She sits at a table in her kitchen, serene, her warm, coffee-colored eyes smiling, her shoulder-length hair in the loose, natural ringlets that have replaced her pre-deadly-worldwide-pandemic blow-dry. She is framed just off-center by the camera on her phone, like the composition of a painting. Her hands folded in front of her, as if she had been preparing for this call rather than preparing Thanksgiving dinner for herself and her dear husband.
She did the same thing when I met her a couple of months ago at her house in East Hampton, New York. As I parked in her gravel driveway, she appeared as if by magic from behind a privet hedge to unlock the gate, but by the time I got out of my car and walked through the gate, she had somehow zipped—like the Flash—to the head of a long table in her garden. There she sat, phone and notebook placed at right angles beside her, hands folded in front of her, eyes smiling, serene, as if she had been there for hours.
Back on Thanksgiving afternoon: “I got the smallest turkey I could find, because it’s just the two of us,” she says to the screen, one of millions of FaceTime conversations that must be happening across the United States at that very moment. It’s only eight pounds, and she’s going to try spatchcocking it, which she’s never done but if it doesn’t work, who cares? Jeffrey won’t tell anyone. “And herb-and-apple stuffing, chipotle smashed sweet potatoes, and—I don’t know, what else?”
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She looks over toward the stove. So relaxed.
“Roasted Brussels sprouts. That kind of thing. What are you doing? How big is your turkey?”
The two of us, gabbing about what we’re making. Me and Ina Garten, the Barefoot frigging Contessa, who’s just published her twelfth cookbook, who’s hosted a show on the Food Network for eighteen years, and who’s nurturing 2.9 million people through this long year of home cooking, one applesauce-cake Instagram post at a time.
I tell her the turkey is 18 pounds.
“So how long are you cooking it?”
The instructions said five to six hours, I tell her.
“Nah,” she says.
“No, I wouldn’t even imagine it was going to cook for three or three and a half.”
I tell her this is like the gold-level version of the Butterball Hotline.
“Ha! Right. The Ina-ball Hotline,” she says.
“One thing: It’s stuffed,” I say.
She pauses, looks up, crooks her jaw in thought.
“Oh it’s stuffed,” she says. She almost sounds disappointed. “See, that’s—I usually recommend not stuffing. Because then you don’t have to overcook the outside of the turkey in order for the stuffing to be cooked. That’s why the turkey is often dry, because the stuffing has to get to the 160-degree temperature, so that it kills any bacteria, but by that time, the white meat is way overcooked.”
I ask her: “Could I take the stuffing out and cook it in a pan?” I am stressing out a little bit. But when she speaks again, her voice sends confidence, and reassurance, and practical knowledge through my iPhone screen and into my kitchen.
“I would do that. Can you do that? I would do that.”
I nod, exhale, ask: “Even now, that it’s already been cooking?”
“Yeah! Sure. Just put the stuffing into a pan. You might want to put a little chicken stock in the pan. The stuffing, whatever you did, assumes that there’s going to be juices from the turkey to absorb. And then just start checking the turkey at three and half hours. I don’t know if I’m right for an 18-pound turkey. But I think I am.”
Her voice sends confidence, and reassurance, through my iPhone screen and into my kitchen.
Stressing out is not a part of the Ina Garten brand. She has given the world thousands of recipes, hundreds of instructional television episodes, and these 12 books (so far), and in every one of those things, every recipe, the message—the objective—is consistent: If you cook this food and serve it with love, it will make people happy, starting with you.
We were sitting at the table together earlier this fall, the one in East Hampton that she zinged over to as I drove in. It was a long table, a pandemic purchase so that she could sit at least six feet apart and still socialize. Ina is more than what you’d call a people person. Ina craves people. She gets it from her father.
