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Fifteen years ago, Nell Newman, then age 33, decided to make an all-organic Thanksgiving dinner for her father and mother, the actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and her sisters. That meal helped launch Newman’s Own Organics, the offshoot of the company her father started in 1982. Kathy Tracy, personal chef to the Newman family, caught up with Nell in Westport, Connecticut.
Tell us about that Thanksgiving when you first served an all-organic meal to your family.
Dad’s idea of the perfect Thanksgiving was always roast turkey, Pepperidge Farm stuffing, canned petit pois, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and Mom’s pecan pie with maple whipped cream.
It’s rare for my parents to let me even toy with our favorite family recipes. But one year I wanted to prove to my family that organic food was not only healthier but delicious. I had wanted to start the organic line of Newman’s Own and needed Dad to understand and like this “new” food. So I brought organic salad greens, veggies and potatoes back from California where I live (at the time, you just couldn’t get that kind of beautiful organic produce here in Connecticut). I was able to order an organic turkey from Dean & DeLuca and cooked the whole Thanksgiving dinner myself. After we ate it I told him it was all organic! His words were, “You got me, kid!”
The really cool thing was that Pop got it. Here is this guy who really didn’t know what organic was and probably had some bad association with something my mom made back in the ’70s. (She used to make these heavy muffins that I like to call atomic muffins, with coarse whole-wheat flour.) It was a revelation to him that organic food could be so delicious; it was a much different kind of food than he thought it was.
What was it like growing up in the Newman family kitchen?
It was crazy with all the traveling for movies but when they were home, my parents each had their own specialties. Mom did all the birthday cakes and made breakfast, Dad did the burgers, steaks, corn and salad, of course. My parents also liked to cook wacky stuff with us. I remember making pulled taffy with my mom. I’ll also never forget Dad making marshmallows from scratch. God knows how he did it, but there’s love for you!
My mother taught me how to cook simple things but with real attention to ingredients—but it was really during four years at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, that I learned out of necessity. In the winter everything closed except three diners and one bar that had specials like “Fish of the Day”—let me guess, haddock! “Chowder of the Day”—let me guess, haddock! “Haddock Cakes”—you get the picture, it was monotonous. I got a subscription to Gourmet and found the food in there utterly fascinating.