Throughout her thirty-seven-year career in food, Ina has remained remarkably unchanged in both concept and presentation, with her bangs 'n bob, and her cute, untucked, custom-made button-front shirts that are literally the only tops she wears. The only time I have seen her forehead is in a black-and-white picture from her wedding day. Her veil is pushed back and she is smiling, her husband Jeffrey is laughing and in uniform, and they are cutting what looks like a quite inedible three-tiered cake.
But even as she has stood all these decades stirring and paring, laughing and cocktailing, her hair, nails, skin — all the exposed human parts — each has become more coddled and elegant and more content. Her hair has reached peak spectacularity, it shines with under-color and moves with glory; her manicure is impeccable; the skin of her face is hydrated and lush. She looks flush, in a way that she didn't when she started out marketing ideas of comfort and contentment and wealth. She laughs constantly.
"There isn't a letter, there isn't a recipe, there's no photograph, there isn't a font, there isn't a color, there isn't a detail that I don't totally do myself"
And while many might think of her career as being a person who appears on television, she is rather a cookbook writer, one who happens to appear on the Food Network to service the audience for her cookbooks. The show, Barefoot Contessa, takes up small bits of her life, maybe six weeks a year total in two chunks. "My business is cookbooks, and TV is really good for supporting that," Ina told me; to date, she has 10,600,000 of them in print. Her most recent, 2014's Make It Ahead: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, which is basically about how to not have to spend precious moments cooking during a romantic New Year's Eve in Paris, had a print run of 1.4 million.
"Nine for nine, each book has sold more than the last book," Ina said. Her best cookbook, in my opinion, and it is her favorite as well, was her second; it is called Barefoot Contessa Parties! Ideas and Recipes for Easy Parties That Are Really Fun. Published in 2001, it has a print run of a mere 800,000 copies, a bit shy of the population of San Francisco. In terms of sales, "I mean it's — as my publisher says — it's not an abysmal failure," Ina said. "It's ever so slightly less than the other books." She topped the best-selling cookbooks of 2014 list and the best-selling cookbooks of 2012 list. In 2013, when she didn't even have a new book out, her 2012 book still made it into the year’s top five.
There is something that Ina Garten knows about what we want, or who we want to be, or how we want to feel. "There isn't a letter, there isn't a recipe, there's no photograph, there isn't a font, there isn't a color, there isn't a detail that I don't totally do myself," Ina said, so that's how it's done.
They went to France for four months and lived on five dollars a day, and one day there she saw a French family eating at a long table outdoors and became possessed of this vision of glamour and taste. She became love-drunk with hauling bags home from the farmer's market and came back to America and learned to cook from Julia Child. She found in the New York Times, in March of 1978, an ad for a store for sale in West Hampton Beach, a place she had never been. It was 400 square feet and it was called Barefoot Contessa and it sold potato salad and things. She offered, she purchased, and then she learned how to do everyone's job. The store was wildly successful; on New Year's Day of 1985, she went to see a new 3000-square-foot space in East Hampton. The Food Network eventually came courting, and she said no and said no and then said yes. Suddenly there was a new house in East Hampton. She built a working barn in which to cook and sometimes film. She used to do all the gardening herself, but no longer does.
Her story in this manner is miserably compressed. It is, in fact, an extremely long stretch of time from Ina’s purchase of the Barefoot Contessa store in 1978 to the largely self-funded production of her first cookbook in 1999. That’s twenty brutal customer service years of making coconut cupcakes and roast chickens for fussy Hamptonites. Ina’s life seems to move in long smooth cycles of one or two decades. Born in 1948, she married Jeffrey in 1968. Exactly ten years later, she got the shop. "I like a nice project that I can chew on. And so the store was that, and then after twenty years, it was time to do something else," she said. As a matter of fact, she sold the store in 1996, twenty years ago now. Does she work in twenty-year cycles? I asked. "I might, I might, yeah," Ina said. "We're getting close. I know, I was thinking about that. I haven't had that many twenty-year cycles yet, so stay tuned."
The first Barefoot Contessa cookbook already has its iconography intact; the aesthetic that follows in the next eight books is just versioning. Opposite the title page, Ina is pictured barefoot, one big toe showing polish, and she is shucking corn, surrounded by a riot of summer green, in an ankle-length black skirt with a white shirt worn under a white shirt and then a white apron on top. She is on a bench, next to an extremely rustic woven willow basket. It's about loving being at home, particularly if your home has a couple acres of garden, and yet it's accessible. It's never about perfection, as it is with Martha, but it is about personal triumph.