“My mother was a recluse and was kind of afraid of people, and my father just loved to have a good time. He loved parties,” she said. She had brought me coffee, cream, and sugar on a silver tray. “He loved friends. When Jeffrey and I were dating and he would come to visit me, my father would take him swimming at the pool—we belonged to a pool. And they got in the pool and my father said to Jeffrey, ‘I’m so sorry I won’t be able to talk to you while I’m swimming.’ Which we thought was hilarious, because of course you can’t talk while you’re swimming. But he wanted Jeffrey to know that he wasn’t ignoring him.”
She works that comfort-making into the business plan, part of her unchanging message of positivity in the form of delicious food and the comfort of friends and family.
Ina’s style of cooking is meticulous but unfussy, often rich but never exotic, not extremely difficult but not dumbed-down, and always drawn from the familiar. It seems designed to be enjoyed with people, ideally at a party in the kitchen, with a table set up where people can mix their own drinks and nibble on fresh crab nachos while Ina pulls the roast from the oven. (Most of her books begin with a chapter called “Cocktails.”)
That ethos has, of course, been upended in 2020, when parties in the kitchen are not the thing. The Barefoot Contessa is perpetually happy on camera, and usually in real life, too. But this has been hard. She had a crew at the house doing a photo shoot for her new cookbook, Modern Comfort Food, on March 16—socially distanced even then. “The photographer was in the next room emailing me pictures for approval,” she says.
“We didn’t go anywhere, because no one knew what was going on. I was cooking every meal for us, I was doing Instagram every day to try to help people figure out what to do with all those dried white beans in their pantry, which people bought but didn’t know what to do with. And I was working on a book and working on TV,” she said. “By the middle of May, I was completely unglued. Literally, I was in bed curled up in a ball. And I said to Jeffrey, we need to do two things: First, we need to order takeout, because people don’t seem to be dying from ordering takeout.”
And the second thing?
“I needed to see people.”
The gate opened behind me—the one to the driveway. “Oh hi, great,” Ina called to the woman entering with a box. We were not introduced, but the woman had brought muffins for us. Mini muffins, actually: four different flavors, two of each, which Ina arranged on identical plates. four mini muffins for her, four mini muffins for me. It was a breezy, gray, late-summer day, sitting in a garden, and nothing could have been more perfect than a small white plate of four fresh mini muffins.
In case you get a runny nose, your mom brought tissues in her purse. And in case this shit was gonna get much worse, Ina Garten had an enormous cocktail glass.
To cure the isolation, she and Jeffrey—her husband of 52 years, the dean emeritus of the Yale School of Management and, as everyone who follows Ina knows, the cherubic love of her life—invited another couple over and Ina ordered pizza. (Yes, she orders pizza sometimes.) She arranged orange and red dahlias in weathered wood boxes, and filled the table with candles. “And the pizzas didn’t go in cardboard, they went on platters,” Ina said, holding a piece of her cranberry muffin. “The first second when we sat down far apart it felt weird, but after that we just had a wonderful time. That’s the kind of thing I really needed to do.”
Still, she knows that she has it especially good. And in a time of illness, death, high anxiety, and contentious politics she also knows it’s a good time for a book on comfort food. Ina does have a knack for giving the people what they want.
When she first bought a little specialty-foods shop called the Barefoot Contessa in 1978, women were starting to join the workforce in big numbers, and that kind of shop, where working parents could pick up a beautiful prepared dinner, was about to get very popular. Then when she started writing cookbooks, the Food Network was gaining popularity by pivoting from chef-driven shows to programming that celebrated the home cook. They invited her to do a show, and it’s now the longest-running thing on the network.
Then came the giant cosmo. Maybe you’re one of the 3.2 million people who’s seen the video.
On the evening of April 1, 2020, when hospitals were overrun and Joe Biden wasn’t even the nominee yet and you were afraid to look at the news, Ina set up her camera and mixed an enormous batch of cosmopolitans (“just pour it right in,” she smiled as she emptied a bottle of Finlandia into a pitcher), poured it into a cocktail shaker the size of a work pail (“during a crisis, cocktail hour can be almost any hour,” she said as she shook it), poured it into a martini glass as tall as a small child, and took a sip. (“Delicious!”)
