I didn’t have my glasses on. I drove past her house three times in the dark dusk of a November 6pm. Back roads in Bucks County do not have street lights so you depend on knowing where you are going and the light of the stars – I had neither. After reading her email all the way through, I finally realized all I had to do was pull into the driveway and knock on the door, because I had arrived.
Her home is out of a magazine. An eclectic gathering of memories materialized into photographs, pottery, candelabras, mid-century modern furniture, books, and, of course, cookware. The ambiance was conducive to creativity and conversation, Bonnie Raitt and Fleetwood Mac shuffled on i-Tunes, and dinner wafted in from the kitchen.
My first encounter with Shelley Wiseman was last year at The Farm Cooking School in Stockton, NJ for a French Technique Class. I was introduced to her by Ian Knauer, her current partner at The Farm Cooking School and former colleague from the one and only Gourmet Magazine. The two of them so graciously allow me to volunteer in classes from time to time by prepping mise-en-place, setting the table, and washing dishes in exchange for cooking lessons, companionship, and food.
But now, here I am in her home. She welcomes me with the warmest hug and then bustles back into the kitchen when her phone begins to chime. “If I don’t set an alarm, I’ll forget what I have where”, she says from the other room. “Please sit! Would you like a glass of wine?”
I can do nothing but take it all in. For me, this woman is a version of M.F.K. Fisher. She’s that mixture of grace, confidence, modesty, knowledge, culture, and je ne sais quoi that I’ve always admired in successful people – men and women alike.
When I first got the idea for this blog-umn, I envisioned it being a cross between Mark Bittman’s old NY Time’s column and Darra Goldstein’s Gastronomica magazine. The type of article that really gets digs deep into the questions about sustainability, the future of food, and the future of our humans.
Before we met up I emailed Shelley several topics that dealt with everything from the obesity epidemic we are still facing as a nation to the fight on nutritional labeling and “what is” organic. I wanted to know what she thought! What do the people who dictate food in the media really think about… well, food? Our focus changed fast as did my vision of playing Barbara Walters for the evening – but I’m very happy with where the conversation led.
“I’m afraid you may be rather disappointed with my political talk, this evening,” she said as she dipped some cauliflower into a curry aioli.
“Shelley, we can talk about whatever you want to talk about. Please. I’m just so thankful to even be doing this with you – just start by you telling me about you.”
“Well, I can tell you this. I remember when I was in Arkansas working on an educational video teaching kids about their vegetables. When I went shopping for produce for the shoot – I couldn’t find them. I mean, I couldn’t find fresh vegetables anywhere. So, I don’t think a lot of our food issues as a nation come from people just not consuming better food, it’s as much a shortage issue, as it is a distribution issue.” This resonated with me. I had done so much research on ‘food-deserts’ while I was in my dietetics program. It isn’t a matter of there being no healthy food, it’s a matter of not getting it to all places equally – or at all!
Shelley continued on without stop, one thought feeding the next: food waste, sustainability, education-gaps, European farming practices, the arrogance we have with food, media-literacy and food – we hit it all in what felt like a minute.
“I was in Europe just recently and bought two Time Magazines that highlighted our war with food. I love reading their views on food. I mean, I love the way Europeans see and treat food. But can we really replicate that here? Is it really sustainable and can it be sustainable on a larger scale? I don’t know.”
I didn’t, either… and still don’t know. I see that people are trying to go with sustainable practices, procuring locally, purchasing organic the best you can. The problem remains that all of this comes at a very high price – a price that the majority cannot afford.
She got up several more times to the chime of her phone. “Dammit, I think I just pulled the vegetables with moments to spare! They’re slightly overdone… well… too, bad.” I love her attitude.
The first bottle of wine was finished just in time to toss the tagliatellli with roasted cauliflower and squash.
She shared so much about her life beyond how she got to where she is today. Our conversation sounded more like it was torn from the pages of a memoir – she highlighted certain moments such as her time in France and Mexico.
You see, that’s the thing that I learned about Shelley that night: she’s more than a former editor of Gourmet magazine, she’s more than a gastro-guru, she’s more than an artist – she’s real. She uses her hands when she cooks, she utilizes the 20-30degree weather of January to act as her outdoor walk-in, she doesn’t always buy organic, she refills her glass (and her guests’ glass) unapologetically, and she works her ass off.
Even with her expansive career, her impressive passport, and her elite composure, she is a woman who openly longs to have companionship and a sense of home. From talking to Shelley what she longs for is what we all long for: balance and fulfillment. She confessed that while living and working in France at probably one of her most challenging, though fairly influential positions in the restaurant world, she would practice tai-chi in the park on her break. “It brought me a sense of calm”, she concluded.
We finished two-and-a-half bottles of wine and just talked for hours. She gave me a tour of her home and shared a few stories about the photos on the walls – most of which were taken by her brother. There was one photo, in particular that really caught might eye. It was taken when she was a child growing up with her brother on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. They were playing outside of a grand building near a water fountain. There was so much laughter on their faces – just pure, childhood bliss.
That’s Shelley. That child who was bouncing around in her fine clothes in a photo that could have been from Time, that’s Shelley.
What a beautiful, beautiful moment to have captured and to have hanging on your wall.
I left that evening full of everything from food (and wine) to wisdom to happiness to insight. I left that evening with a new friend, actually. I wonder now if that was a subconscious “why” I started this series or just a blessed effect.