The Lost Art of Paula Peck: Egg & Mashed Potato Pizza circa 1966

In 1966, these words described her cooking… creative, imaginative, inventive, eclectic, beautifully presented, and internationally inspired. Craig Claiborne, the New York Times food editor and a beloved favorite here in the Vintage Kitchen, said “anyone who truly cares about cooking is fortunate indeed that such a talent as hers can be shared on the printed page.” James Beard called her “the finest cook I know.” Newspaper columnist Elizabeth de Sylva deemed her the “free spirit of cooking,” and food writer Gaynor Maddox labeled her “one of the most exciting, competent, and delightful guides to better dining.”

Today, here in the Vintage Kitchen, we are featuring a thoroughly modern-minded yet vintage recipe from the culinary repertoire of Paula Peck (1927-1972), who was a phenomenal but now forgotten cook popular during the mid-20th century. I use the word forgotten carefully. Since professional chefs today consider her cookbooks classics and since she still has a quiet army of devoted fans, she’s not lost to a select group, but Paula is definitely, surprisingly not part of mainstream cooking conversations like other famous names that traveled in her circle. Why is that? Was she overshadowed by bigger personalities like Julia Child or James Beard? Did her culinary prowess get dismissed over time? Her recipes simply forgotten?

In order to try to figure out why Paula Peck is not a household name today, we need to start at the beginning and explore the details of how she came to be the topic of conversation in mid-20th century kitchens.

It all started with her spouse.

Among the many causes he supported, James Peck participated in the Freedom Rides in 1961, which protested the segregation of African Americans on public transportation. He was attacked and badly beaten for his involvement, but continued to defend the civil rights of African Americans. He is pictured here, fourth from left. Learn more about this experience in a 1979 interview here.

Paula’s husband, James Peck, known as Jim, was a newsworthy civil rights activist who worked his entire life trying to bring people together for noble and decent causes. Involved with the War Resistance League, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Congress of Racial Equality among others, it was Jim who first inspired Paula to dive into the world of cooking after they were married in 1950. Up until that point, Paula knew little about how to create a meal. This was a bit of a tricky situation since she married a foodie. Unless she wanted to lose her husband to the local eateries of New York City night after night, she knew she was going to need to learn to cook. So as a young bride of 23, she set out on a mission to tempt her husband and his adventurous gourmet palate away from the restaurant scene, which he adored, and into the kitchen of his own home.

Paula Peck in her kitchen in December 1966. Photo: Newsday

As Paula started experimenting with food, she fell more and more and more in love with cooking. In trying to appeal to her husband’s enjoyment of international cuisine, in particular, she studied foods from all around the globe. She began collecting cookbooks, keeping track of recipes in a file box and gathering ideas about food preparation with friends. With every passing bite, Jim encouraged her explorations. Eventually, she gathered enough courage to take a cooking class with one of the country’s most celebrated gourmands, James Beard. From there, her culinary star rose bright and shiny, as the two struck up a friendship. One opportunity led to another. Paula became James’ apprentice and then his teaching partner. And then she went on to teach her own cooking classes.

Eleven years into her culinary journey, she published her first cookbook The Art of Fine Baking in 1961. After that, she was hired to work on the baking portion of the mega Time-Life Foods of the World cookbook series along with a host of respected chefs, food writers, and culinary experts. In 1966, she published a second cookbook, The Art of Good Cooking, in which she espoused the physical beauty of the kitchen, of quality ingredients, of simple equipment, of the breath-of-fresh-air joy that became her signature cooking style.

Her recipes began to appear with frequency in newspaper columns nationwide. She did live in-person cooking demonstrations for various events. She conducted interviews. The industry was achatter with news about Paula, about her recipes, about her unique approach to food. By 1970, Paula, the twenty-something girl who was not so skilled in cooking two decades earlier, arrived in the form of an accomplished, confident culinary teacher. Swathed in accolades, with nothing but a field of potential and possibility in front of her, surrounded by skilled peers and influential connections, Paula’s trajectory was on course for iconic status. And then something terrible happened. Paula died. Sadly, she was just 45.

In the 1960s, Paula circulated in the culinary world a bit differently than her comrades. Unlike most well-known cooks of her day, she wasn’t necessarily focused on age-old techniques. She questioned things. She wondered about established facts of cooking, curious if there were other ways or reasons to approach techniques beyond the traditional. She wasn’t concerned as much with how things were done, had been done, or should be done. Instead, she gave herself, and then her students, permission to experiment with food intuitively and to play around with taste, texture, and time.

Taking little bits and pieces from other cuisines, from other places and adapting them in ways that were unique and interesting, Paula worked with food from the foundation up, building a recipe like an artist builds up a scene in a painting. Taking into account, color, subject matter, texture, time, origin, flavor, and the relationship between one ingredient to another, her food was dotted with elements of surprise and flourish. It was those bits of unexpected detail that wound up setting her apart from all the gastronomes of her day. And I think it was those bits of detail that make her food still very relevant today.

Take pizza for example. Everybody knows the age-old basic pie with its flour crust, tomato sauce, a sprinkling of cheese, and perhaps a topping or two. But in Paula’s midcentury mind, the word pizza could mean something else entirely too. It could look something like this…

Paula Peck’s Egg & Potato Pizza

As a prime example of Paula’s creativity in the kitchen, it is her recipe for Egg & Potato Pizza from her 1966 book, The Art of Good Cooking, that is being featured here today. Using mashed potatoes as a base, sauteed onions, peppers, garlic, and mushrooms in place of a tomato sauce, and sausage and two kinds of cheese as toppers, this entire dish is polka-dotted with raw eggs and then popped into the oven for a brief bake. Surprise, whimsy, and a delicious combination of flavors are the result.

In a decade when casseroles were king of the dining table, the presentation alone of this recipe most definitely must have felt like a delightful break from the ordinary in 1960s America. More like a popular modern-day sheet pan meal than a traditional pizza, this fun-to-make any-time-of-day appropriate dish has contemporary comfort food written all over it. Made with simple ingredients and easily prepared, it feeds six people, is satisfyingly filling, and is fun to present table-side. In other words, it contains all the hallmarks of a perfect Paula dining experience.

I made this recipe as-is except I substituted chicken sausage for Italian sausage. And one thing to note before you begin… this recipe is best served immediately when it comes out of the oven. If you leave it to sit for a minute or two the eggs will continue to cook to a hard-boiled consistency and will eventually turn rubbery, if you wait to serve it much longer after that. If you like your eggs runny, cook the potatoes and toppings minus the eggs just until the cheese begins to melt (about 17 minutes) and then crack your eggs in their allotted divots and stick the whole tray back in the oven for about 3 minutes.

Paula Peck’s Egg & Potato Pizza

Serves 6

1/2 cup olive oil

3 cups well seasoned mashed potatoes

1 large onion, peeled and sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 cups mushrooms

1 green pepper, seeded and sliced

4 cooked sweet or hot Italian sausages (I used maple-glazed chicken sausage)

6 eggs

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

2/3 cup diced mozzarella cheese

Freshly chopped spinach for garnish (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a large flat baking tray generously with olive oil. Spread the mashed potatoes evenly covering the entire pan. With the back of a spoon, make six indentions in the potatoes for the eggs which will be added later.

Bake the potato-lined pan in an oven for 30-40 minutes or until the potatoes seem slightly crisp on the bottom. Remove from oven.

While the potatoes are baking, slice sausages 1/4 inch thick and brown them in a pan on the stovetop. Set aside. Next, saute onion, garlic, mushrooms, and green pepper in remaining olive oil until soft.

After the potatoes have been removed from the oven, spread top of it with the sauteed mixture and sliced sausage, leaving indentations clear.

Break eggs into each of the indentations. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and dot with pieces of mozzarella cheese.

Return to oven. Bake for 20 minutes or until eggs are set and the cheese is bubbly.

Cut the pizza up into squares or wedges and serve immediately. Paula recommended a green salad as a side dish which is a great choice if you are making this for brunch or dinner especially.

Ideal for upcoming spring holiday breakfasts like St. Patrick’s Day, Easter or Mother’s Day, when onions and spinach are in season, this egg and potato pizza is a blank slate for your creative interpretations too. Add purple onions in place of yellow onions for additional color. Garnish with fresh herbs or scallions on top in place of spinach. Replace Italian sausage with prosciutto or smoked salmon. Serve it for breakfast, for brunch, for lunch, for dinner. Call it a pizza or a sheet pan meal or a one-dish wonder. Paula would be the first one to tell you to take this recipe and run with it till your heart is content. Interpret it as you like. That’s what cooking was all about in the Peck family kitchen.

