Food culture is basically disposable. You think anyone’s still cooking from last year’s Mad Men cookbook? And most of the stars on food TV—will anyone remember their names after their shows stop airing? But Susan Feniger is pretty much immortal. Last week I got a sweet assignment: with my coworkers Blake Smith and Christine Gallary, to produce a couple of videos for CHOW starring Feniger (she’s been touring to promote her latest book, Susan Feniger’s Street Food).
It wasn’t till Feniger got to our San Francisco offices that I realized how star-struck I was. She was shorter than I expected, wearing David Hockney glasses and a puckered headband, and in a well-washed chayote-green chef’s jacket with a beaded peace sign safety-pinned to the pocket. I said something embarrassing about how much I’d loved her work over the years. Like, really loved it.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, Feniger’s business partner, embodied cool LA style. They had a restaurant together, City, and wrote a book about it, City Cuisine. Back then I was cooking in a shitty neighborhood restaurant in Chicago—an exile from San Francisco—and the book reminded me of a world where steak au poivre coexisted easily with Thai curries and Indian pickles. It was an urbane and easygoing vision of California, and Feniger and Milliken were its ambassadors. In the basement prep kitchen in freezing Chicago, cooking out of City Cuisine was one of the things that helped me deal with my homesickness for the land of vivid sunsets and beautiful produce.
In the early ’90s, Feniger and Milliken were the first stars of Food Network, as the Two Hot Tamales. Milliken had a pixie bob you would have seen head-jamming at a Go-Go’s concert, circa 1987; Feniger wore microbangle bracelets that stretched up her forearm (she still does). They could cook, and they were energetic. Feniger told me that in four years they taped over 400 shows for Food Network, usually filming six in one day. Jesus.
In the CHOW Test Kitchen last week, Feniger was a pro, hitting her lines, staying energetic. Near the end, taping a segment about her recipe for a salted lassi, I caught a glimmer of Feniger’s secret of longevity. She’d blended a batch of the Indian yogurt drink with cumin, mint, and salt, then held up the blender jar and turned to us, looking for direction about how to taste it to see if the seasoning was right. “If I was at home, I’d do it like this,” she said, indicating that she’d sip it from the jar. We told her to go for it.
Feniger threw her head back and took a long sip. Then she turned to us and smiled: “This is really good.” She said it like she was discovering lassis for the first time. It was a lesson: Despite all the clutter of a career in restaurants and food TV, the agents and PR people, the biz-dev managers and investors, you have to stay connected to the food you love—even if it means drinking from the blender jar.
Look for CHOW’s Susan Feniger videos in October.
Photo of Susan Feniger in the CHOW Test Kitchen by Bread & Butter PR