The subtitle of Fanny Singer’s Almost Home delineates the content—“A Daughter’s Recipes & Stories.” What begins as a paeon to Fanny Singer’s famous mother, Alice Waters, quickly segues into recipes and reminiscences that bring not only Alice Waters to life but also a host of delicious gastronomic influences. Alice Waters, for those of you unfamiliar with her name, is the restauranteur who established Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Influenced by French countryside cooking and known for its farm to market food sourcing, Chez Panisse has been a California culinary standout for nearly fifty years.
Almost Home remembers what it was like to grow up alongside Chez Panisse. Taken there when she was tiny, making friends with the chefs as she grew older, working there herself after she was fourteen, Fanny remembers anecdotes and interludes that characterize all the time she spent in the renowned restaurant that her mother developed into an international landmark. Picture Fanny swaddled in clean dishtowels and plopped in an empty salad bowl. Or a slightly older Fanny helping make wood-fired pizza. Or, imagine her dismay when, having no idea anchovies were a key ingredient of so many Chez Panisse favorites, she was put to work cleaning and deboning the wretched little fish. Imagine Fanny at home, too, where her mother fixed gourmet food daily and where Fanny’s love affair with fine food began as soon as she could taste.
Not all of Almost Home occurs in Berkeley, however. Some of the most winning chapters occur in France, where Fanny’s family often visited for languid lengths of time and where food was always central to whatever they experienced (and experimented). Throughout her book, Fanny introduces an array of chefs and food source entrepreneurs, but I thought her parents’ French connections were the most culinary fun. I particularly enjoyed Lulu and Lucian Peyraud who established Domaine Tempier, the winery that has produced the favored rose served at Chez Panisse for decades. The elderly couple were more like grandparents to Fanny, and she remembers their kitchen with fond recollections.
And that brings up another essential ingredient of Almost Home. Every memory, every place, and every person, reminds Fanny of something deliciously prepared. Each chapter (and there are thirty-two of them) includes at least one, if not more, recipe to be shared. Lulu’s fish soup, for example, and a rouille to accompany it. Rosehip jelly in the Pyrenees; lobster salad in Alsace. Salads, in fact, of every description everywhere. Francois’s fennel-infused olives. Martine’s green coriander seed pasta and buckwheat “tarte au citron” and, of course, her salad niçoise. I love to cook, but I must admit that all these recipes were daunting. So many fresh ingredients to unearth in dry desert Reno; so many hours to spend overseeing an array of kitchen complexities. I don’t think I’ll try any of Fanny’s suggestions, but I loved reading and relishing the meals she helped prepare.
From “Blue Egg with Soldiers” at the book’s beginning to the final recipe for “Coming Home Pasta,” Always Home is always a delight. It sends a consistent message, too, that food befits a place, delineates a personality, defines a home. It also conveys a daughter’s love for her mother, and a mother’s love for her daughter (and for good food). The reader watches Fanny’s palate mature, then enjoys Fanny’s own experiments with menu selection and food preparation. Growing up in the shadow of such a dominant gastronomic personality as Alice Waters may be, at times, incredibly intimidating. But Fanny Singer’s tender upbringing sounds absolutely delicious. – Ann Ronald
Addendum: I read Always Home long before anyone had heard of COVID-19 and saved my review until Fanny Singer’s memoir was available in bookstores. Now my review sounds hopelessly dated, ironic, and poignant, too. Rereading what I wrote, however, leads to happy memories of happier times. Dreams of a better future, too. – A.R.
Also available by Fanny Singer: My Pantry (Alice Waters with Fanny Singer).