A Conversation With Fanny Singer About Her Mother-Daughter Memoir, Always Home

Fanny Singer is an author, creative, entrepreneur, chef, and, yes, Alice Waters's daughter. Always Home is an intimate portrait about the wondrous relationship Singer has with her food icon and activist mother, the lessons she's learned along the way and, ultimately, how she defines herself.
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Fanny Singer and Alice Waters by Brigitte Lacombe

Singer and Waters soaking up the California sun.

So it turns out to be a most apt title of a newly released book for our shelter-in-place lives: Almost Home. And yes, right now author Fanny Singer shared with me, she is always home right now with her mother, the legendary restauranteur and food-to-table pioneer, Alice Waters. 

Singer's book is a part memoir, part recipe-driven ode to who she is and how she came to be. Which, as her mother describes Singer in the Foreword, is "a keen and compassionate observer of human nature." Always Home: A Daughter's Recipes & Stories is just that: an intimate, honest, beautiful anthem to daughterhood brimming with lush memories and recipes. Singer's rhythmic voice will leave you wanting to embrace intentional, Provençal, olfactory cooking while simultaneously calling your mother.  

"This book was inadvertently a sort-of manual for how to live in beauty, to feel and change the rhythm and atmosphere of your day, which has such a profound effect on our psyches and emotional well-being," Singer told managing editor Brooke Klauer. Read on for more from this lovely creative on life, love and, of course, cooking. 

You are quite the creative, and have a varied career background. Will you sum up your creative career thus far? 

Well I'm 36 and I've not yet nailed the elevator pitch! But I come from a background in Art History (I have a Ph.D.), but rather than go into academia I came out of that mainly wanting to write about art. Permanent Collection is a design brand that I run with Mariah Nielson, a design historian, and it was a way of taking some of our learnings into an entrepreneurial enterprise. That’s one strand, but the other strand of my career feels really related to writing about art, thinking about art, writing about culture and also, food! I used to think about my interests, or myself, as sort of bifurcated, and actually I just feel now like they are all part of the same—this one academic and history side, and this relationship with my mom and food—but now I know they are all part of the same textile.

Even when I’m writing about food, it’s not necessarily a lexicon that we are familiar with in food writing, it’s more how I think about aesthetics generally. I talk about food in a way that is really specific and feels really lush. So really, I’m a curator-cum-entrepreneur-cum-writer-cum-cook, and recently turned television cook personality which is another unexpected pivot! I’m a multi-hyphenate, for sure.

Your childhood was quite unique, driven in-part by your mother’s craft. Why were you compelled to share the story of how you grew up as Alice Waters’s daughter now?

I don’t know how many writers have this really specific idea, but for me it was more the powers of suggestion and circumstance. I had come off writing the book My Pantry with my mom—and I loved working on that as a collaboration, and the conversations we had—so I was thinking a lot about that relationship when I was asked by my now agent: “If you wanted to write a book, now would be a good time.”  

So I won’t say there weren’t external forces suggesting gently that I might consider it, and it wasn’t that I woke up one morning and thought this is the book I needed to write, but then it was the only book I could write. I very quickly understood there was no way for me—as Alice Waters’s daughter—to exist in the public eye without acknowledging and writing that. Rather than feel encumbered by it, how can I talk about all the wonders of this relationship? I didn’t feel confined by it, but it also felt like a necessary way for me to pass through a certain curiosity. And now the next thing doesn't need to be tethered to that relationship.

Did you always envision it as more narrative-driven than chock full of recipes (as in, a full-fledged cookbook)?

I am absolutely a writer before I am a cook. I am not a professional cook—and I say that emphatically—but my friends do love my cooking! But I always knew it would be writing and it would involve food with recipes, because what I did want to do was speak to the foundation of how I think about food and atmosphere and aesthetics—so I found a very lovely home at Knopf and with my editor. It’s an authentic reflection of who I am, it’s a multi-hyphenate book! It’s also a book of beautiful photographs, working with Brigitte Lacombe was an absolute gift. 

Tell me more about the recipes in Always Home, and why you chose them.

The recipes are mostly based in childhood, informed by the things that were constant growing up. Simple, simple things—fruit compote, garlic bread at every meal—things we made that were an education for my palate. But that said, these are not purely nostalgic recipes, I still cook them, and rely heavily on them (the way I roast chicken, or sweet potatoes with lime and cilantro). All of the recipes are tethered to stories that tend to be historical in nature, so there’s a continuity between recipe and story—the indelible flavors that, fortunately, I am able to recreate. 

Fanny Singer by Brigitte Lacombe

Singer ever at work in front of the stove.

What is your food philosophy?

You know, I’m very unfussy; I don’t like to course things out; I really love cooking for friends, there’s always reliably large platters of things; I love salads and herbs, so there’s always a massive green salad. I came up eating my mom’s food, of course, and also at Chez Panisse a lot, so even though it was inspired by French cooking, it’s very clean with no tricks and frills, it’s very ingredient driven. So growing up on a very clean set of flavors, I like to cook in that way, very healthy—olive oil is my king! My palette leans very much toward the herbaceous, citrusy end of the spectrum so the foods that I like to make really express that (even with meat, I’ll serve it with a tangy salsa verde). 

