Family Bonds and Habits: In Conversation with Fanny Singer, Author of Always Home
Ordinary Story is a monthly series by Rachel Schwartzmann that features musings and conversations on one of our favorite ordinary habits: reading. In the fourteenth installment of this series, Rachel speaks with Fanny Singer, co-founder of Permanent Collection and author of Always Home, about her reading habits, community and chosen family, and cultivating a habit of observation.
Fanny Singer's Always Home: A Daughter's Recipes & Stories is a delight for the senses. In this memoir-meets-cookbook, Singer provides a captivating portrait of life with her mother, Alice Waters—the esteemed chef, author, and activist known for Chez Panisse, the Edible Schoolyard Project, and more.
Across thirty-two chapters (with correlating recipes and intimate photographs scattered throughout), Singer chronicles her relationship with Waters and reflects on the vibrant array of people, places, and habits that characterized her youth. Whether Singer is at home or abroad, food remains at the core of her experiences. As she writes early in the book: "Flavor was the prism through which most things were seen or dissected or understood, even criticized."
Familial fame aside, Singer's own creative talent is present on every page. With lush prose and a conversational tone, Singer beckons readers into her world the way a friend might extend an invitation to stay for dinner—with intention and heart. Always Home certainly pays homage to Singer's mother, but it's also a greater celebration of community. In this way, Singer reminds us that feelings of home and connection can always be found when we gather around a table.
I spoke with Singer about her reading habits, what she's learned about community and chosen family, and cultivating a habit of observation.
— Rachel Schwartzmann
What ordinary habits best capture who you are at this point in your life?
That's a good question. I have a salad-washing ritual. [Laughs] I've been in London for a little while now visiting my fiancé, but I normally live in LA and go religiously to the Hollywood Farmers' Market on Sundays. I get all my produce pretty much for the week. Then I have this kind of triage back at my house, where everything in my very small studio apartment gets laid out, and I assess. I wash all my lettuce and put it into these towels and then into wax bags in my refrigerator to keep it fresh for the week. That's one of my ordinary habits—I suppose you could call it—a treasured salad-obsessed ritual.
I was flashing back to when you were describing hanging out as a baby in the salad bowls [in Always Home].
Yes, I come by it very honestly! [Laughs] My mom always used to say—when people would ask me about what I was into, what kind of foods I was into—when I was a little kid: "At least I got a kid who liked salad." That was the most important thing.
Given your mother's affinity for beauty and aesthetics, especially as a vehicle for community and care, would you say that she also instilled your love of storytelling and writing?
Not in a linear way. I feel like my mom made a lot of room for imagination. She was a Montessori teacher before she opened Chez Panisse. She studied in London in the '60s for that and came back to Berkeley and was all set to be a teacher. Then her love of food eclipsed her love of teaching, but not in a way that it ever fully pushed it out of the picture—which is why the Edible Schoolyard has been such an important part of her career.
But I think the way that she raised me was really about me leading my own stories in an environment conducive to that: making a beautiful place, like a garden full of tomatoes and things that I could snack on and entertain myself with. She didn't try and dictate what I was doing; she kind of let me find the narrative myself. It wasn't that way where I felt there was a direct causality between that and my inclination towards writing or storytelling, but I do think she created a very fertile environment for it.
I love that. She gave you so much agency over your likes and dislikes. I think that's really special. What came first for you: reading or writing?
I remember being old enough to be stressed out that I couldn't read yet. At the time, I was in a French school and learning two languages simultaneously in immersion—and it really does, sometimes with some kids, hinder the progress of one's literacy. My dad was still reading me stories, and I was crying because I couldn't read the books myself. [Laughs]
But it was really during my PhD in Art History … it was very much more rooted in research and academia. I was in that kind of protected time in my mid-twenties that I think I really figured out I wanted to be a writer. I was not just reading art history; I was reading so widely. It's kind of the beauty of doing a PhD—there is a permissiveness around what you can do intellectually. If you have, as I did, the benefit of funding, it's this unbelievable gift to be extremely free in what you're thinking about, reading, and writing. You might eventually have to constrict it in the form of your dissertation, but the kind of fertile ground that the academy can create—if you use it, and you meet all these people and talk to them about all these different things, which was the benefit of being someplace wonderful, like Cambridge—it really did generate the spark for wanting not to teach but go into a career that had, at least as part of it, writing at its center.
Would you say that it really shaped your reading habits? How would you describe your reading habits?
I started in college—I took several poetry classes—but it was during my PhD that I read tons and tons of poetry because I felt like it was the antithesis of academic writing, which is so stultifying. You become a sort of disgustingly grand eloquent writer—especially in a British PhD program—yet there's a necessary voice that you have to adopt for that kind of academic undertaking. So, in a way, poetry was the antidote. It was a way of remembering how free writing can be and imagination can be within writing. And how unconstricted by the idea of "making sense" poetry is, yet how much sense it makes intuitively to us when we're reading it. So I was reading a lot of poetry, which is still the case. I probably have equal parts art catalogs and poetry books.
How would you describe your mother's library? And if you had to curate a shared library between you both, what books would be on her shelves and on yours?
She has the entire collection of every book published by Wendell Berry—the venn diagram seriously overlaps right there. But her library is predominantly culinary. Then there are a lot of books relating to activism around ecology, research around climate change, farming and agrarian practices, regenerative agriculture, and things like that. So she has a sort of practical and policy-based library and then her gastronomical library.
I really like to read novels and poetry and about art—those are things that I think my mom has never quite felt a total foothold in. They have been an interest of mine that I think I probably share more with my father. My dad and I are obsessed with this book by Jenny Erpenbeck called Go, Went, Gone, which was published a few years ago. It's a novel, but it's about the refugee crisis in Germany, and it's incredibly salient still now. I like books that are beautifully written and have a lot of literary flair but also have a grounding in what's happening in this world.
Let's shift gears a bit and discuss your gorgeous book, Always Home. What habits did you have to cultivate when curating the experiences and recipes featured in the book? What felt most out of the ordinary when compiling everything?
Writing recipes felt out of the ordinary, which is why they ended up being more freeform than a traditional bullet point [list] of ingredients and step-by-step methodology—because I don't write recipes ever, and I never follow them. I'm terrible at following them, so it felt unnatural to try and do that for the sake of the book. I am working on another book, and I'm like, "oh, I think this one might have to be a little bit more method-driven," but it's not something that comes really naturally to me.
But the memories of food came first; that's what led the narrative of the book. I wanted it to be really focused around food and not to be some all-encompassing biography. I don't feel like that's warranted at my age or even at my level of minuscule recognition in the world. So it felt like something that could really ground the book: to have it be focused on these incredibly salient memories of food. It was just combing through my memory and history to recollect these bright spots of tastes or smells and flavors, and then almost to work back from that—to know that recipe or something around that ingredient was going to feature and then tell the story that gave it context.
The detail in which you describe food and environments is so immersive. For instance, you "internalized a litany of smells" at Chez Panisse, such as "the astringency of the cedar that paneled the coak closet, the ripe fruit that was stored on the shelves of an outdoor breezeway in the summertime, the faint smell of the ethanol lamps glowing on each table, the freshly vacuumed carpets of the downstairs dining room, the smell of a pizza blackening in the wood-fired oven." And later, in the chapter "The Pyrenees," you describe gazing at the sky and write: "The Milky Way was, rather appropriately, at its milkiest, like a liquid splash of astral matter extending across the entirety of the sky. All the kids lay in the damp grass and watched it like television." In the preface of the book, your mother also comments on your talent for describing the little things. All of this to say: How has writing impacted your ability to notice the little things in life? Do you look for things to write about, or does a moment have to move you—and then you capture it on the page?
In a way, I think that this is where the art, critical side of my career does me an enormous service in the world of observation. I write about art regularly still, and it forces a keen awareness and that you keep the observational tools very honed because you need to be cataloging everything when you're looking at a work in order to be able to write about it later. I rarely take notes while looking at paintings or film work, or anything like that. But I am making almost—while standing in a gallery, say—a kind of list of phrases or observations. What are things that are coming up for me?
As a result, I do that wherever I am—observing things: whether it's in nature or a restaurant... My fiancé would say I have an overly tuned critical apparatus. If something's displeasing, I'm all too quick to make a note of it and sometimes verbalize it to him—usually, it's around a smell I don't like. [Laughs]
It's why, in this period of my life, rather than feeling torn between disparate careers—like my art writing can't live in a contiguous way with my food writing, or the way I think about food, or what I'm doing in my culinary career, or what I'm doing with Permanent Collection—I feel that these separations feel really false now. Or at least I don't have the insecurity of youth plaguing me around, keeping these things siloed to uphold some professional seriousness or stature in one or the other place. It's been a big relief because they all do bleed together. They are all part of how we sense, feel, take in, and share the world we inhabit, whether it's food or art. Those things are not so dissimilar. And so, the same tools needed to discern something in one, I think, are equally relevant in discerning a detail or making an observation in the other.
Something else I appreciated about Always Home is your exploration—and celebration—of what family and home can be. In addition to the sensorial descriptions throughout the book, you also lend your careful eye to people. You honor so many incredible culinary figures and family friends. At one point, you write: "Even though my mother had a mother—a wonderful, kind woman I knew mainly in her senescence—Lulu [Peyraud] simply is my mother's mother, or at least in the most important of ways: a mother of the spirit." Many of these experiences are through the lens of your childhood. How do you discuss or reflect on family with your mother as an adult? Do you talk about that today?
Not explicitly. My mom and I are obviously incredibly close and will be forever. [Laughs] But she also very intentionally built an extended family for me, whether it's Bob [Carrau] or Sue, who's mentioned briefly in the book, but who I actually live around the corner from in Silver Lake in LA now and see almost every day, who I kind of call a godmother—but I have about twenty-five women that I would call that. This sort of network of a chosen family; I mean, I love my aunts by blood and some of my mom's cousins I'm very close to, and I loved my grandparents. But the example of Lulu also indicates how unimportant I think these blood delineations are and that we find the people to whom we connect the most. And then those people become the family that helps us raise our kids, take care of us when we're sick, or cook for us—these kinds of loose communes.
The other day I was musing to my partner that the work of my life almost feels like maintaining friendships. That's what I feel most drawn to doing: building community. I've done it sort of aggressively wherever I've lived. Who am I interested in? Who do I want to meet? Who do I think is making interesting work? Who is engaged in interesting politics? Who is making something delicious or painting something beautiful? How can I gather those people around a table? So my mom's lesson on the centrality of food is so completely germane to how I think about organizing my life socially now. But it's not because I'm a cook per se. It's because I'm very invested in strong, interesting, and diverse communities that, frankly, enrich my life more than anything but also lead to really interesting collaborations or conversations between other people at the table, too.