Fanny Singer, ALWAYS HOME

Fanny Singer, ALWAYS HOME

Zibby Owens: Fanny Singer is the author of Always Home: A Daughter’s Recipes & Stories with a forward by Alice Waters, her mother. She is the cofounder of the design brand Permanent Collection, “timeless objects and garments for a modern lifestyle.” Fanny received a PhD on British pop art from the University of Cambridge. In 2015 she and her mother, Alice Waters, published My Pantry which she also illustrated. After more than a decade in the UK, Fanny recently moved back to California. She currently lives in San Francisco.

Welcome, Fanny. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Fanny Singer: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: Your book has been the talisman for me. I’ve been toting it everywhere because it’s so perfect for right now, called Always Home which is so fitting. Tell everybody about your book. Congratulations on having it out there in the world.

Fanny: Thank you. Thank you so much for your advocacy. It’s been an amazing thing to have people speaking about this book in the way that you have, and with so many authors, because it is a very strange time to be bringing out a book and not be able to go out on the road and talk about the book and shake hands and sign books and do all those things that I’ve been looking forward to for pretty much since the beginning of the writing process, which was, I guess, about three years ago. I was coming off of doing this little book with my mom that was more of a cookbook that I cowrote and illustrated called My Pantry. My mom is Alice Waters. She’s a chef. You might have heard of her. This book was a way to look at that relationship. I was still living in England where I’d been for actually about eleven years until about two and a half years ago. It was a way to mull over that relationship, think about what gave it so much substance. My mom and I are very, very close, as anyone who reads this book will immediately surmise. Some, I’m sure, would say dangerously close. It’s never felt that way. It’s always felt like a healthy and very loving relationship. It kind of fuses a lot of different things. I’m a writer foremost, but I really love to cook. I came up in a family in which that was an esteemed pedigree. It fuses recipes with stories about food. It’s definitely not an autobiography. I always hasten to say that because I think when you’re thirty-six, it’s a little bit of an odd thing to begin writing the story of your life in a more linear, factual way. This felt like a fun way and also a very focused way to talk about a relationship and also a very specific perspective on my life.

Zibby: For anybody who might not be as in touch with the food world as you and, of course, your mom, could you explain why is Alice Waters a famous chef? Why do you assume everybody knows who she is? I know, of course, because I love the food world and whatever, but just give a quick background of what makes your family so unique if you don’t mind.

Fanny: Of course. It’s true especially with an American audience. I assume a certain amount of familiarity, but it’s also because I’m normally introduced as Fanny Singer, Alice Waters’ daughter. My mom is a cook who’s had a restaurant for close to fifty years now called Chez Panisse, which is in Berkeley in California. Even though it was started with the idea of a very humble place where a friend could gather — it was in the middle of the free speech movement and still in the middle of the Vietnam War. The idea was to create a place, a very comitial place with very good food that was kind of in the hippie revolutionary spirit, but the food was very much not hippie food. It was the kind of food that my mom had eaten and experienced when she was in her twenties and had gone to France in the sixties. She was trying desperately to bring this aesthetic and also palate back to California. Chez Panisse was founded in 1971. It very instantly established itself as the place to be because the pedagogy around sourcing and what’s now called farm to table was something that hadn’t existed before. At least, it hadn’t really existed in industrialized America. Of course, pioneers were doing a very, very farm-to-table style of eating in America. This was something that had been lost post-war. Chez Panisse is a kind of pioneer of farm to table. My mom has become a really vocal advocate also for feeding children sustainable lunches in schools. She has a wonderful project called the Edible Schoolyard which is now twenty-five years old and has thousands of affiliate schools around the world. She started out as, actually, a Montessori teacher and then became a restaurateur and is now this restaurateur activist and mom.

Zibby: Then you took all of the things that were going on at home and in the restaurant and just applied them to normal life and then didn’t even realize they weren’t so typical until you were the only one, say, digging your hands into a huge vat of food or having these cloth lunchboxes that other kids weren’t having. Of course, now everybody’s doing all of the stuff you were doing back then.