“My belief is that tradition should not hamper us if we find a better way of doing things,” Paula wrote in 1966. Perhaps that very attitude is what has kept Paula’s recipes out of the widely circulated limelight of modern-day kitchen conversations. Instead of being stubborn, restrictive, and definitive about only one be-all-end-all way to approach food preparation, Paula encouraged exploration. She encouraged hands-on learning. And she encouraged continual education.

That type of exploration and freedom tends to breed a sense of confidence that builds over time through experience. A new cook might start out making one of Paula’s recipes exactly as she described, but then over time, feeling secure at the eventual mastery would adopt Paula’s methods of questioning and discovering. The recipe would get tweaked, augmented, adapted, enhanced. As it evolved, it would take on new forms, new ingredients, new flavors, a new identity. Attribution back to its original source, over time, would get muddied, fuzzy, forgotten, and then lost to history completely. I think that’s what happened to Paula and her creative approach.

In modern-day multi-cultural fusion cooking, in outside-of-the-box presentation, and in the pairing of unusual yet complementary flavors, I think today signs of Paula’s style of cooking are all over our culinary landscape. We just don’t realize that she was the source from which it all began. Paula Peck by name might not be on the tip of everyone’s tongue these days, but her inspiring style of cooking still is.

I hope you enjoy this recipe as much as we did. If you decide to add your own flourish to this dish please send us a message or a photo of your finished affair. We’d love to learn how Paula inspired you!

Cheers to creativity in the kitchen! And to Paula for showing us what fun cooking can be when you add a little splash of imagination.

Lucy & Herbert Go to Paris: A 1970’s Travel Adventure and a Recipe

Bonjour and bon appetit dear kitcheners! This week the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2020 takes us to France via the kitchen.

This is one of the countries I know best in the Recipe Tour since I spent so much time there as a little girl. Originally, for this post, I was going to write about a child’s perspective of Paris and fill it full of all the things my sister and I loved most about the city when we were small explorers.  But since a little bit of that was already touched on in the Parisian hot chocolate post last December, this time I thought it would be fun to introduce some new tour guides to the blog. I’m so pleased to present my grandparents and your travel escorts for the day, Lucy and Herbert…

Unlike me, who first visited Paris when I was six months old, Lucy and Herbert were in their 60’s when they first set sights on the City of Light. They were both born in the first decade of the 20th century and both had a hard start to life. Had you asked either one of them when they were young if they would ever be walking around the streets of Paris one day they wouldn’t have guessed it.

Lucy grew up in Buffalo, New York, the daughter of German immigrants who worked in the garment industry.  Her childhood was defined by a family tragedy. When she was 7, her mom burned to death in a house fire while cooking dinner in the kitchen. Lucy’s dad in a complete state of grief and guilt put Lucy and her seven brothers and sisters in a local city orphanage.

Immaculate Heart of Mary. Photo courtesy of poloniatrail.com

It was meant to be just a temporary course of action. The orphanage was run by Catholic nuns and her dad told everyone, nuns and kids included, that he would be right back for his family. That he just needed a little bit of time to figure things out. That was the Spring of 1918. The kids didn’t know exactly what temporary meant. A few days passed, a few weeks passed and then a  few months. They waited in the orphanage for their dad to return. Five months in, the Spanish Influenza blanketed the city in fear and death and anxiety. A pandemic ensued but her dad did not come to collect his kids. Thanksgiving and Christmas came. There was no big family meal and no Christmas gifts. There was no sign of dad. A year passed. A second year passed. Lucy remained in the care of the nuns.  The third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth year passed. By that point, Lucy was 13. The orphanage only educated girls up until the 8th grade, so school was over for her. No dreams of high school. No college.  During year seven of life in the orphanage, her dad got remarried, yet he still didn’t come to collect his kids.

