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

Paul Levy
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:58

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.

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