Fanny: What I think is really wonderful, though, about people adopting it now is the quality of the experience of those things, being more sensuously acquainted with your food and cooking more, which I think everyone’s doing now and realizing how much pleasure there is there. I’m sure, also, it’s feeling like a lot for people who are not used to cooking maybe three meals a day, and especially for families. My friends and I are like, how are we making so many dishes? How is this possible? This is just an inhuman number of dishes. I do feel we’re dishwashing constantly. It’s getting back into the kitchen. Really using your senses too I think gives you this reprieve from, especially in this moment, all the anxiety and all the other preoccupations around work or homeschooling, I can imagine, and all those things. I’m happy that this book comes at — a lot of people have been telling me that it feels like a very sense-activated kind of text. There’s a lot of sensory material. It’s easy to go into this other place, not just travel to some of the destinations that are spoken about in the book like the South of France where we used to go when I was a kid, but also just traveling through the sense descriptions around food or around smells and flowers or nature, whatever, which is one of the nicest things I’ve heard about the book, so I’m happy.

Zibby: It’s true. It is immersive in that way from every sense, even how you have a whole chapter on color and your mom’s favorite color. It’s great. It’s very visual but also a lot about the relationship between a mother and a daughter, which is really important. You said briefly earlier that usually you’re referred to as Fanny Singer, Alice Waters’ daughter. You said it in such a glib, happy way. How do you feel about that? How do you feel about that becoming a part of your identity? I know people who have prominent parents have all different feelings about that. You’ve leaned into this whole piece of yourself.

Fanny: You can either be disgruntled about it or you can lean into it. You can’t change it. It’s always going to be there. It’s not even this new part of my identity. It’s been part of my identity for my entire life. I was very conscious of making sure that I went out into the world and studied what I wanted to study and pursued the things I was interested in and didn’t feel — actually, to my mother’s credit given how single-minded she is, she applied no pressure to me whatsoever around taking over the restaurant or taking it on or continuing her work at all. I felt neither her pressure, nor did I feel — there was no imperative to go and refine my skills in that. I could go out and do what I really wanted to do, not that I knew exactly. I spent a lot of time figuring it out. I ended up going to England to study art history. I did a PhD in art history. I lived in England for a long time. I think the living in England for a long time was a part of being able to come back to California and then feel like I had created enough of a sense of self, both spiritually and professionally.

At that point, by the time I came back I had a career as a writer around cultural stories or art criticism. I didn’t feel as wobbly, I guess. My mom is, I talk a lot about what a gravitational forcefield she is. People who are around her, a lot of them end up working with her or sort of conforming to some idea that she has for them because it’s a very seductive notion or proposal or whatever. It’s part of the beautiful thing about this community here. She has so many collaborators. I was always happy to be one, but I also felt like I needed to be very certain of what I was doing on my own. I feel totally fine that she doesn’t have access to certain aspects of what I do and that I don’t need her approval for that, but it took a long time. I’m thirty-six. It’s not like I figured it out in two years. It took me a long time. I had to suffer in the English weather for over a decade to be able to come back to the clement little town of Berkeley, or to the Bay Area.

Zibby: You and your mom have a special relationship. In every part of this book, you could just sense it and feel it, and the respect that you have for her and show her. Not everybody, famous or not, the mother-daughter relationship can be so fraught and so complicated. Do you have any idea why yours is not? Or am I wrong? Maybe there’s things that you just don’t write about as openly. I’m not saying you’re conflict-free, but what do you think it is? Is it that base level of respect? What do think?

Fanny: It’s a good question. I definitely have an unusual relationship with my mom. I don’t have any friends who have this level of proximity with their parents. I love my dad. I’m so close to my dad, and we just don’t have the same type of relationship at all. It’s not to say I didn’t go through a quasi-rebellious phase as a teenager. My parents were divorced when I was thirteen, so it was a bad time for that. It was confusing and upsetting. I was not a perfect angel. I really think that it was not respect so much as love. It was a sense of being very unconditionally loved. She found good ways of telegraphing that to me without having to tell me. When I was a teenager and you sort of have wax in your ears, you just can’t listen to or hear anything your parents say. It’s just all anathema. We’ll fight it all. She found a way to tell me, whether it was in a non-language form like cooking, making special food and delicious things for people is a way of telegraphing love, making these little bouquets that she would put into my lunchbox, making me lunch every single day through high school, and something delicious that I wanted to eat. I was a bit of the odd kid who had this lunchbox. It was still something that other people also wanted to taste and eat from, so I was never really stigmatized. That level of care and then also finding other adults that I’d grown up with and trusted who could also support me. Sometimes I think she’d filter messages through them or figure out what was going on with me through them. That was what saw us through that hardest period. Now I think it’s just, it’s that foundational sense of unconditional love. It sounds sort of cliché. I think there’s nothing that is more sustaining over a long period of time than feeling like your parent just loves you no matter what.

