Sheila Lukins: Cookery writer who with her partner Julee Rosso changed the palates of middle-class America

Sheila Lukins was the author, with Julee Rosso, of the phenomenally successful "Silver Palate" series of cookery books, selling in all more than 5.5m copies.

The pair also ran the Silver Palate food shop on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where they introduced Americans to the bold, strong flavours of the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. When Julia Child retired as food editor and columnist for Parade – a Sunday supplement enclosed with 400 American newspapers with a readership of 83m – Lukins succeeded her, and continued in the role for 32 years.

Lukins and Rosso contributed a good deal to the food revolution that has so changed American middle-class eating habits. With their best-selling books they influenced the trend that began in the late 1970s for educated women (and later, men as well) to treat cooking as a hobby. And their shop caught the moment when there emerged a large number of working women who relished good food but did not have the time to produce it themselves.

Sheila Gail Block was born in Philadelphia in 1942, and spent her childhood in Connecticut. She went to art school and graduated from New York University in 1970 with an honours degree in Art Education. She married Richard Lukins, a security-systems expert, and they moved to London, where she worked in graphic design and attended the Cordon Bleu school of cookery. She then pursued her culinary education in France, gaining experience with Michelin-starred chefs in Bordeaux.

The family, now with two little girls, returned to New York in 1977. In an interview with Laura Lehrman, Lukins recalled: "My career in food started when I was married and had young children at home, but I wanted to be working. I entertained all the time and cooked every night. A bachelor who lived in my building was in a desperate situation. He was going to be having six people for dinner and asked for my help in preparing the meal. I cooked the meal for him and delivered it with my dishes. My neighbor's dinner was a tremendous success and he returned my dishes all clean and paid me in cash."

Having discovered that she could make money doing what she liked best, she started The Other Woman Catering Company. She specialised in dishes with strong flavours and sophisticated pedigrees, such as Greek mezes, Moroccan b'stilla (a pigeon pie that she made with chicken, but retaining the slightly sweetened pastry), and Spanish gazpacho, eschewing the French dishes, coq au vin or duck à l'orange, that New York dinner guests tended to expect. "One of my clients was living with my soon-to-be-partner, Julee Rosso. Julee had had my food many times and loved it," said Lukins, and she suggested they jointly start a take-away food business.

"In my neighborhood, the supermarkets closed at 5, because women were home during the day – and if they weren't, their maids were," Ms Rosso told the New York Times. This left a gap, as working women were not catered for. In their 156 sq ft shop and kitchen, modelled on a French traiteur, the women used their own their recipes for dishes such as chicken Marbella (with prunes, capers and olives), blackberry mousse (finished with then-fashionable kiwi fruit), curried butternut-squash soup and spicy carrot cake. They also sold relishes, such as courgette pickle and blueberry preserves, and used local produce whenever possible.

The Silver Palate proved very much to the taste of the Upper West Side until it was sold in 1988 (it stopped trading in 1993, though branded goods using the name are still sold). The Silver Palate Cookbook (written with Michael McLaughlin, 1979) was the first spin-off from the shop; it broke records by selling 250,000 copies in its first year and 2.5m copies in total, and was followed by The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook in 1984. The pair then published The New Basics Cookbook (1989) and Silver Palate Desserts (1995).

In the early 1990s Lukins and Russo had a well-publicised row – this was the time when I met Sheila (to write a profile of her for a British magazine) and she showed me her two large flats in the Dakota, the famous apartment building where she was still living following her divorce. She was circumspect about her differences with Rosso, but I found her feisty, direct, sympathetic and engaging, and felt we'd become friends. Soon after this, in December 1991, she suffered a near-fatal cerebral haemorrhage which paralysed most of her left side.

Though she never fully recovered, she continued her monthly column for Parade, and published further books: All Around the World Cookbook (1994) USA Cookbook (1997), and Celebrate! (2003). In 2007 she and Rosso joined forces once again to publish a 25th-anniversary edition of The New Basics Cookbook. Lukins was diagnosed with brain cancer three months before her death.

Sheila Gail Block, cookery writer and caterer: born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 18 November 1942; married Richard Lukins (marriage dissolved; two daughters); died New York 30 August 2009.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Vehicle Sales Executive

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Working with a set process to achieve profitab...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a number ...

Recruitment Genius: Facilities Coordinator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Facilities Coordinator is required to join a...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager - Software House - PRINCE2, PMP

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A dynamic, customer oriented Pr...

Day In a Page

Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate