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Sheila Lukins, We’ll Miss You

August 31, 2009

Last night the wonderful Sheila Lukins died from brain cancer.  Sheila wrote many best-selling cookbooks, won tons of awards, and become the long-time food editor for Parade…but all in all what made Sheila so extraordinary was that she knew what we wanted to cook and eat, and she knew it just before we realized it.
Sheila LukinsSheila burst onto the cookbook scene in 1979 with The Silver Palate, which she co-authored with Julee Rosso.  Then followed Silver Palate: Good Times, then the New Basics, and then Sheila’s solo cookbooks, including other wonderful best-sellers like U.S.A Cookbook, Celebrate!, and Ten.

But back to 1979 and the years that followed.  Like many other people, I essentially taught myself how to cook by pouring over The Silver Palate, and the books that followed.  Page by page, enjoying the reading as much as the cooking, I was 11 when it was published, and that was the book that flicked on the light switch in my head.  Phyllo triangles!  Cheese Straws!  Shrimp and Grape Salad with Dill!  Decadent Chocolate Cake! Carrot and Orange Soup!  Chevre!  Raspberry vinegar?  Oh my God, had we all been living under a rock?

In fairness, my mother was no slouch when it came to food and cooking.  And in full disclosure, my father’s company is Sheila’s publisher, from The Silver Palate through today.  But it wasn’t for any of these reasons that I fell in love with The Silver Palate and Sheila.  It was because she had the ability to engage a reader, even a budding cook, with the promise of what you could make in your very own kitchen.  With just some whimsical line drawings of chanterelles, and strawberry shortcakes, and handfuls of sidebars, menus and wonderful quotes flung all around the pages with reckless abandon, she made us want to Get. Into. The. Kitchen. Now.

Sheila Lukins Chicken Marbella

Photo credit: Patrick Tregenza

My copy of the Silver Palate, as tattered as torn as many of yours, has 27 yellow post-its stuck to the pages.  And one pink one, on Chicken Marbella, the most popular, most recognizable most perfect dinner party dish ever invented.  On paper it looks…”huh?”  Capers, prunes, olives, garlic, brown sugar, oregano and white wine?  But then, the skies part and you have the best chicken dish in the world.There are only a very few people who have whacked us in the back of a head with a spoon like Sheila did, and made us so much the better for it.  I am grateful for her books, her friendship, her talent.  Sheila was smart, stubborn, independent, loyal, and a fighter.  She never wanted to stop doing what she was doing, when you mix culinary talent like Sheila’s with fortitude like Sheila’s you get…Sheila Lukins.

Sheila, we will miss you greatly.  I’m marinating the chicken as we speak.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. Sharon permalink
    August 31, 2009 5:58 pm

    Me, too – my copy of The Silver Palate Cookbook, that is, tattered and stained. I do the breads a lot and ALWAYS look there first when I want some “to go” food. Her lemon chicken has always been a big hit with my friends here in Germany. Sorry to say I have never tried Chicken Marbella, but it is on the list for tomorrow, in Sheila’s honor.

  2. August 31, 2009 7:06 pm

    Katie,

    I remember my mom pouring over this book when I was a kid. She was a gourmet take out prep cook by day, meat & potatoes Midwestern housewife by night. I didn’t grow up with Sliver Palate dishes gracing our dinner table, but when I moved out of the house, mom gave me a handwritten copy of the family recipes…and her copy of Silver Palate. They’re two of the most treasured cookbooks in my collection….When I’ve blown my $$$ on art & fine dining, I stretch the budget with a lemony pot of Avgolemono.

    ~T

  3. August 31, 2009 7:35 pm

    Many a new-ish cook delved into Silver Palate and became fancy pants cooks. Potlucks in law school became classier events because of it, too. My own tattered New Basics was originally gifted to me by a study group friend as a gentle suggestion to branch out from the stuffed mushrooms…which I did. (Hey – they were good, easy, cheap. Did I mention we were in law school…?)

    Years later, my husband saw that I still used the book with the binding broken and pages falling out. He surprised me and replaced it and we’re well into tattering and splattering that one, too.

    So she wanted me to use every bowl in the kitchen. She gave me confidence from reliable recipes. Now I know how to make them with fewer bowls.

  4. August 31, 2009 7:43 pm

    I too have a beat up copy of The Silver Palate cookbook, and have loved it well. Seven years ago I lost my youngest brother to brain cancer when he was just 34. My thoughts are with Sheila’s family and friends, and many fans.
    I love her sweet and savory recipe for Chicken Marbella, but I haven’t made it in a very long time. I am going to invite friends over this weekend and prepare it for them, and we will make a toast to Sheila.

  5. August 31, 2009 8:01 pm

    These are such lovely comments, thank you so much for chiming in. She was one of those rare people, and left quite the hefty legacy. I really did make Chicken Marbella for lunch today, and we all ate it with with pleasure.

  6. August 31, 2009 8:41 pm

    Wonderful salute Katie—I was lucky enough to live almost around the corner from the Silver Palate in the early 1980s when my mom remarried and moved to the UWS. I remember thinking: prunes and chicken? Hmmm.
    Sheila was a gem.

  7. sara826 permalink
    August 31, 2009 9:11 pm

    I got a copy of her USA cookbook when I was 17 and I read it cover to cover. It really started my collection of cookbooks and I have used it so many times that it is falling apart at the seems. She will be missed.

  8. duncan heath permalink
    August 31, 2009 10:40 pm

    Goodness! Everyone I know had her books, and learned so much from her… home cooks and professionals alike. The 80s could not have been the same without her contribution to American cooking. So sorry to learn of her passing. She’s iconic – and a major influence in so many of our lives.

