photographer Cody Pickens. “Charred and crispy on the underside, perfectly soft and oozy on the top side,” he effuses. (Singer usually serves the egg on a slice of garlic toast; the recipe is included in her book.)

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