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Cooking in quarantine: ‘Always Home’ author Fanny Singer retreats to Alice Waters’ kitchen

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Fanny Singer’s new memoir with recipes was conceived long ago, but the title strikes just the right note for this strange time of sheltering in place: “Always Home.”

Indeed, rather than hit the road on a planned two-country book tour, Singer finds herself back at her childhood home in Berkeley, where she is staying with her mother, trailblazing chef and food activist Alice Waters.

Waters, who wrote the book’s foreword, was always going to be a big part of the book’s promotion, but the new reality has necessitated a different kind of tour — one that will be done largely from the chef’s Berkeley home with its iconic kitchen hearth, itself a central character in the memoir.

That is where Singer and Waters will be on April 21, when they join the Los Angeles Times Book Club for a virtual meetup.

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Singer was disappointed when her traditional book tour was scrapped, as has happened to many other authors with spring releases. “But at the same there was a sense that this was absolutely the right thing to do,” she said. “And a whole different type of book tour has sprung up as a result, which in a way is truer to what the book was about.”

So Singer and Waters found themselves at home on publication day March 31, creating an Instagram video on how to make “coming home pasta,” the dish their family ate any time they would return from a long trip, foraging from whatever edibles were available in the fridge or pantry.

(L-R)- Fanny Singer relaxes with her mother, Alice Waters, the Berkeley chef, author and food activist.
(Brigitte Lacombe)

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Singer lived an unusual childhood, to say the least, surrounded by fine food, fine wine, and adults who loved plenty of both, as she recalls in “Always Home: A Daughter’s Recipes & Stories.” Her cradle was an oversized salad bowl in the kitchen of Chez Panisse, her mother’s landmark farm-to-table restaurant, and Singer herself found a measure of fame at an early age when she was featured as the central character in the children’s book “Fanny at Chez Panisse.”

There were summers in Provence, birthday parties in the Marin County enclave of Bolinas and cellar tastings with her oenophile father. No surprise that she developed a sophisticated palate and what she describes as olfactory superpowers.

Singer loved it all, and the book is a synesthetic stew of colors, tastes and aromas, peppered with five dozen recipes, small stories in themselves that spring from memories of the inspiring people and places that filled her early years. The book also features contemporary photos of Singer and Waters by noted portraitist Brigitte Lacombe.

"Always Home"
“Always Home” by Fanny Singer; foreword by Alice Waters
((L-R) Brigitte Lacombe; Knopf; Megan Alldis)

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Even now, with her world diminished to a small radius around the Berkeley home, Singer says she feels incredibly lucky about where she finds herself.

“We have this beautiful home and access to beautiful produce,” she said in a phone interview, referring to grocery boxes that Chez Panisse is selling to help its principal farm supplier. “I know I am in a position of tremendous privilege, and I am acutely aware of it at a moment like this, that we even have a garden that we can go into, that Berkeley is a place that you can still take a walk when you need some air.”

Still, there was a period of near-panic a few weeks ago when it was becoming clear that life was about to change radically. For Singer, the growing uncertainty meant it was time to buy lots of green vegetables, which she blanched and stacked in the freezer for the coming lockdown. “Because I can’t live without vegetables — it makes me crazy.” (Both Singer and Waters describe “salad” as their favorite food, by which they mean a particular kind of salad with perfectly fresh greens and preferably a homemade, garlicky vinaigrette.)

Since she and 40 million other Californians were ordered to stay at home in March, Singer has noticed two things about her own cooking habits. First, she and her mother bake more than usual, although by her account, neither of them is a particularly talented baker.

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But baking is its own kind of comfort, as Singer and millions of other stuck-at-home Americans are discovering. (Have you tried to find flour and sugar in your local supermarket lately?) “Maybe we all need the kind of pleasure you can get out of the things that are sweet and hearty,” Singer said.

Singer’s second big takeaway from the extended confinement is that she is careful not to waste any food. “I feel very conscious about using every little scrap of everything, using every little shred of anything,” she said. “It’s a more providential approach. I’m definitely thinking about how one thing can make many things.”

Recipe: Writer turns to Fanny Singer’s “Always Home” for comfort chicken during family’s Seder.

The book’s recipes include many examples of the providential approach to cooking, including easily modified recipes for comfort-food favorites such as her favorite roast chicken and her mother’s Garlicky Noodle Soup. And Singer says her book has a message even for readers who may be unlikely to try some of the more challenging recipes, such as rose hip jelly, coriander seed pasta, or leg of lamb roasted dangling by twine over an open fireplace.

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“It feels like a moment to redefine how we relate to the things that we consume,” Singer said. She referred to her mother’s habit of carefully observing the world around her on daily walks, gathering fragrant flowers and other aromatics and offering them to her daughter at the start of the day. “It’s kind of a friendly reminder to be aware of what you have access to, and to be a little more engaged in the aspect of what’s beyond the kitchen,” she said.

While Singer sees silver linings in her current stay-at-home lifestyle, she worries for the future of Chez Panisse, the 49-year-old institution where she learned so much about food from people she considers part of her extended family. For now, the restaurant is closed indefinitely except for the delivery of the farm boxes to any customers who have been able to snap them up before they sell out.

“The intention absolutely is to open the restaurant again,” Singer said. “But millions of restaurants will close forever — it seems a foregone conclusion. How do you get people back into a restaurant after a period like that, to sit side by side? It all feels very precarious right now.”

Martin Wolk has been a senior correspondent for Reuters and NBC News, among other publications.

Fanny Singer at a glance


Born: Berkeley, 1983. Age 36.

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Professional: Writer, art critic and cofounder of the design brand Permanent Collection. Her writing has appeared in Artforum, Frieze, WSJ Magazine, Apartamento, T Magazine and other publications.

Parents: Mother is Alice Waters, chef, food activist and owner of Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. Father is winemaker Stephen Singer.

Lives: In San Francisco, where she moved after living in England for about a decade.

Education: Bachelor’s degree from Yale University; PhD from the University of Cambridge on the subject of British pop artist Richard Hamilton.

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Books: “Always Home, A Daughter’s Recipes & Stories” (2020). With her mother, Alice Waters, she cowrote and illustrated “My Pantry: Homemade Ingredients That Make Simple Meals Your Own” (2015).

Instagram: instagram.com/fannysinger

Website: fannysinger.com

If You Go: Book Club

The Los Angeles Times Book Club welcomes author Fanny Singer and Alice Waters in conversation with Times deputy editor for arts and entertainment Laurie Ochoa.

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When: 7 p.m. April 21.

Where: Free virtual event will be livestreamed on the L.A. Times Facebook Page and on You Tube.

Info: latimes.com/bookclub


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