There are fuzzy family stories that the children were retrieved one by one in order of age, (the oldest ones first) and placed with various members of the family. The boys were taken out first because they could earn a living and contribute financially to whatever household they ended up in. Lucy was 5th in line, a girl, with limited education and an inability to earn an income in the same way as her brothers. Lucy remained in the orphanage until she was 16 years old. That’s when her aunt Martha in Chicago sent for her so that Lucy could help take care of Martha’s two kids. At last, after nine years, Lucy left the orphanage, taking her two younger sisters and brother with her to Illinois.

Herbert’s dad, Joseph, working in his teamster days delivery hay and coal. This photo was taken around 1905.

Herbert grew up in a working class family in the city of Chicago. His parents were both natives of the city  and his grandparents  were both immigrants from Germany. His dad was a teamster for hay and coal in the city when Herbert was born. Money was always tight and there were days when food was scarce or even non-existent. The family never had enough to eat. There were nights when Herbert went to bed with a rumbly belly and no idea when it would be filled again. When Herbert was 10, his  dad landed a job as a fireman for the City of Chicago. It was a much more dangerous line of work than being a teamster, but it offered a steady paycheck and a future pension upon retirement – both very attractive incentives for someone who struggled to feed their family.

Herbert’s parents, Joseph (in his fireman uniform!) and Mary Katharine.

Herbert had a younger brother, Charles, who died when he was a baby, a sad event in his family that that no one ever talked about. Herbert didn’t believe in rehashing stuff, especially the difficult, hardscrabble years of his growing up. Herbert liked to say that the important part of life began when he met Lucy.

Sparks flew for the two of them when they met at a party in Chicago, just a few years after Lucy had moved to the city. They were both in their late teens/early 20’s at that point. Herbert took one look at Lucy and was dazzled by her pretty smile. Lucy fell in love with Herbert’s kind eyes, a distinguishing feature that everyone responded to.

Before Herbert became a fireman  he worked at the Chicago Tribune in the circulation department. This was where he worked at the time he met Lucy.

On a summer Saturday in 1933, just before my grandfather’s 25th birthday, Lucy and Herbert were married in a Catholic church in Chicago.

Herbert left his newspaper job and became a fireman like his father.  This was during the Great Depression, and like his father experienced, the firehouse offered  a steady paycheck, and a pension for retirement.  Haunted by his hunger years as a child, all Herbert wanted was to provide a safe, satiated and comfortable life for his new bride, full to the brim with happiness and adoration that she deserved.

Because she grew up in the orphanage without any guidance or training in the domestic arts, Lucy was not a typical, traditional wife of the 1930’s. As an adult, she loved clothes and fashion and following the latest trends. She loved to socialize and play cards and spend time with her sisters.  No one taught her how to cook, care for a home or drive a car. But all this was okay with Herbert because he loved to cook, was fine with housecleaning and loved to drive.  All he wanted to do was to protect his family, make sure there was always enough food on the table  and enough money left over at the end of the day to afford a few small niceties. For eight years, Herbert and Lucy tried to have a baby. After several miscarriages, my dad was finally born alive and healthy just after they celebrated their 9th wedding anniversary. Finally their family felt complete.

When my dad was a few years into his airline executive career, he arranged a four week European tour for his parents that would take them to England, France, Italy  and Germany. This was the Autumn of 1970, and it was an extravagant trip to say the least. My grandparents had never traveled outside of the United States before, and Europe at that time was a cosmopolitan wonderland of glamour and sophistication.

My dad used all of his perks and called in all sorts of favors so that it would feel like a trip of lifetime for Herbert and Lucy. He wanted to give them all the bells and whistles he could manage – a taste of luxury and decadence that they had never known before. It was his way of spoiling them – a thank you  of sorts for all the wonderful love and affection they spoiled him with as a child.

The plan was to spend a week in each country with home base stays in London, Paris, Rome and Munich. In London, Herb and Lucy stayed at the Lancaster Hotel, had dinner with the royal tailor to Prince Phillip and went sightseeing all around town.

Meet family friend and royal tailor to Prince Phillip, Edward “Teddy” Watson, who charmed the socks off my grandmother:)

The French portion of their trip involved side excursions to Nice and Monte Carlo, but the bulk of their time was spent in Paris where Herbert fell in love with the food and the history and Lucy fell in love with the shopping and the culture. They both really enjoyed walking around the city too and did almost all sightseeing on foot,  even though my dad had arranged a car and driver for them each day.