On the show, which has had twenty-three seasons over fourteen or so years, Ina uses the word "flavor" constantly. Flavor is the road to praise. "Lots of salt and pepper, make sure it has great flavor," she says while making a salad. Every Ina Garten recipe includes, at minimum, the appropriate amount of salt, pepper, and lemon. She was triumphant when science finally found out that a diet too low in salt may coincide with heart disease. And unlike Martha, she never says words like "truss" or "spatchcock," especially when she is trussing or spatchcocking.
"I mean, I couldn't have imagined this starting out," Ina told me, "but I think the reason people use cookbooks is it gives them the tools to do something, to put something on the table and have everybody say, 'You made that yourself?'"
That first cookbook has a foreword from Martha Stewart; Ina had a column in her magazine after the book did gangbusters. It reads straightforwardly as an endorsement — and yet, when you look at the actual words, they assemble themselves, as so much does in Martha’s world, into some kind of menace, an alpha act of undermining. Martha writes: "It took a while, but I finally understood what motivated Ina, realizing that here was a true kindred spirit with really similar but unique talents." Exactly how long did it take, Martha?
"I think the reason people use cookbooks is it gives them the tools to put something on the table and have everybody say, ‘You made that yourself?’"
Martha can't help herself. In a video segment describing Ina’s Barefoot Contessa store, Martha intones: "But this feast for the senses was created not by a gourmand, but by a desk-bound bureaucrat who wanted a change." Oh Martha! In another cut of the video—shot soon after the publication of Ina’s first cookbook, now available on Martha’s website with the bland headline "Advice from Ina Garten on Owning a Business"—Ina talks about how she had to get rid of the not-nice people who worked at the store. "I can always teach you how to slice smoked salmon," she says, "but I can't teach people how to have fun, and I can't teach them how to be happy." You can't teach Martha that either. Her company shot a few sad-sounding pilot episodes of Ina cooking at home; according to the Food Network history From Scratch, Martha had the tapes destroyed.
"It's a good thing," Martha says. It's a good thing. It's a good thing. "Wasn't that easy!" Ina says. Wasn't that easy. Wasn't that easy?
And unlike Martha, Ina has comfy taste; every champagne flute she's ever been spotted holding is mildly tacky, but her platters, flowers, plates, and dishtowels-as-napkins are always sturdy.
In the end of the video segment on Martha’s website, Ina says that "a Japanese businessman" once appeared and offered to make her dreams come true. He would pay to spread Barefoot Contessa stores across the country, making it a national brand. She realized, she says, that this dream she'd long nurtured was in fact not her dream at all, and she really just wanted to build a house and garden and make cookbooks. She said no. Ina says no all the time, still. "Somebody asked me to license their fertilizer," Ina told me, and laughed. "Like, you want me to license your shit? Like, what? Why would I do that?"
Ina Garten makes cookbooks by retreating into her tasteful barn, an Eileen-Fisher-store-gone-rustic of barns that she made for herself, and doing things to death. There was the season when she grilled chicken, the weeks when she roasted lamb. For years, she would then hand the recipe to her assistant, Barbara Libath, and watch her make the recipe by herself.
"Pick your days and name your salary," Ina said to Barbara in 1999, desperately in need of an assistant, and Barbara had also worked for a lawyer and worked for an accountant, so not only does she work on recipes and organize book tours, and is the person who you call if you need Ina, but she also oversees the accounting and helps with legal work. Barbara is useless in only one regard: now, after so long, she knows Ina so well that she doesn't do anything unexpected when confronted with a recipe.
This problem is solved by a youngster named Lidey Heuck, a 2013 Bowdoin graduate who started working for Ina right after graduation, after having written Ina a letter delivered by means of a classmate's father who is Ina's attorney, because apparently she inhabits some marvelous Victorian novel. Lidey lives in a cute cottage in the Hamptons now, and can take one of Ina’s recipes and cook through it and make the missteps that you or I would make. "Like yesterday," Ina said, "she made a fresh fig jam, and put all the stuff in the pot and she thought, 'How is this going to happen?' And I thought, 'Oh, I can totally understand why it looks like it's not going to happen, but it will.' So I just wrote into the recipe, 'Don't worry! It's going to work!'"
Ina Garten makes cookbooks by retreating into her tasteful barn, and doing things to death
Recently, also, Ina followed a friend to the grocery store just to see how people shop.
Lidey was hired to do Ina’s social media, and she has time to make fresh fig jam because doing social media for Ina means something like saying, "Now might be time for an Instagram." At first Lidey had gone to her and said: What if I set up a fake Instagram account for you and you can see what works for you and what doesn't? Ina was like, nope. "I post every single thing," Ina said. "I post it. I write it. I check it with her, and then it goes."
This strategy is working well. Facebook came to Ina not long ago, and said, hey, we've been watching, and you're one of the examples we use of a brand being really authentic with an audience, really connecting. She was not surprised. "Well, it is authentic because it actually is me that does it," Ina told me. When commenters get out of line, regulars among her half a million Instagram followers and million Facebook followers step in to police the newbies. Not long ago she visited Instagram’s headquarters, and Instagrammed from Instagram.