There is a chapter in Always Home devoted to “Beauty as a Language of Care”. I think that’s such a beautiful sentiment and philosophy. Can you elaborate upon that for our readers?

I use that in the context of the chapter that speaks to my mother’s way to organize space; everything from coming into a room and lighting a branch of rosemary to scent it a certain way; or changing light bulbs; or dimming lights; or starting a fire; or even moving furniture if she’s feeling more energetic (and displaced!).

My mom has this project called The Edible Schoolyard, which is really where I think she’s evolved this—it’s a phrase she says. In the chapter I talk about how I think as a society we have more-or-less discounted beauty; we don’t think of it as essential, it’s not part of a system that’s efficient, it’s superficial and cosmetic. And I’m talking about actual environmental richness. It’s this idea, stemming from a Montessori pedagogy my mother studied as a teacher before opening the restaurant, that environments need to be stimulating, to be carefully and beautifully assembled so we can work well or learn well and led healthy, balanced lives. 

I think this idea is something we can convey—in the smallest ways—in our homes, whether it’s to our partners or our children. My mom has been making these small bouquets and leaving them by my computer whenever she goes out for a walk, and it’s this really uncontrived way to say I’m thinking of you. It’s its own message of love that is completely outside of language. 

Care and beauty become interchangeable, and gives beauty back the fullness of its meaning—that it does mean care. People always ask me how we have such an amazing relationship, and it’s because she was constantly telling me that she loved me in a myriad of ways. And I think probably the most essential thing to know as a kid is just unconditional love.

Fanny Singer and Alice Waters by Brigitte Lacombe

Waters and Singer at Chez Panisse.

How are you staying busy creatively?

I’m still running Permanent Collection and trying to figure out how to make a small business work at this time, and I’m doing quite a few things for this virtual book tour (making videos, which has been really fun to do with my mom!). But I am actually finding it to be really hard, it’s not very easy to write, and I do think it’s important to be transparent on how hard it is for creative people to be creative in this time.

What advice would you give about how to support small women-led businesses right now?

As an author, and for all people releasing their books, it’s more important now more than ever to buy their books and find ways to support independent bookstores. I have an audiobook too—and the recipes themselves are written out narratively in Always Home, so it’s not the strangest book to listen too!

It’s hard to know how to support smaller businesses because I would be the first to recognize that what Permanent Collection offers is really beautiful things, but we also know that we are not essential items. But that said, I think one thing that a friend pointed out—and what we’ve been discussing generally—is that this is a time to imagine the type of world that exists in the future. What kinds of businesses do you want to still exist? And support those types of businesses that nurture the values you believe in.

So even though Permanent Collection is not the things you may need every day, I do think that what we are making supports a system of values and ethics, and engages these types of producers, too. It’s about the people we work with, ceramicists, woodcarvers, blacksmiths. Shop where your values lie, trying to support the people you want to see come out of this on the other side.

What would you say to someone who might have been adverse to cooking, or say, not comfortable in the kitchen, and has been thrown into the chef role during quarantine?

I would say it starts with an attitude shift, so rather than going into the kitchen and saying I have to cook, and it’s drudgery and a chore, look at it as a break from your day; it’s deciding to take that as an opportunity to change the rhythm of what you are doing and have a moment ritualize a different set of behaviors. It’s a gift to be able to not sit at your computer continuously, to engage in a set of activities that use a different part of your brain—think of it as a refresh!

But also, it’s the simplest things, my mom is a famous chef and we’re still making the same things we always have. We made "coming home pasta" last night, the simplest recipe in the book, besides garlic toast, and sometimes it’s the very basic things that mean the most.

It’s nailing the very basic things with the right condiments—that is to say enough garlic, good olive oil, and salt—it tastes delicious! You don’t need to do culinary gymnastics to pull it off well. I’m a big proponent of making the things that are comforting right now—cookies or chicken soup! It’s a time to indulge in what feels nostalgic and comforting—starting there from a place of food is a good thing. Be easy!

Speaking of easy and nostalgic, what is your comfort food?

A huge bowl of green salad, really! But my mom always makes this really garlicky chicken soup, so just knowing you have a chicken stock at the ready is comforting to me. We’ve been cooking in a really providential way—it keeps your brain engaged in the calculus of it, how can I make this into more meals than one? And it also changes the taste of things—because, I mean, the monotony is real!

I’ve been gathering every single scrap of edible vegetables—onion skins, garlic skins, the ends of scallions, parsley stalks, carrot peels—and I just keep it in a freezer bag that I’ve been making into a vegetable stock once a week, using for a risotto or a soup. Or in the mornings I’ll heat a little cup of it with some grated ginger as a tonic. There’s so much nutrition and nourishment in what we usually discard, or compost in my house!

What are you most proud of as you release this book?

I think what I feel proud of is that it’s actually resonating with people right now. I think because the type of celebrity I was nurtured by or had proximity to was one that was really premised on, more than anything, my mom’s altruism and her desire to affect people’s lives in a positive way. So I’ve been unable to imagine wanting any kind of celebrity premised on anything other than that, I only want to have a positive impact. If I’m going to invest time in something it’s going to be meeting people where they are and resonating. Getting that kind of feedback has been unexpectedly profound, especially in this moment, has meant so much to me and has made me very proud, and glad!

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