Thanks to their collection of travel photographs we can head back in time and take a little sightseeing trip right along with them as we all discover what Paris looked like in 1970.

The view from the top of the Eiffel Tower.

The tour starts with a bird’s eye view of the city as seen from the top of the most iconic structure in all of France – the Eiffel Tower.  I’m not sure who the photographer was on this trip, Herb or Lucy, but some shots had a little Vivian Maier-esque quality to them. That’s the Tower’s shadow reaching towards the bridge there in the photo. Vivian style photography makes a return at the flower market one morning too…

In addition to first time sky views of the city, another great vantage point and an interesting perspective of Paris are the views from the River Seine. From there, Lucy and Herbert marveled at a whole host of  buildings steeped in history.

The Belle Jardiniere is the oldest clothing store in Paris, dating to 1824. They were the first to offer ready made clothes off the rack, ushering in a whole new way to conveniently build up your wardrobe.

Another historic gem on the river is the Palais Bourbon, designed in 1722 for the daughter of King Louis the XIV, who was the longest reigning monarch (72 years!) in all of French history. It was designed in country house fashion with gardens modeled from particular sections at Versailles. The site for the house was found by the lover of the King’s daughter who built his own palace next door (how convenient!). Like most of the old buildings of Paris, as it passed through time, many inhabitants and influencers including Napolean,  added their own enhancements or improvements to the building. In the late 1700’s, the exterior facade of Palais Bourbon was changed to reflect ancient Greek architecture. By the time the French Revolution occurred the residence left private hands and served as a government building, which it still remains to this day as you can see from this 2019 photo…

50 years later, and it still looks exactly the same!

Even though he lived centuries ago, there are nods to King Louis XIV all over town. At Versailles, he’s depicted in an equestrian statue which was completed in 1838, which also happened to be seventy years before Herbert was born.

Herbert especially loved admiring all the statues around Paris. The city boasts over 1000,  so he didn’t have to look far for something exciting to see. They turned out to be his gateway into learning more about French history, which in turn led to learning more about other country’s histories too.

The Luxor Obelisk statue (located in the Place de la Concorde) for example spurned a whole new curiosity for him in ancient Egypt, which is where this statue came from. It was an exchange of gifts between France and Egypt in the 1800’s. France gave Egypt a clock and Egypt gave France the Obelisk. In 1936, just three years after Lucy and Herbert were married, the Obelisk was given historic monument status in France. Herbert loved little fun facts like that.

Lucy liked the statues too and learning all about their history from Herbert, but when it came to street sights, what really turned her head were things more at eye – level (a.k.a. the shops). While in London, she purchased a classic trench coat, which looked very chic on the streets of Paris. In France, she purchased a batch of silk scarves. She wore the scarves and the trench continuously for the rest of her life back in the States, reminders of her fun glamour days spent in Europe.

Other iconic sights and sounds topped their best memories list too. There was the famed Paris Opera House which first opened in 1875…

The gardens at Versailles…

It was such an elegant place, Herbert wore a suit!

The domed roof of Sacre-Coeur (also known as the Basilica of the Sacred Heart), is the second most visited site in Paris. It was a must-see for Herbert and Lucy too, who were devoted to the Catholic faith their whole lives. It stands in the Montmarte section of Paris where all the famous artists and writers lived in the 19th and 20th century.

Likewise, the Cathedral of Notre Dame (or what I thought it was) held equal charm.

But upon closer inspection via window shapes and entry doors I think this is another church in Paris altogether. Can anyone identify it? Whether you are religious or not, everyone can appreciate a Parisian church for all their architectural details and built-in statues. Herbert and Lucy visited a new Catholic church every Sunday while they were in Europe, which was a true testament to their faith since most masses were said in Latin and lasted hours.

The beautiful angles and proportions of the Pantheon hover over part of the city and tell quite a story of architectural design. The dome, which fascinated Lucy in particular is actually three domes in one and made entirely of stone. Originally it was going to be topped with a statue of Saint Genevieve but a cross was selected instead. Genevieve was the patron saint of Paris,  and also happened to be Lucy’s middle name. Genevieve is also known as one of the patron saints of generosity, a characteristic Lucy herself contained, and is often depicted carrying a loaf of bread. Followers of Genevieve’s work created an institution in her name in the 1600’s  to care for the infirm and to educate young women. I wonder now if Lucy felt a special kinship to Genevieve because of all she went through at the orphanage.