"I think people get it," she said. "That it's not like some office over there that's, you know, in L.A., doing my Facebook account, but it's actually me doing it, writing it, photographing it." There isn't a detail that I don't totally do myself.
After the first book, "mother" is mostly stricken from Ina’s rotation of motifs. Mom is too fraught. Instead, Ina is a stalwart defender of being welcoming. She believes a house should smell good. "When somebody comes home and everything's there and the kitchen smells like sugar apple pie," Ina said to me, "you know, it's nice. It's really nice, and the pillows are fluffed, and I love it."
After the first book, whenever motherhood is introduced, it's not warmly. While making fresh lemonade in one episode of the show, Ina says that this is "not that stuff your mother used to bring home from the grocery store." This is the opposite of how historically we speak of both mothers and of the lemonade of yore. Food in Ina's childhood home was largely a practical event. "She wasn't the warmest, funniest person around," Ina said of her mother. Ina has nothing, she has said, in her house from her childhood. Of her marriage day, she has said, "That's when my life began." Never, to my knowledge, in the cookbooks or shows, is there even a hint of an idea of a pet or a child in their home. Ina and Jeffrey are two against the world.
"Okay, the coast is clear, I'm going to make a big pitcher of pineapple margaritas!" Ina says to the camera. Her bridge-playing boys are coming over, and they are not very good at bridge, which is obvious since there's one too many of them, but that's not the point. "You know it's good when you can't taste the alcohol," one of her gays says. She brings out dessert, it's a chocolate-orange fondue with pretzel sticks and donuts for dipping. This is hilarious and a little disgusting and she knows it.
As always, the naughtiness is essentially PG, and the luxury level is four out of five stars. It's aspirational and neighborly at once, and it's sweet. It works. Maybe you want to be Ina's gal pal, her spouse, or even her assistant. But you'd never think of her as anyone's mommy. Jeffrey always comes home from his business trips, and they are quite obviously one of those couples who cannot stop sneaking off to have sex. He will never call her "mother" in that horrible way that 1970s grandparents do.
Jeffrey appears in the show as comic relief, a bumbling Jew doing big shtick. Ina likes to use the hashtag #drunkhubby to describe him on Instagram. In the season eight premiere, they've rented a house in Napa, so that, ostensibly, Ina can get away and Jeffrey can write a book. There is a whole subplot in one episode that amounts to absolutely nothing, in which Jeffrey, having flown in for Friday night chicken dinner, is filmed driving through the Napa roads. "I hope I can find the rental house," he says, in an example of how people say everyday, totally acceptable things which then come off on the show — or, to be fair, on all such shows — as flat and deranged and even a little Lynchian. He really hopes he can find that rental house!
This is Jeffrey Garten, of New York City, formerly of the 82nd Airborne Division, having served in Vietnam despite not being in favor of the war, and previously of Phillips Academy, where he graduated in the same class as George W. Bush and Dick Wolf, the creator of "Law and Order." Later, of Dartmouth, of Johns Hopkins, a deputy director of policy planning on Henry Kissinger's staff, a staffer in the Carter White House, and then in the State Department, which he left for Lehman Brothers, where he started as a vice president and ended up a managing director in a decade. For about three years in the 80s, he headed up Lehman's investment banking in Asia. After that he bounced around, started a little bank, and then ended up solicited into the Clinton White House, with Ina sitting behind him at his somewhat contentious confirmation hearing.
"I hope I can find the rental house," he says, in an example of how people say everyday, totally acceptable things which then come off on the show as a little Lynchian
Just two years later, he left that post for two successive five-year terms as the dean of the Yale School of Management where, according to a BusinessWeek reporter quoted in the Yale alumni magazine, he brought his publicist from D.C. with him to New Haven. Jeffrey hasn't been dean for a decade. He still teaches but also is the chairman of Garten Rothkopf, one of those quiet consultancies you don't hear much about. Dave Rothkopf is the president of the consultancy; Rothkopf is also the CEO and Editor of the FP Group, which publishes Foreign Policy, and for a time he reported to Jeffrey, back in the Clinton years. Antoine van Agtmael, credited with actually inventing the phrase "emerging markets," is a senior advisor for them; he is also an NPR Foundation trustee.