Zibby: That’s so nice. All right, I’ll try to make sure my kids know that. This might be too personal a question. We can skip it if you’d prefer not to answer. I’m just wondering if you grow up in a restaurant culture with a mom who’s so devoted to food, you’re obviously so passionate about food, did you ever have any eating issues or body image anything? Or did you just have a really healthy relationship with food and body because of the wholesomeness of the food that you were eating?

Fanny: No, I really never had any issues around — I had the normal, like, ugh, I feel so fat, or the normal grievances about one’s own body image. I played soccer avidly all through high school and then into college a bit and then also at Cambridge. There was a period where I was playing, I want to say, twenty hours of soccer a week or something. There was never a period in which I was particularly static. I was always a very active kid. In terms of what we ate at home, portions were small, were actually so small sometimes when I was playing that much soccer that I would have to eat some cereal after she went to sleep. It didn’t even occur to me that there was a caloric correspondence between you eat food and then those calories somehow corresponded to weight gain. The word calorie didn’t enter my lexicon really until college. I don’t think I had much of a sense of the correspondence between what you ate and whether you would gain weight at all. For one, I was working out so much when I was — I got to Yale and I was like, okay, I now have my own, granted limited, bank account and can eat carrot cake whenever I want, and froyo. I was like, oh, I see. This is why my jeans don’t fit.

Growing up, it was an unbelievably wholesome relationship between body image and food and its consumption. We never ate in excess. We never had unhealthy food. Chez Panisse is a much more Mediterranean approach to cooking. There’s just not that much butter in things. It’s always very olive oil driven. Dessert was limited to fruit, mainly. Then sometimes at Chez Panisse we’d share a piece of galette. There wasn’t really even the possibility, I think, of getting to a dangerous overindulgence with food. Being involved in cooking and cooking healthy food but delicious food, not worrying too much about what you’re making calorie-wise, and just eating mostly vegetables, which is what we did anyway, was a way to have a pretty well-adjusted relationship to eating. When I did get to college, eating disorders were rampant in the dorm rooms that were all girls. It’s kind of crazy. I also understood it more in relationship to that terrible food that we were eating. You didn’t really want to have that in your body. Still, that was hard gear shift there. I almost immediately figured out how I could date an older guy who had an apartment off campus so I could cook in his kitchen.

Zibby: I went to Yale also. When I got there I actually, for the first time, lost weight because all I ate was cereal. I ate tiny little salads and cereal. I didn’t like any of the food that they made in the hot dinner line. When I moved off campus, finally I could buy some regular food. The first year, I was like, huh, okay.

Fanny: It was really grim.

Zibby: It was pretty grim.

Fanny: I mention this in the book. I did discover frozen yogurt. That was danger. Yogurt is a misnomer, like that weird frozen stuff. I ate so much of that my freshman year.

Zibby: Me too. We lived at Durfy’s. All my pictures were at that frozen yogurt place. It was amazing. That was my sustenance. I think that time of life too, everybody was eating frozen yogurt. It was the thing. Now, I don’t know. I listened to you talk about your relationship to food as so normal. It seemed so obvious. Yet so many people struggle with not only themselves, but how to teach their children to eat in just the manner you were talking about, which is essentially not really thinking about it that much. You’re focusing on the good ingredients and the food and the rituals but not the fat-inducing part of it, which is so key.