When Herbert and Lucy passed by and under the Arc de Triomph they were viewing it in all it’s glory, as it had just been thoroughly cleaned and bleached five years before from a century’s worth of soot and grime. Herbert gave it a thumbs up in the cleaning department!

In between all those photos of grand buildings and popular sites I was hoping to find a cafe shot of Herbert and Lucy dining street-side with a glass of wine or a coffee. The only one I found among the mix though was this one very blurry photo of my dad (who met up with his parents at various points in the trip while on break from business meetings) and Lucy.

Even though it’s blurry, I still like the charm of this scene, with the cafe’s egg yolk yellow awning and shutters and the tomato red chairs.  I suspect this was taken in a little country town near Nice on their drive from Paris to Monte Carlo for Part Two of the French adventure.   I like to imagine that they ate something simple yet delicious that day at that cafe. Something not unlike the French recipe we are making to accompany this post today.

Like the cafe, this is a sunny, simple dish that is easy to make and requires little time to prepare. It is called Eggs in Sauce Gribiche.  Like some of the buildings in this post and even our tour guides themselves, this sauce aspect of this recipe dates all the way back to the early 1900’s when famous French chef Auguste Escoffier deemed it an important and versatile companion to hard-boiled eggs.  Age-old yet timeless, it is a new favorite in my kitchen and I hope it will be one in yours too.

The French section of the New York Times International Cook Book which we are following for this Recipe Tour, was one of the largest chapters in the book containing over 113 pages of traditional dishes from France. I chose this one because it is so representative of Herbert and Lucy. It’s simple and accessible, peppered with fresh goodness, and easily enjoyable in a bevy of dining situations. At their core, Lucy and Herbert were ideal characters. Ones who despite early hardships and traumatic events, chose to nourish relationships and radiate nothing but love and affection. At the same time, they also knew how to add a little splash to life to make it colorful and interesting. In the case of this recipe, they are both the comforting, reliable hard-boiled eggs and also the attractive and inventive sauce that is drizzled over.

So many French recipes combine rich, buttery flavors that simmer or saute for lengthy amounts of time. This one is lighter and brighter on the palate and works for several kinds of meals from brunch to lunch to appetizers, or even serves purpose as an afternoon snack or a light dinner.  When making it, I recommend sourcing the freshest ingredients possible, which might mean avoiding the grocery store altogether if you can help it. Home grown garden herbs, farmers market tomatoes, and local eggs will by far surpass anything you could find at the regular grocery store when it comes to bringing out the beautiful flavors of this dish.

Eggs with Sauce Gribiche

Serves 6

1 teaspoon finely chopped parsley

1 teaspoon finely chopped onion

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme

1 clove garlic

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 egg yolk

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons wine vinegar

1 1/2 cups olive oil

3/4 cup seeded, peeled, diced tomatoes

6 hard boiled eggs, peeled and halved

2 tablespoons finely chopped chives or scallion greens

Chop the parsley, onion, thyme and garlic. Add the chopped mixture to a small mixing bowl along the mustard, vinegar , egg yolk, salt and pepper.

Begin beating all ingrediants together with a whisk and gradually start adding the oil. Add it a little at a time, beating rapidly until the sauce begins to thicken. When mixture is thickened and smooth it is ready.

Crack and peel the hard-boiled eggs and cut them length-wise in half.

When you are ready to serve, stir the tomatoes into the sauce and then spoon the sauce over the egg halves. Sprinkle with chives or finely sliced scallions.

Served at room temperature, this a great dish for a hot summer day or an impromptu picnic, as it can be whipped up in a matter of minutes. It is also a lovely alternative to deviled eggs, lemon vinaigrette dressing or its close cousin – Hollandaise Sauce.

My most favorite photo of my grandparents first time-time trip to France is this one taken on two park chairs with the Eiffel Tower in back. My grandmother reminds me of Julia Child here…  smiling, carefree, lighthearted. And I love my grandfather’s hand on her knee. They were married for 37 years when this photo was taken. It’s really nice to see that things hadn’t changed that much since the day they met. Lucy was still flashing that pretty smile and Herbert was still protecting her with kindness and affection.

