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Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa

I’ve never met Ina Garten, and it’s possible I never will, but, judging by the guests that we meet on her programme, I may be perfectly suited to be one of her friends; middle-aged, handsome, (I make myself blush, honestly), and gay, although they all look like they have more money and many more pastel-coloured sweaters than I do. They’re as smiley as actors at an audition. The other night Ina was making cocktails and, I swear, peanut butter dog biscuits, when two guys dropped in. They were the producers of the film of Chicago. Fortunately, at least for that episode’s theme, they had their dog with them. They horsed around. One of them fenced with Ina using rolling pins. Something made Ina genuinely laugh, which is something you don’t hear very often on tv, let alone food tv. It started from her diaphragm, and rose to become full-throated, a deep, happy and amused laugh. I thought that laugh was unguarded, generous and beautiful and everything fell into place and I got the Barefoot Contessa. After many years of having the programme on in the background, usually I watch it with only half an eye, I looked up and thought, OK.

Ina lives in a beautiful house in the Hamptons, the lovely, dune-y part of Long Island, east of New York City. Her home is decorated in that murderously expensive but doesn’t look it American style. There are white walls and wooden floors. I imagine you can hear the sea from the master bedroom. The kitchen, which she says is her actual kitchen and not only used for recording the tv show, is enormous. Ina never has to put a pan on the floor because there’s no other space for it. She had a new library built and invited the builders for lunch. She made biscuits in the shape of hammers, iced her guests’ names on them and used them as place cards. Ina Garten’s garden is even more impressive. At night everything is lit by a thousand thick church candles in a thousand hurricane lamps and the trees have a thousand fairy lights strung in their branches. She grows industrial quantities of herbs. There are miles of box hedging and a walled garden. There’s a garden for cut flowers and a small orchard. She has more lavender than grows in Province and more tulips than are grown in Holland. Ina suggests there is only one gardener for all this. He must work hard. It is, as I say, beautiful.

ina-1Ina has a husband of many years, Jeffrey, but they don’t have any children. Jeffrey was once the dean of Harvard Business School, which sounds quite impressive, doesn’t it. We see him writing a book in one programme. Many years ago she worked at the White House in the Budget Office so I think they’re a clever couple. I wish they didn’t, but Ina and Jeffrey simper around each other, at least when the camera is on. One is always putting their arm around the other and making kissy noises. Who am I to feel queasy at this? In one episode she cooks for their wedding anniversary. They’ve been married forty-six years and she shows us a photo of them dancing together at their wedding, when she was twenty and Jeffrey was twenty-one. Look, she says, pointing at her wedding dress, I had mink trim. I genuinely love the way she shows us this, bemused by her own young self and the campery of unfashionable fashion. You can hear some of her original Brooklyn accent and I love that, too.

So Ina must be in her middle sixties and I think she’s a fine-looking woman. I can’t imagine that she minds me calling her Ina. She looks like she enjoys what she cooks, which is not an insult. She’s a woman who has found her style. She wears mannish shirts, sometimes with the collars up, little obvious makeup, and a long bob which looks seriously expensive. It shines and it swings and is mesmerising in its way and it is worth every penny she spends on it. I hope it’s tax-deductible. She often (a little too often), says It’s not a party until the fire department shows up, and I think she must be a lot of fun to be around. Her friends are charmed into helping at parties; they tend bar or serve canapés which they must love doing. I would, anyway. It’s the best way to meet people at a party and the best way to move on once you’ve met them, in that beautiful house or that beautiful garden.

It’s all expertly done, the programme made by the same team that makes Nigella’s, the same high production values and seductive photography, the colours bright, the light a warm white. The sound quality is quite something, too. You can, as she says, hear the egg-shell hitting the sink.

Her Barefoot Contessa food business was started on Long Island in the late 70s. The shop she bought was already called that and she says she’s never seen the film after which it’s named. Anyway, the shop was successful. Very. The food she cooks in her books and on the show is in the same style; Protestant East Coast, some Italian-American, a smattering of Jewish. France is often a starting point for a recipe. And French food, done like this, without the scary bits, without the pig’s feet or the gizzards or the tête de veau, is very easy on the eye and palette. She’ll make a pear tatin to follow a boeuf bourguignon. She has a hundred things to do with chicken. Roasted or barbecued, parmigiano or southern-fried. There’s mac and cheese, clam chowder, peach cobbler.  She makes cakes and scones. These are all good things.

She follows her own recipes which are, in the American style, exact about quantity. She says, I’m a science person; I measure everything. A teaspoon in cooking is a precise measure, as is a cup. She sometimes, to an Englishman’s amusement, introduces America to unfamiliar ingredients. Fresh ginger, say, or leeks, which she calls wacky-looking things. She must get through three tons of butter a week. Who could complain about that? she asks. Not I, Ina, not I. The food that Ina Garten cooks isn’t revolutionary or intimidating. It is always food you want to eat presented in a natural and beautiful way. It’s the very best home cooking and perfect for guests, too. She’s never too formal. There’ll be coq au vin with an angel cake for dessert. How easy was that? she’ll ask, and none of it looks difficult. She says, It doesn’t have to be perfect, don’t obsess over it, which is the best advice anyone could ever give or take in the kitchen.

There have been nine cookbooks, selling over ten million copies, and a tv series a year since 2002. Each book sells more than the previous one. Her most recent, Make it Ahead, had a print run of 1.4 million in the US. There’s a regular magazine column and many features articles. There’s a short tour of America this autumn, interviews and Q and As, as well as a book tour. She was once asked to do something with the United Nations but declined. Solve the problems of the world? Yeah, I’ll make everyone chicken pot pie and they’ll be happy! She’s often asked to put her name to a line of food or cookware or her own magazine but she turns them down knowing she’d lose control of it and probably her life, too. There’s a small range of cake mixes and marinades, high quality and expensive, of course. She is a busy woman. She laughs a lot. She’s happy with the way things are.


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