  9. September 1, 2009 5:05 am

    I am so sorry to hear of her passing. I have cooked from her books for years. She was awesome! Her Chicken Coq Au Vin is wonderful!

  10. Brenda permalink
    September 1, 2009 7:48 pm

    Thank you for such a touching and heartwarming story. I want to also thank you for the encouragement. I am an avid collector of cookbook and Sheila’s cookbook is one that I have had for what seems like forever. I am very encouraged by your comments regarding what you have learned from reading her cookbook. I am going to write a cookbook and after reading your blog about the impact that she had on you I am going home to read her cookbook and I hope to get some insight from it as I continue to develop my ideas. It is wonderful thing to curl up with a cookbook and read it as if it’s a romance novel. But I guess it is to us as we have a special bond with learning about food.

    Thank you and have GREAT day!

  11. Surella Baer permalink
    September 3, 2009 6:25 pm

    The Silver Palate cookbook was one of my first-I made the Lemon Chicken and it was a revelation: lemon, a fruit, with chicken? It was so ahead of its time when I wanted to make the Tarragon Chicken Salad I don’t think I ever found tarragon.
    I just bought Sheila’s Ten-she still has the best brownie recipe and I think there’s a Mac and Cheese recipe in there that is beyond superb.
    No one compared to her (ok maybe Martha was a close competitor but that’s pretty good company!).
    RIP

  12. Eve Lynch permalink
    September 3, 2009 7:57 pm

    The Silver Palate Cookbook was my first “grown-up” cookbook and flipping through it still gives me the promise of obtaining a certain New York chic, way out here in California. The pesto recipe is still my standard, by which every other pesto is to be judged, described in the book as “more Mastroianni than DeNiro: suave, mellow, even elegant.”

    The book has survived many cookbook-shelf purges because it makes me feel, even decades later, that selecting the right menu is at the heart of great entertaining. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to invite friends over, cook some Silver Palate food, and start celebrating something. Thanks for highlighting Sheila and shifting my focus back onto that great book. There is still a lot to be mined from her drawings, quotations, and informative sidebar comments.

  13. September 3, 2009 9:22 pm

    How lovely that you have honored Sheila Lukins with an entire Newsletter. My copy of “New Basics” has been rebound twice and is still in pieces!! Two of my favorite recipes from “New Basics” are Pasta Sauce Raphael to which I always added sun-dried tomatoes, and The Tarte Nicoise. A million thanks for featuring an author
    ‘I grew up on”!!

  14. Cher permalink
    September 4, 2009 4:02 am

    I learned of Sheila’s crossing over from this blog post when I was Googling her name for some of her recipes. What a shock: I didn’t even know she was ill.

    Sheila and Julee and The Silver Palate remind me of some of my happiest times. In the 80s I had a girlfriend named Myra who lived in the neighborhood of The Silver Palate. Almost every weekend the two of us would get together and a special highlight of those times was when we would go down the block and cross the street to pick up lunch or dinner from their store. It was always such fun to peruse the new offerings in jars and choose from all the wonderful things they’d dreamed up and put on display.

    As far as the cookbooks go, they are my favorites, right up there with Mollie Katzen. I love The Silver Palate cookbook illustrations, just as I love the quirky little drawings by Mollie.

    I hope Sheila was welcomed by Julia Child and James Beard. I will imagine that, anyway, to make myself feel better.

    Cher in NJ

  15. Karen permalink
    September 8, 2009 3:33 pm

    I had a catering business for 14 years and I used Sheila’s recipes all the time, Salmon Mousse, Spanakopita, pecan bars, hummus, and many more. My two sons who are chefs also own all her books. We will miss her deeply.

  16. Leigh Brown permalink
    September 19, 2009 5:56 pm

    I am so sad to hear about Sheila’s passing. Her books are my favorites. They were my favorite beach read. I love the Linguine with tomatoes and basil and six onion soup. I loved how informative Silver Palate was and always wished I could visit their store. I enjoyed her recipes in the Parade on Sunday Mornings. May she Rest In Peace. Thank you for this story.

  17. September 21, 2009 10:47 am

    our dearest soul-mate friend died in march of brain cancer….
    about the same age.
    i moved with this book from california to france (married and
    lived in s of france….) and have it in the pantry today in
    melbourne australia…and it’l return HOME with us to L.A.
    in the near future.
    it’s a treasure…as is SHE !!!!! funny, the chicken marbella
    was DEFINATELY a favorite of ours…and friends in n. california
    too…..everybody in france thought it was “unusual” and
    un tres bonne recette aussi. and the coffee cake, my french
    husband’s favorite……
    i’m sad to read of her passing….heaven has some new delectable
    creations…….surely there is veuve clicquot too !!!!!
    XXOO

  18. Elizabeth permalink
    September 25, 2009 12:52 pm

    I made Sheila Lukins’ Chicken Marbella soon after she died, in her honor. Of course it was lip-smacking, garlicky and olive-y delicious. I’m now inspired to go back to her cookbooks on my shelf and look up some of her more famous recipes (thank you, Cookstr, for having that weekly email with ten of her top recipes). Actually, I think I’ll just go to the Cookstr website and look up her recipes by searching under Sheila Lukins…so much faster!

    Has anyone adapted the Chicken Marbella recipe for boneless, skinless chicken breasts?

  19. March 18, 2010 9:32 pm

    She made a difference in my kitchen — one of the books by cooks who got me started and guided me through cooking for a crowd, playing with ingredients, trying my hand at catering (short but useful phase along my way.) A toast to her!

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  21. December 1, 2010 12:12 pm

    find dining might be expensive but the menu and service is always the best ‘*,

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