It was like all of our moms giving us medicine in the middle of a fever dream.
“Little did I know! That was a moment in time,” she said, laughing, still incredulous at the virality of the video. “I wanted to kind of do it deadpan, and then have that huge glass come in. I had no idea how it would strike a nerve, that’s for sure. I knew this year was going to be bad, I just didn’t know how bad.”
But she was ready. In case you get a runny nose, your mom brought tissues in her purse. And in case this shit was gonna get much worse, Ina Garten had an enormous cocktail glass.
That’s what she does.
I forgot to make the cranberry sauce.
Not a crisis, but in a year when sometimes it feels like all we can do is try to be normal, I wanted to make all the normal things for the meal, and I forgot the cranberry sauce, and it was 2:15.
Ina looks straight into my eyes—through my phone, into my kitchen, into my brain. It is a look of concerned control, the way generals look in situation rooms in movies.
“Do you have a green apple?”
She nods, relaxes a bit. Glances at her computer.
“Okay, there’s a recipe in my first book, I think—wayminute—”
Then she looks over at what I imagine is a shelf that holds all of her cookbooks.
“You cook cranberries—I can take a picture of it and send it to you. Or you can go online. If you do ‘ina garten cranberry.’ It’ll be cranberries, sugar, water. I think it has an orange in it, if you have one—if you don’t have something, don’t worry about it. The apple is really important because green apple has pectin in it, and it’s the pectin that gels it. At the end I add some chopped pecans or walnuts, and raisins, but you don’t have to. So that should do it. It just simmers very fast. Just 15 minutes or so. Let me just check, so you’ll know how long you have.” Ina’s cookbooks, and her hundreds of episodes of televised cooking instruction, serve this same purpose for people who can’t call her up on FaceTime. You can consult her, any time, and—on the page or on a screen—she will guide you towards success, and she will do it with calm, with authority, and with love.
“See, this is what happens when you have too many books,” Ina says. She has grabbed a couple of her books, which she opens up before her and checks the indexes, her finger drawing lines down each page.
“Okay, I think it’s in Parties. I’m pretty sure. But I’ve done them all on TV, so you can just go online and find it. Let’s see…cranberry, 225.”
We have been speaking for longer than the agreed-upon time, but at the moment Ina seems to care only about making sure that I can make the cranberry sauce I want to make for my family’s small but essential Thanksgiving dinner.
“I have the zest and juice of an orange, the zest and juice of a lemon,” Ina says, reading, then looks up. “But don’t worry about it. I am exacting about myself, but I’m much more relaxed about how people use my recipes because I know the basic recipe works really well. I think the more I test a recipe, the more somebody can screw around with it and still get it right. And that’s fine.”
She glances at the book again. “So yes, 15 minutes is right.”
I remember thinking once, years and years ago, seeing the Barefoot Contessa cookbook on my mother’s shelf: What is a contessa? Was this woman on the cover, this happy woman, a royal European person of some sort? And why “barefoot”?
I learned later about the shop, which already had that name when Ina bought it, and that the shop was named after an old movie starring Ava Gardner and Humphrey Bogart. I have no idea why the name works, but it does. Like every decision Ina makes, not only keeping that odd name for the shop but embracing it as her moniker (every one of her books says “A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook” somewhere on the cover), as the very name people call her, it just works. The way, when she decided to do a new show and book called Cook Like a Pro in 2018, which at first seemed like a departure from her trademark style of cozy home cooking but was in fact an affirmation that even the simplest cooking is rooted in technique, it worked.
She will guide you towards success, and she will do it with calm, with authority, and with love.
And a couple of years ago, when she was planning this new book, she thought, It’ll be coming out just before an election. People will be stressed. Comfort food! And she got to work on recipes for beef stew (hipped-up by using short ribs instead of the usual chuck) and bloody marys (“this is like a meal in a glass!” she writes) and Boston cream pie (“I made four layers instead of the usual two so the proportion of cream to cake was richer”). And something called chicken pot pie soup (a name she saw on a menu board while walking through the Denver airport and got inspired), which just sounds like what we all need right now.