Ten years and two months later, Lucy died unexpectedly in a hospital in Florida. Her cause of death was an enlarged heart. That seems pretty fitting.  Her and Herbert shared a big love.  For a life that started out with so much neglect and abandonment I’m glad that Lucy got to finish it with so much joy and comfort. And I’m glad she got to experience Paris and all the magic the city holds.

Cheers to love that lasts through thick and thin. And cheers to France for playing such a big, wonderful, important role in the life and love of my family. And cheers to Grandma Lucy and Grandpa Herbert. It’s been a tough week in the world these past few days. I hope we can carry forth, in the true spirit of Herbert and Lucy, with nothing but kindness and generosity for all.

Join me next time for Week 18 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2020 as we head to Germany to make the biggest meal of the Tour so far! It’s three days of preparation for this cooking adventure, so rest up! See you soon.

 

Breakfast with Bette Davis and the Famous Three Minute Egg

You could assume a lot of things about Bette Davis. Perhaps you’ve watched her movies (all 100+ of them) and you know her characters… smart, complicated, dramatic… and you think, personally, she must have been like that too. Or maybe you’ve read her books and know that her life hasn’t always been charming or easy, and you might think she bravely dealt with a lot of disappointment. Or perhaps you’ve seen her past interviews on television or youtube and witnessed how funny and polished and magnetic she was even in the off hours of her professional life.

All those instances might lead you to assume things about Bette, making you define her as one thing more than another – brassy, smart, privileged, funny, vulnerable, demanding, narcissistic, intense, wise, melodramatic, sincere, even terrifying.  Thanks to Kathryn Sermak’s new book, Miss D & Me, we can put our assumptions aside and know first-hand that Bette was a little bit of all those things. And so much more.

It is always fascinating to me to read about the behind-the-scenes lives of people in the public eye. Especially those stories shared by people who worked closely with a celebrity on a daily, detailed basis. Mostly because it breaks down the perception barrier of thinking that famous lives are so much more different than our own. That somehow fame and notoriety have morphed them into other-worldly figures washed clean from weakness and frailties. We generally only get to see one side of a famous person’s life depending on which part the media chooses to focus on, but with behind-the-scenes stories, you are offered a glimpse into a much more diverse landscape than any two-minute news clip or ten-minute interview could provide.

Ordinary people that work alongside extraordinary people are witness to the three-dimensional side of stardom  – all the good and all the bad wrapped up in one experience.  Like the relationship between Katharine Hepburn and her cook Norah, or Frank Sinatra and his valet George Jacobs or Madonna and her brother Christopher we are offered the chance to understand that the lives of these seemingly mythical creatures are really just fellow human beings, both flawed and fabulous.

When Kathryn Sermak first came to work as Bette’s assistant in 1979, Kathryn was a young, carefree Californian who spelled her name the classic way – Catherine – and had just newly spelled out a dream of one day living in France. Bette was in her 70’s, still working and very much set in her ways. Kathryn thought she was taking a simple summer job that would enable her to fund her way to France – not even really aware of who Bette Davis actually was. In turn, Bette thought she was getting a competent, sophisticated assistant in Kathryn whom would be both professional and perfunctory. Both were in for a very big surprise.

In the early, uncertain days, Kathryn didn’t expect to eventually count Bette as one of her best friends and Bette absolutely never entertained the idea that Kathryn would become like a daughter to her. At first, everything was wrong for both women. On Bette’s side, Kathryn was not enough – she wasn’t cultured, she wasn’t able to anticipate needs, she wasn’t sophisticated, nor groomed for the level of lifestyle that Bette had grown into. On Kathryn’s side Bette was too much… too demanding, too overbearing and too controlling. Both thought they would never last the first week together.

