‘The Silver Palate Cookbook’ Changed Home Cooking (and Pesto Consumption) As We Know It
Published in 1982, it brought verve to entertaining and taught a generation of American cooks to trust in bold flavors, fresh herbs, and the joys of improvisation
by Aimee Levitt Dec 7, 2022, 9:30am EST
If you lived through the 1980s there’s a decent chance that, at some point, you crossed paths with raspberry vinaigrette, pesto, and arugula. By the end of the decade, they had become part of the atmosphere hanging over American society, like a giant cloud of Aqua Net holding up so many teased bangs. Many loved these foods; many others derided them as pretentious yuppie garbage. But the source of their popularity, at least in home kitchens, was all but undisputed: The Silver Palate Cookbook, originally published in 1982, more than 2.5 million copies sold.
The cookbook was a product of its time and place: New York’s Upper West Side in the late 1970s and early ’80s. A world synonymous (at least in the mind of the average moviegoer) with Woody Allen and then Nora Ephron. You can bet that before they were forced to play Pictionary at that dinner party, Harry and Sally were fed salmon mousse and chicken Marbella or maybe osso bucco. (Ephron was a Silver Palate fan.) Even outside of New York, the presence of a Silver Palate cookbook was a sign of a stylish and modern cook, a connoisseur of imported cheese and fine wine. If you owned a copy, you were someone who would never dream of serving meatloaf shellacked with ketchup or a casserole seasoned with cream of mushroom soup, but you were also too busy to devote entire Saturday afternoons to worshiping at the altar of Julia Child.
The book’s origins can be traced to 1976, when Sheila Lukins launched a catering business from her kitchen in the Dakota, an exclusive apartment building on Central Park West. The menu was composed of dishes she had encountered in her travels throughout Europe and the Middle East, particularly around the Mediterranean. Lukins, a Cordon Bleu graduate and married mother of two, called the business the Other Woman (slogan: “So delicious, so discreet, and I deliver”); many of her clients were young bachelors who wanted to impress their dates while entertaining at home.
One of those dates was Julee Rosso, an ad director for a textile firm. She was so impressed that she hired Lukins to provide croissants with red and black raspberry mousse for a press breakfast. The event was a success and the two women became friends. Rosso, who was c getting tired of the corporate world, suggested they open a gourmet shop together.
“I said, ‘No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No,’” Lukins recalled in the New York Times 17 years later. But Rosso persisted, and in the summer of 1977, the pair rented a shop that was roughly the size of a dorm room on Columbus Avenue, a block from Lukins’s apartment. They had excellent timing: Before the shop even opened, they received a complimentary writeup in New York magazine as part of a package celebrating the rebirth of Columbus from a “grimy combat zone” to a vibrant shopping and dining street. The blurb’s author, Florence Fabricant, had also given the store its name during a preview tasting (“on the spur of the moment and without any monetary compensation,” she would write later); Lukins and Rosso’s original choice was Seaboard Deluxe, diner slang for “to go.”
The night the Silver Palate opened, the New York Philharmonic was giving a free concert a few blocks away in Central Park. Despite the 103-degree temperature and the store’s broken air conditioning, Lukins and Rosso completely sold out their inventory. It turned out that people who read New York magazine and attended free orchestra concerts were also the sort of people who wanted picnics with pate, salmon mousse, and cold puree of pea soup, and could afford the equivalent of $50 per person for dinner.
By their own account, Lukins and Rosso barely saw daylight for the next four years. Lukins was doing all the cooking (still in her apartment; on at least one occasion, her neighbor John Lennon helped her schlep food over to the shop), and Rosso was minding the store, explaining bisteeya and torta rustica to customers and encouraging them to just try the blueberry chutney, they’d like it! In 1978, Rosso and Lukins launched a second business providing canned blueberry chutney and other condiments to gourmet shops around the country, starting with Saks Fifth Avenue.
To connect with customers, they distributed a newsletter, illustrated with Lukins’s line drawings. Inevitably, since this was New York, they found themselves at lunch one day in 1981 with an editor from Workman Publishing who asked if they had considered writing a cookbook. “I said, Oh yes — we’re working on one!” Rosso recalled in 2015. “Which was a complete lie. Sheila [was] kicking me under the table.” Nonetheless, once the editor followed up, they retreated to Lukins’s apartment one weekend, armed with a notepad and a bottle of scotch, and emerged with an outline.
The finished book, written with the assistance of the store’s manager Michael McLaughlin, was an instant hit — boosted, no doubt, by Workman’s novel strategy of selling it in gourmet shops as well as bookstores, along with its selection by the Book of the Month Club. It also didn’t hurt that the Silver Palate’s canning business had made it a national brand.
But the book also appealed to an uninitiated audience. The authors were eager to explain what, exactly, arugula and pesto were and offered many simple suggestions for how to use them. Sure, they made excellent garnishes, but why not try serving the arugula with a simple garlic-anchovy dressing or scrambling pesto into eggs? Although some recipes, like the cassoulet, ventured into Julia Child territory (has there ever been a cassoulet that doesn’t take at least three days to prepare?), the abundant marginal notes, along with Lukins’s doodle-like line drawings and quotes from sources as varied as Shakespeare and Kay Thompson’s Eloise, gave — and still give — the book a tone that reads as friendly rather than instructional.
