I bought a cookbook last month for the author’s signature inside. My Pantry, by Alice Waters, arrived yesterday in a box on my doorstep. Food52.com offered the signed copies through their online shop, so there were several degrees of separation between me and Alice in this transaction. That was not the case the first time she signed a book for me. On December 30, 1982, I was 21 years old and in Berkeley, California, on my honeymoon. My husband and I had been married for two and a half days, and I had carried my copy of The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook in my luggage from Little Rock, hoping for this very opportunity.
We went to Chez Panisse for a meal in the casual café upstairs from the more expensive bistro, and I asked our server if Ms. Waters might sign my book. He disappeared for a moment, then returned, beckoning us to follow him downstairs. We met the chef in a darkened alcove of the restaurant, devoid of customers since dinner service would not begin for several hours. She was polite but said little as she wrote her name and the date on the title page of the book. I asked her if I could reprint one of her recipes in a food column I wrote for the tiny newspaper back home in rural Arkansas. Alice, who’d rated her very own paragraph in Time magazine a few months earlier, was kind enough not to laugh. She referred me to her publicist, handed me back my cookbook, and excused herself to return to work in the kitchen.
Our encounter was brief and not really life-changing, but I cherish the memory and the cookbook, which proved more valuable to me for the prose than for the recipes. My meager reporter’s salary didn’t stretch far enough to buy things like wild mushrooms and lamb in 1982-83, and some of the dishes were too challenging for our inexperienced taste buds. Three decades on, the palates of my husband and I have expanded, as well as our grocery budget and my cooking skills. (Yes! I’m still cooking for the same great guy!) But I never forgot the kindness of an accomplished chef making time to greet and sign a book for a young, novice cook on her honeymoon. Thanks, Alice.