Fanny: My mom was really not freaked out by fat. Before we had this, we embraced — actually, she had a funny little paradoxical contradiction in how she would provision. On the one hand, she was feeding me non-fat milk and non-fat yogurt which was this weird holdover or backlash from a kind of fifties high-cholesterol diet. She thought non-fat milk was the healthy thing, which meant that for years I was like, milk is disgusting. It is the worst substance. I remember protesting once. My pediatrician told my mom that I needed to have more calcium. I had this little protest in the morning. I insisted on eating my dry cereal flakes with a handful of Tums because I didn’t want the milk on my cereal. I subsequently discovered whole milk, and it was amazing. That happened a long time ago. In my childhood, it was non-fat milk. However, when we were sitting down to the table, she would happily eat a rind of fat off of steak. She wasn’t trying aggressively to not eat carbs or not eat fat. She never ate a huge amount. She just was really measured, but not in this calculated sort of anxious way. Her energy and love around food meant that I had just a very unvexed relationship to it myself. I feel very lucky.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Do you miss being a part of a team, like playing soccer for that much time?

Fanny: No, not really, not in that sense. My body’s definitely too broken from that to even consider indulging in even the most modest pickup game, I think. My knees are not having it. I’ve always been a very, very social person. My new soccer team is my dinner table. I get to have all these wonderful people over. It’s the thing I’m missing most right now. I usually cook for people a couple times a week. I don’t live in Berkeley. I live in San Francisco. Our apartment’s not that big. We’ll still come over to my mom’s and make massive, thirty-five-person dinner parties in the back garden. The house is sort of, you would never know it, but down in the basement there’s enough tables and tablecloths and chairs for forty people because there are occasionally catering things that happen here, big dinner parties that require all those things. I’m missing having, especially with a garden in full bloom with spring — I feel sort of forlorn. That’s how I’ve gathered people in my adult life, is around the table, which of course is absolutely part of my childhood. How my mom thought of, I think, raising me was just having other people around too.

Zibby: Maybe you could do a series of dinners in the garden and call it Dinners in the Garden or something and then invite like forty people over Zoom and then record it or something. That would be so neat to get a whole bunch of interesting people and have your parties and put them all around and cook.

Fanny: I just miss humans.

Zibby: No, I know. I know. That was a poor substitute. I miss humans too. I really do.

Fanny: We have been doing really sweet, more intimate Zoom dinners with friends. I’ve had a friend — I’m like, “What do you have in your fridge?” We’re both like, “We’ve both got cabbage.” I’m like, “I’ve got some salmon in the freezer.” We’ve made sure we’ve had more or less the same ingredients. Then we’ve cooked the meal together in the kitchen.

Zibby: Aw, that’s so nice.

Fanny: On FaceTime and then sat down and propped the computer. Our partners join. We sit down and have — my friend Satia who’s an actor, we did a hilarious thing where we had — it was like, “Let me hand you –” I think we had the same type of water glass or plate or something. It was like, “Here. Here’s some water.” Then he’d pull it away on the other side. We were doing a sort of illusionistic sharing. It was good fun. It was a little Band-Aid for the longing. Again though, I just feel so lucky to be where I am. As much as I miss my friends, I know it’s temporary. I feel lucky to have a community even if it’s disembodied at the moment.

Zibby: You worked for a long time on the book. Tell me about the process of writing the book. Did you write it in your apartment? Where and when did you write it? How long did it take? the whole backstory of your writing it.

Fanny: I started it I guess about three years ago, maybe a little bit longer. It was very in bits and pieces because I was still kind of — multiple jobs, really. I think of myself as having three jobs. One of them is running a design brand called Permanent Collection which has a very small team. It’s pretty much just me and my cofounder and then one woman who is our director of operations part time. We’re a really small little company which means there’s tons of work there. Then the other strand is art criticism and freelance journalism around arts and culture, until recently on the masthead at WSJ Magazine. Then this other strand was like, now I have a book deal that I need to do. I need to create a book. It was always a little bit of a juggle to find the time. It wasn’t like sitting down weeks on end just working in a single-minded way. My brain kind of works like that where I am actually pretty easily able to shift these gears between the things. If I had an hour or a day that I could really consecrate to the book, I could get into that mindset pretty quickly, thankfully, which maybe was just an adaptation to the necessity of having to do that.