“We were good home cooks with peasant tastes,” Rosso told the LA Times in 1993. “Our palates were developing along with America’s, but maybe just a few steps ahead — and as soon as we learned something, we wrote about it.”
This meant the recipes were novel and aspirational, but not entirely out of reach for the average American cook. The ingredients were sometimes hard to find in supermarkets — one of the book’s marginal notes confessed that even the Silver Palate had trouble sourcing truffles, shallots, and asparagus — but the underlying message was, as Auguste Gusteau would later claim in Ratatouille, that anyone could cook. Even a hopeless case who used their oven to store clothing could assemble a nice charcuterie board (or, if finances allowed, a platter of caviar and oysters). Recipes weren’t sacred; they were meant to be used as guides, and to help novice cooks figure out what flavors they liked. “To follow a recipe repeatedly because it is safe, tried, true, and from a reliable source is boring and impersonal,” the authors wrote. “Take our recipes, make them your own, and improve upon them. That will be our greatest pleasure.”
What a relief that must have been after 20 years of the firm discipline of Mastering the Art of French Cooking!
This is not to say that The Silver Palate Cookbook was for everyone. Like all cookbook authors, Lukins and Rosso had definite culinary preferences. They loved big flavors, especially garlic. They were unafraid of booze, butter, cream, and olive oil. They adored mousses and mayonnaise, both Hellmann’s and homemade. They could not resist the urge to dress every piece of meat with fruit, or at the very least, a fruity vinaigrette and some fresh herbs. Their favorite appliance was the food processor.
They also clearly loved dinner parties, which makes sense given their start as caterers. Every recipe in The Silver Palate Cookbook serves at least eight. The chili is specifically “for a crowd.” (It calls for eight pounds of ground beef and two pounds of Italian sausage, plus six pounds of tomatoes and three cans of kidney beans.) This was not a book for people who preferred plain convenience food, or families who needed to squeeze in dinner between soccer practice and Hebrew school. It was for people who made dining into an occasion, who liked to dress up their meals with sauces and garnishes, and who would welcome Lukins and Rosso’s suggested sample menus for an after-the-theater buffet, a Russian brunch, and a “back-packing picnic,” the latter of which includes brie and chicken liver pate with green peppercorns.
Here I must confess these were not my people: Though I saw it on other people’s shelves, I never knowingly consumed anything from The Silver Palate Cookbook until I started cooking from it for this essay. I found the book easy to use: Its recipes are brief and work like they’re supposed to. The seasonings can be easily adjusted. The mayonnaise — a true test for me, because it always splits — actually held, and while I would never consider making The Silver Palate’s cold sesame noodles with mayo on my own, the instructions were clear and the result wasn’t terrible (though it did get a bit oily on the second day). The book’s famous salmon mousse was outside my usual wheelhouse, and I probably shouldn’t have used canned salmon, which brought back sad memories of my mother’s salmon loaf, but I would have been happy if I’d had one portion instead of 12. I am still not a Silver Palate person.
Who was a Silver Palate person? The obvious answer is yuppies, even then the object of scorn. “Yuppies are disgusting,” a society woman told New York writer Patricia Morrisroe in a 1986 report on “The New Snobbery.” “All this emphasis on drinking the proper wine and going to the right restaurant. We knew about these things already. We just had to relearn an appreciation for what we had.”
But The Silver Palate Cookbook wasn’t quite that. For all its willingness to venture beyond the typical American food of the time, it wasn’t elitist; Lukins and Rosso sincerely believed that everyone would love their recipes, even the ones that featured harder-to-find ingredients (they even suggested that readers grow their own arugula). Even as the American palate caught up with the book and overtook it, raspberry vinaigrette and pesto continue to have a place in chain restaurants and on grocery store shelves. Rosso and Lukins had taught us to trust in what seemed like unusual flavor combinations.
The Silver Palate closed in 1997. Lukins died in 2009, and Rosso currently runs an inn in Saugatuck, Michigan, near where she grew up.
The book, for its part, lives on. Its most famous recipe remains chicken Marbella, named after a small town on Spain’s Costa del Sol and invented by Lukins back in her Other Woman days. The food writer Molly O’Neill included it among the 50 most important recipes in American history, right up there with George Washington Carver’s puree of peanuts and Julia Child’s coq au vin. It has everything: salt (in the form of olives and capers), fat (olive oil), acid (red wine vinegar and white wine), and heat, plus sweetness (prunes and brown sugar) and heaps of garlic and oregano. Prep consists of throwing all the ingredients into a baking dish and letting it sit in the refrigerator overnight; pop it in the oven for an hour and, voila, dinner. It’s like a midcentury cream of mushroom soup casserole except with better groceries. It shouldn’t work — entirely the fault of the prune-olive combo — and yet it’s somehow delicious. The big flavors blend together into something both sweet and savory in a way that’s still surprising. Even the leftovers taste good. Cooks continue to pay it homage by adjusting it to their particular needs. Lukins and Rosso would be proud.