Jeffrey has been busy! He has served on the board of used car retailer CarMax since 2002, and in that time the stock has climbed from about 11 to the mid-60s. He was appointed to the board of Aetna in January 2000, when Aetna's stock was trading at a high of 7.73. It now trades around 117. He was appointed to the board of the Canadian mining company Alcan in 2007, the year Alcan was purchased by the monster international conglomerate Rio Tinto, which runs uranium operations in Namibia, diamonds in Madhya Pradesh, bauxite in Canada, aluminium smelting in Iceland. He was on the board of Calpine, one of the biggest independent electricity generators in the U.S., from 1997 to 2005. He is on the board of Miller Buckfire, formerly a boutique investment bank, now a division of the hungry Stifel corporation, notable for its handling of Detroit's bankruptcy. Miller Buckfire was eligible for a $28 million fee for its role in Detroit's dismantling, but only walked with $23 million. That's almost the exact amount of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department's deficit, a deficit the department likes to use as an excuse to turn off water to residents who can't afford to pay for it.
"A vision without execution is an hallucination," Jeffrey wrote in his book The Mind of the CEO, published in 2001. It is dedicated to Ina, just as most of her books are dedicated to him. "I just — I'm just crazy about him," Ina said, and laughed. Still, I asked? "Still. Totally still!" she said. "Probably even more so."
Jeffrey Garten is not a bumbling idiot. He finds the house in Napa without difficulty. After all, any reasonably close reading of his resume suggests that he certainly either was, or equally likely was not, working for the CIA in Asia and Latin America for decades.
There is an elaborate setup for a dog's birthday party in season seven: "I love entertaining on the beach, so when my friends Joey and Maureen told me it was their dog Theo's birthday, I thought, what a great excuse for a party!" Which is hilarious, but not only do we never find out who these people are, though it seems they may be stoic East End lesbians, we also barely get a glimpse of Theo, who is racing about the freezing beach. "I've invited some friends for trick-or-treat dinner, and Miguel is setting the table!" Ina exclaims by way of introduction in season nine. The same season, there's the more reasonable: "My friend T.R. has just bought an old fishing shack on the water, and he's invited me for dinner on the dock." (The house is cute, but don't worry, he gets a bigger one.)
Also in season nine, there is the rare straightforward introduction: "Frank Newbold and I are not only best friends but we're also business partners." With Frank, Ina launched a line of frozen dinners and also a line of dry goods, including Barefoot Contessa Pantry Contessa Blend Regular Coffee and Barefoot Contessa Pantry Outrageous Brownie Mix. All of these products have since been disappeared. "I don't have to negotiate with anybody. If I decide to do something, I go do it," Ina told me.
This endless parade of friends and visitors only highlights her strange and extreme loyalty. Barbara has been with her in the kitchen since 1999; her marriage to Jeffrey is almost half a century long. She has been with her agent Esther Newberg at ICM since ages. Ina has never changed cookbook publishers; in fourteen years, she also has not changed producers of the show.
But now, at last, the cast seems to have gotten somewhat juiced. Instead of local florists and ol' T.R. (her former shopboy turned model), the gays include the likes of Neil Patrick Harris. Rob Marshall comes over with his lover and dog for breakfast and they all end up cackling over a giant cocktail shaker!
The Hamptons too have grown and prospered since Ina arrived in 1978, but through the eyes of a townie, which she is, it's less visible, and besides, the crush of the summer season is just fifteen weeks brief. "I still see it the way I saw it then, which is that it's farm, farmlands, it's fishing," Ina said. "It's weekend houses, it's farm stands." It's all that and $500,000 golf club memberships, too.
This feels distinctly like the end of something, or like a beginning
Back in April, Ina shot an episode with Jennifer Garner. Some strange mutual fan interaction with Taylor Swift was well-documented as well. This feels distinctly like the end of something, or like a beginning.
Back when she started at the Food Network, she thought all the shows were just men in big toques making mousse. But the network, in a stroke of brilliance, was transitioning the talent to home cooks, making ratings on the back of Rachael Ray and hungry for more—one of those decisions that seems obvious in retrospect but was likely much debated at the time. Those glory days may be ending now, but Ina is bigger than the show, A-list Hollywood guests or no. She's got Facebook now. How much longer will she need TV?
Every shoot still makes her nervous anyway. She's the kind of person who wakes up buzzing. She does yoga twice a week. She likes to walk down to the beach, forty-five minutes of head-clearing. Her health is good. Saying no brings peace. Being free from frozen packs of Penne Pasta with Five Cheeses and Tequila Lime Chicken that bear her face is a sign of her focus and brilliance. She is ready to crush this next cookbook. "I'm actually more interested in writing cookbooks now than I was when I started," Ina said. "I think I was really nervous about it then. But I could just do this forever — and hopefully I can, until they drag me out by my feet."
Out in her barn, where the cookbooks are made, she is entirely herself. There, there is always the spark of the young woman using her bad French to fill up a bag at a farmer's market, having her first taste of coq au vin, for the first time seeing people eat food that meant something. It's like when she saw Jeffrey, and ran towards a life they could make completely for themselves. With him at her side, she saw food for the very first time, and has spent her life ever since taking it apart to see what makes us tick.