By far, the best periods were when I was able to have a few weeks at a time. I did go up to Gallinas which is one of the places that’s written about in the book, a little beach town just north of here where I grew up going when I was a kid. My godmother has a house there. I actually had almost a month where I turned off all my other requirements, did nothing but just sit and work on the book. I really don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but one of the sneaky things that I discovered about when I’m really writing in a focused way and moving my body very little is all I want to eat is sugar. It’s an unbelievable, unquenchable — I don’t even really think about sugar otherwise. I’d wake up and, to my boyfriend, I was like, “Can you make pancakes for breakfast?” Two hours later I’m like, “Can we have brownies for lunch? Can we have cake for dinner?” It must be something about the way the brain burns energy where it just wants very available glucose or something. This is my theory. Of course, it’s completely not scientifically substantiated. I just don’t ever want to eat that way otherwise. Then as soon as I stopped the project — it was similar during my PhD too. The last home stretch, I ate unfathomable quantities of chocolate. Then the second I submitted the thing, no more desire, just dropped off a cliff. It was just a very specific thing. Anyways, lots of brownies were consumed in the making of Always Home, which is not intuitive when you read the content. I speak very little about baking and also generally not being very good at baking and the fact that sugar was something I was largely deprived of when I was a kid.

Then I also worked — my friend has an amazing commune up in Mendocino in Albion. It was a commune from the seventies, all these little hippie cabins spread out through the woods. It was quasi-derelict. He bought it and has been rehabilitating it. He’s an artist and architect. His name’s Fritz Haeg from LA who moved up to Mendocino to undertake this project. The cabins are so beautiful. They’re very isolated. The one that I was in had no internet, which is highly recommended for writing. I spent a couple weeks there, too, working. It was those focused periods of writing, even though I managed to do it throughout, that really felt like I was able to see the whole of the book because it is a vignette structure where they’re sort of somewhat chronologically organized but not explicitly. Some are definitely not even really rooted in one moment in time. They’re more impressionistic. Spending more time with the book being able to spread everything out and actually see what territory you’d covered was invaluable. Those more protected periods of time were great.

Zibby: Has this inspired you to write more books? Are you like, that’s it, I’ve had enough?

Fanny: No, not at all. I don’t know what the next book is about yet, but I would love to. For me, I take a lot of pleasure in writing about art especially. The most possibly unremunerated work on the planet is to write art reviews. It’s still something I really like to do and write in a very succinct format. Maybe this is just doing a PhD in England where I think there’s a certain appreciation of a more distended, loquacious way of writing or thinking through subjects. As its best, it’s so lexically dense, but it’s also really good. It’s not, hopefully, too hypertrophied. This was a way of letting myself kind of ramble and then tighten it in. I don’t know if you know the books by Gerald Durrell, the book called My Family and Other Animals. He was Lawrence Durrell’s brother. He ended up being a zoologist. He was a fabulous writer. That book is the one that I had most in my mind when I was writing, this rambling story of childhood, all these eccentric characters, being curious about nature and really plugged into the natural world. Anyway, sorry, this is a run-on. This is the most . This is form and content which is mirroring back to . I’m sorry.

Zibby: No, it’s great. Do you have advice to aspiring authors having completed this project and now ushering it out into the world?

Fanny: That’s a good question. I think write the book that you need to write. For me, this is the book that I needed to write. It was the obvious subject for right now. I knew there’s some things I’m interested in. There are other things that other people would, I think, like me to write about. Then there are things that are really an authentic need. I hesitate to call this art, but I think with all art, for artists to make good art, you have to be led by some kind of compulsion. There has to be a feeling of necessity, like if you don’t write that thing or you don’t make that thing or paint that thing — maybe you don’t even know what it is, but it’s just going and doing it and honoring the process. It’s the feeling of being driven that makes, usually, something good come out of it, or hopefully. Even if not, it feels rewarding. It feels gratifying to make it. Just keep at it.

Zibby: Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Look forward to having you in our book club. Thank you for your fantastic stories.

Fanny: Thank you, Zibby. It’s such a pleasure to talk to you this morning.

Zibby: Thanks. You too.

Fanny: See you soon.

Zibby: Okay. I’ll see you soon. Buh-bye.

Fanny: Bye.

Fanny Singer, ALWAYS HOME