The turn in their relationship from bad to better came down to one simple little thing – an egg. Bette’s breakfast most always consisted of a three-minute egg. The proper cooking of it was her litmus test as to the value of any good assistant’s worth. There’s not much to cooking a three-minute egg. It involves a pan of boiling water, an egg still in its shell and three minutes of simmering.   But Bette added a twist to this simple test. How do you cook a three-minute egg in a hotel room with no stove, no pots and pans and no kitchen? Perplexed, Kathryn had no idea until Bette motioned to the in-room coffee pot. Then hot water was brewed. The egg was placed in the glass coffee carafe and the time was monitored on a wristwatch for 3 minutes exactly. In this small test of skill, it wasn’t that Kathryn failed to quickly and cleverly assess the options of impromptu cooking in a kitchenless room, but instead, it was the trainability of her actions that caught Bette’s attention.

That was the beauty of their relationship and the bud that ultimately bonded them together. The fact that Kathryn was young, fresh and naive while Bette was experienced, opinionated and worldly proved a combination of character traits that formed a tight friendship that lasted the rest of Bette’s life. It wasn’t always easy for these two women learning about life and each other day by day, but by the end the experience was invaluable.

There were outlandish moments, like when Bette insisted Kathryn change the spelling of her name from Catherine to Kathryn so that she would be more memorable (which she did!). There were all the lessons Kathryn had to endure… etiquette, elocution, table manners,  how to walk properly, how to dress effectively, how to eat with decorum and how to hold court at a table full of strangers.

There were awkward moments, when Bette’s insistence on how to appropriately handle certain social situations was so outdated, that Kathryn would bear the brunt of the embarrassment.   This was especially apparent when Bette insisted on dressing Kathryn for a formal dance in Washington DC complete with fur coat, gloves, a designer dress, expensive jewelry and dance lessons only for Kathryn to encounter a room full of denim-clad twenty-somethings casually hanging out in a dance hall.

There were the vulnerable moments when Bette crumpled up in the face of public humiliation as her daughter wrote an unflattering tell-all book, or when Bette threw off her wig in the car one day and embarked on a temper tantrum that was heartbreakingly child-like.  There was oodles of advice about men and relationships and sticking up for oneself in the face of adversity. And there were the laughs and the conversations and the sweet letters that Bette would write to Kathryn expressing all the appreciation she felt for her darling assistant and her close friend. There were silent treatments and long work days, elegant cocktail hours and thoughtful gifts, tears and tenacity, laughter and luxury. There was life, with all its good and all its bad.

And there were eggs – lots of eggs. Bette and Kathryn traveled the world together and ate at many fine restaurants, but the food Bette would choose to make for herself or her family on days off was simple fare that harkened back to her New England roots. Homemade burgers, cucumber salad, cornish game hen, wine spritzers, clam bakes, fresh berries with cold cream… those are the foods that she liked to make. For this post, our breakfast menu inspired by Bette Davis includes the following:

A Bette Davis inspired breakfast!

It’s a simple menu symbolizing all that was Bette Davis – sweet, salty, fresh, traditional, colorful, warm, cool and classic. It takes just a few minutes to make and is so easy it doesn’t even require detailed instruction. Simply boil an egg for 3 minutes.  Slice some homemade bread and slather it with jam.  Bake a potato in the oven for an hour and then finely chop it up with some scallions and salt and pepper and add the mix to a pan with some olive oil and let it cook until it turns brown and crusty. Adorn the plate with fresh fruit. Tah-dah! Breakfast, Bette Davis style, is ready!

Kathryn would be the first person to tell you that life with Bette was extraordinary for her last ten years. That the talented movie star was never far from the actual woman. That there was a glamorous side to her, a practical side, a petulant side and a vulnerable side that made her interesting and unique and ultimately endearing. That she was far from perfect but perfectly real.

“That’s me: an old kazoo with some sparklers, ” Bette once said.

The many faces of Bette Davis throughout her 55-year career.

Cheers to Bette for tackling life head-on,  with grace and style and fortitude and being 100% unique about the whole affair until the very end. Cheers to Kathryn to giving us a very real look into the life of real woman and cheers to three-minute eggs – a new breakfast favorite here in the Vintage Kitchen!

This post is part of a blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood featuring the life and film Career of Bette Davis. Read more about this incredible woman and her work in a variety of posts contributed by a dozen different film bloggers here. 

Find the vintage cookbooks that contributed recipes to this post in the shop here.

Find the recipe for homemade brown bread from a previous post here.

Find out more about Kathryn Sermack and her book, Miss D & Me here.