It worked. (The book has been a bestseller for seven straight weeks.)
These decisions worked because they weren’t really decisions at all. Not that Ina doesn’t think hard about everything she does—every sauce, every photograph, every Instagram post is deliberate and considered. But they’re not decisions in that they aren’t calculated. They are who she is—or rather, who she is is all of this stuff she does.
“I don’t think I’m complicated,” she said over the mini muffins.
She took me on a walk around her property. It was a large field when she bought it from the people next door, in whose family it had been since 1640. She designed the house she lives in with Jeffrey, the gardens, which looks like they’ve been there for a thousand years, and the “Barn,” in which she shoots all of her TV shows. The steps from the house down to the barn are slabs of stone as long as slip-n-slides, built right into the sloping lawn.
Up at the main house, I could see through the windows a kind of breakfast area, where the newspaper still was on the table, and the kitchen, which was as large as you’d imagine and where the KitchenAid stand mixer was tilted in the in-use position and a Costco-size thing of Purell sat on a counter. I thought of Jeffrey, who was in his office in town, teaching Yale students over Zoom.
So, okay, I said: I have to ask about the dreamy marriage thing. Because that is her projection: that Jeffrey is quite perfect and their marriage is blissful. (See Cooking for Jeffrey, Clarkson Potter, 2016.)
“Marriage is not perfect,” I said. “Marriage is hard.”
She smiled. “This one’s pretty good,” she said.
“It really is. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. He’s just amazing.”
Jeffrey’s job is a big job, too, like hers, but she says they agree that nothing either of them does is more important than the other person. The other person is it. “I remember Jeffrey was going on a trip to China. In the Clinton administration [in which he was undersecretary of commerce for international trade]. And I had gone to a doctor who had given me a wrong diagnosis. It turned out not to be true at all, but I didn’t know at that time. A scary diagnosis. Actually several scary diagnoses—he said I’d had a heart attack, I might have cancer, and something else—I can’t remember what it was. And Jeffrey turned around—he was on his way to see the vice chairman. Of China. And he had the cab turn around, and he came home. And I just thought, wow, that was unbelievable. He makes it very clear that there’s nothing else in his life that’s more important. He makes me feel like there’s nobody he’d rather be with, nothing he’d rather do, or nothing’s more important. And I hope I do that for him too, because I feel that way. It’s not that complicated.”
After exactly three and a half hours, I check the 18-pound turkey. Target temperature: 160. Actual temperature: 160.
I had also unstuffed the stuffing, as she’d instructed, and cooked it separately, in a pan, with a little stock. Ina had asked me what stuffing recipe I was using. I told her that, because the pandemic had kept us from my parents’ home this year, I’d asked my mother for her stuffing recipe. Her stuffing was always my favorite part of the meal, excluding pie, and I wanted to replicate it. My mom told me I’d never believe it, but her stuffing was actually Pepperidge Farm’s Classic Stuffing Mix, made according to the instructions on the package. Same as her mother used to make.
“That’s what everybody wants: what’s familiar.”
I told Ina this, almost apologizing.
“Oh perfect, that’s what you want,” Ina had replied. “That’s what everybody wants: what’s familiar.”
When my stuffing came out of the oven, it was the same beautiful, lumpy mass I’d known growing up. It smelled like the kitchen smelled when I was 10 years old with the cousins running around the house, dress shirts coming untucked, and the uncles drinking Scotch-and-sodas and my mom in her blue-and-white apron, and there would be pie later, and it just didn’t seem possible for me to want anything more or to be any happier.
This year—the end of this terrible year—the smell of the stuffing made me ache for that time. But after that quick pang passed, I felt happy, and that’s all Ina ever wants for anyone. And when my wife comes home from the hospital tomorrow night after a brief but stressful stay, I’m going to make Ina’s chocolate cake from her new book, because it looks pretty easy, and it looks comforting, and it will make her happy.