By Kathy Oberman Tracy, November/December 2007
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.
What was the catalyst that made you want to eat organic?
In 1968, when I was 8, I was given a pet kestrel—a sparrow hawk—by our gardener. The hawk sparked my interest in becoming an ornithologist. Within a couple of years ornithologists realized that peregrine falcons were extinct east of the Mississippi due to DDT, and becoming extinct across the rest of the United States. It’s just a shock for a kid to hear that this incredible falcon, which can dive at 200 mph, was disappearing. What is DDT? What is it used for? I would ask.
As a child, it was very difficult for me to understand the effects of mankind on the earth but it really got the whole ball rolling for me. I didn’t know at that age what organic food was but once I found out, I decided that’s what I was going to eat.
What do you see as the main argument for eating organic? Health or the environment?
Well, you can’t separate the two. What you’re spraying on your food has a direct effect on the environment. Pesticides are poisons that kill insects and plants. Number one, you are killing everything in the soil, and two, the pesticides don’t just go away, they go into the water, then the soil and move up the food chain.
One of my biggest concerns is the accumulation of all these poisons and chemicals in our bodies, as we don’t know what their effects are, especially when combined. I had a blood test done about 15 years ago just to see what was there. They found DDT, PCBs and a termite pesticide!
How did you start the organic line of Newman’s Own?
In 1992 I was a frustrated fundraiser for a small nonprofit, the Predatory Bird Research Group. I was looking at what my father was doing by giving 100 percent of his profits from Newman’s Own to charity and thought: Gee, why don’t I do something like that, start a line of organic products and support worthy organizations?
I was very naive about what I was getting into so I asked my friend Peter Meehan, who had a business degree, to help me out. We convinced Pop through the famous “Thanksgiving Dinner” that organic food was delicious and a worthy cause. He said, “OK, I’ll pay you each $15,000 plus expenses to get this off the ground but you have to pay me back.”
Did you pay your dad back?
Yes! The organic line started in 1993, with pretzels. Carbs were in back then and pretzels were my dad’s favorite snack and the number-one-selling snack food. I paid him back in one year. Today, Newman’s Own Organics is an independent company with 80 products. This year marks $250 million donated by Paul Newman and the Newman’s Own Foundation to educational and charitable organizations, including to my top three nonprofits: the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, the Homeless Garden Project, which provides resources for the homeless through organic gardening, and Shared Adventures, which serves the physically and developmentally challenged.
Some people criticize Newman’s Own Organics for, say, serving coffee with McDonald’s or partnering with Green Mountain Coffee.
Our intention is to help grow organic and introduce people to organic who might not necessarily be aware or interested in it. We are now using more organic coffee than ever before because of McDonald’s. And if the best way for me to introduce the world to organics is through coffee at McDonald’s then that’s OK with me! If you are a small coffee farmer in a Third World country, I think it’s fair to say, you would be happy the sales of organic coffee have gone up tremendously.
Do you grow your own food?
At my house in Santa Cruz, California, I grow my own salad greens, raspberries and grapes and, in the summer, amazing fraises du bois. I also have one white peach tree, one pear tree and one Meyer lemon tree. When the pears are ripe—you’ll love this—I put little blow-up mattresses, egg foam and one queen-size mattress under my fruit trees so I don’t lose the fruit when it falls.
What’s on the menu for Thanksgiving this year?
I’m lucky enough to get an organic heirloom turkey through Michel Nischan, who is the chef at the Dressing Room, my father’s year-old restaurant at the Westport Playhouse. This year I’m making a few small changes to our very traditional meal. I’m adding mint and shallots to the peas, pecans and brown sugar to the sweet potatoes, and maple syrup to the pecan pies that my mom makes. Of course we’ll be having stuffing, cranberry sauce and chopped salad, too—all organic, of course.
While the changes sound small, they actually pack huge flavor. The key for me is to keep things kind of simple because I usually fly in the day before Thanksgiving and I’m tired, so these recipes don’t require a lot of time to prepare.
With so many cooks in the family now, what happens in the Newman household on Thanksgiving Day?
Everyone has their own job to do: I’m in charge of overseeing everything and cooking the turkey. My mom makes the pies and Dad makes his famous homemade salad dressing. My sister Lissy makes the sweet potatoes and peas and my other sister Clea makes her special chopped salad.
To set the scene, we have kind of a family compound where my parents live in one farmhouse with a renovated barn and Lissy lives in the other farmhouse. The property is split by a river with a suspension bridge with one house on either side of it. Clea lives in the next town, so everyone is home for the holiday. Dinner is hosted at Lissy’s house, which is actually the home where we were all raised as children.
Thanksgiving Day goes something like this: I’m very particular about basting my turkey every 20 minutes, which can be pretty funny as the day progresses. I cook the 25-pound turkey in the kitchen at my parents’ barn, where I stay when I’m home. I run up to my folks’ house and help Mom bake the pecan pies, I run back to the barn to baste the turkey and then I literally run over the bridge and through the woods to Lissy’s house to help make the sweet potatoes and peas. Then I run back to the barn to baste again. I get more exercise than you can possibly imagine! When the turkey is ready I haul it over to Lissy’s with my husband, Gary, and join my parents and their two dogs, my two sisters and their husbands, my two nephews and the odd relative or family friend that may join us for the holiday.
It’s wonderful to be home again and seated around the table in the dining room of the 200-year-old New England farmhouse. The conversation around the table is lively, generally political and always controversial. At Christmas, we do it all over again and we have the very same meal!