To most people involved with Amy’s Kitchen, my grandmother Nonny is the person who made the first Pot Pie, who came up with the name Amy’s Kitchen (in her sleep, no less), and the writer of copy for the packages. But to me, she is so much more.
Throughout my infancy and childhood, my parents wouldn’t leave me with a babysitter. Instead, I went to Nonny’s house. Nonny’s House. Just typing those words I can smell cinnamon and see the hudgin fighting the yamduts in fairyland. To go to Nonny’s house was to go on an adventure. It was where the night became magical, where a four year old child could go out in the middle of the night (never allowed at my house) and hop over potted plants (which were, of course, monsters trying to stop us on our quest). It was where we painted, where we made beads out of clay, baked fresh bread, cinnamon roles, and chapattis and ate them with melted butter.
It was at Nonny’s house that I developed a love of learning. I would sit in the bathtub while Nonny read me Uncle Wiggly Stories, or told me stories of the hudgin (a very special fairy) who went on magical quests and adventures throughout the world. Through her stories, I began to love words, and to believe in magic. By playing Neopets with her (an online world of imaginary magical animals), I learned theories of economics: buying low and selling higher to make a profit, collecting interest, and dumb luck. She taught me the multiplication tables and how to work on computers, and how one plays the stock market, read me Shakespeare when I was 7, and taught me how to say, “El mono es loco” (“the monkey is crazy” in Spanish) and helped me with writing assignments all through school.
You know that feeling, when you are working on a math problem or concept and you just draw a blank—the harder you think about it, the farther away it seems. I had many moments like that with Nonny, and her beautifully wrinkled face would break out in laughter, she would laugh until I laughed, and then the spell was broken, and I could understand again. Her theory of laughing in the face of frustration has never failed me since.
One thing Nonny always does is believe in my dreams. So I wanted to be a paleontologist? “Let’s go find fossils!” she would say. So I wanted to film a movie with her? We bought a video camera and made up scripts. So I wanted to play the guitar? She found me a teacher. So I wanted a dog? We would walk the neighborhood dogs and eventually stumbled across Stormy together in the park. It doesn’t matter what it is, it’s possible with Nonny.
Although she indulged my dreams, she did not indulge my picky eating habits. She taught me the value of food, of nutrition, and of flavor. I drank fairy nectar (honeydew juice), grew sprouts, ate raw food, and acquired the taste for fresh squeezed orange juice and peppermint tea. (But then there were the times when we ate eggless maple donuts and chocolate croissants from the local donut shop with our peppermint tea while we watched old Sherlock Holmes videos.) I even learned the art of “gleaning” vegetables and fruits from the neighborhood gardens (like stealing, except with the owners permission).
From Nonny, I learned about real life—things big and very small. I learned to wear my socks inside out if the seams itched my toes. I learned that the small dramas of my life, all the way through high school, were merely “tempests in a teapot” and should not be taken too seriously. I learned to get over the fear of falling and to ride a bicycle with no training wheels. I learned lessons from her life stories that she told me in the dark as we lay in bed trying to fall asleep. Before my parents told me about such things, I heard about sex, drugs and rock and roll in the sixties, my grandparents’ involvement with activism in the fifties, about politics, about war, about assassination and genocide. I learned about the world through her stories of travels, I learned about India, about Europe, about Africa. I absorbed my picture of the world through her scratchy, Jewish New York voice as it carried me off to sleep at night.
I was a very sensitive little girl and had anxiety before school every morning even though I loved school. I had anxiety about almost every little thing. In Nonny’s stories, the bad guys were the yamdoots, and they were evil creatures who were trying to destroy the world. However, all the hudgin had to do to fight them was to say “Abra cadabra, Yomdoots, GO!!” The key, however, was that she had to believe it. One day at Nonny’s house, I said, “I have anxiety Nonny.” Her normally happy face got very serious, and she studied me for a while and said, “Amy, your anxiety is the yamdoots trying to get you down, and all you have to do is say, ‘Abra, cadabra, anxiety GO!!!’ and it will go away.” I agreed that this was a good idea…then she said, “Amy, you know this won’t work if you don’t believe it, so you MUST believe, just like the hudgin.” I nodded seriously, closed my eyes, and thought, Abra cadabra anxiety GO!!! over and over again. I opened my eyes, and it was gone. I smiled at her. She just nodded as if she was satisfied. (I still remember those words that during my anxious moments.) You see, the magic wasn’t just in her stories. With Nonny, magic was life.
I heard you came up with the name of Amy’s Kitchen. How did that happen?
When the baby was two weeks old she was named Amy. As for the company, we had been agonizing over the name for months. Nothing worked. Either the name was already taken, or it sounded wrong. We tried “Country Fresh,” “Country Garden," ”Garden Fresh”.
Then one night, around midnight, the name “Amy’s Kitchen” came to me while I was asleep. I woke up and wrote it down. Next morning, I told Rachel and Andy. They liked it, and that was that. We figured that at least everyone whose name was Amy would buy our food.
How did you get interested in Organics?
We first heard about it through a friend of my husband’s and then started to read magazines such as “Organic Gardening” and books by Ruth Stout (How to have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back) and Scott and Helen Nearing about the “Good Life.”
In the 50s there were no “Natural Food Stores”. There were Health Food stores where vitamins and supplements and a few grocery items like wheat germ and blackstrap molasses were sold, but no fresh vegetables. There were no “farmers markets” in the suburb of Los Angeles where we lived.
However we did have a big backyard full of devil grass which nobody liked to mow. So we dug it up. And having read that in order to garden organically one needed some strange stuff called “compost,” which the books said required chicken manure, we bought a dozen chickens and a rooster so that we could have organic eggs. Neither of us came from a farm background. I was city born and raised, and my husband a New England prep school and university graduate. We knew nothing about any of this except what we read.
We bought seeds and planted the whole package of each nutritious sounding vegetable. The seeds sprouted and grew. Unfortunately, none of the family except me even liked vegetables. A head of iceberg lettuce, a couple of tomatoes and some potatoes were about the sum of our vegetable consumption each week.
Then there were the chickens. We built a pen for them, and tossed all our garbage into the pen for them to eat, along with regular chicken feed. It was little 8-year-old Rachel’s “chore” to collect the eggs. (We had read about the “chores” of farm children.) In wet weather, the ground was a gumbo of mud, rotting food and chicken droppings, and as she sloshed thru the mess, the rooster would attack fiercely. Rachel would try to ward him off with a rake, leaving the door partly open for easy escape.
Well, sometimes the door was left open and the chickens escaped, headed for the tender green vegetables and devoured them. I don’t remember ever using the compost, but otherwise the cycle was complete. I think we gave some of what was left to the neighbors, and actually sold some eggs. (We were not vegetarians at that time.) Eventually a neighbor’s dog killed all the chickens. Traumatized, we gave the whole thing up.
How did you learn how to cook?
In my jr. high school in Brooklyn we had a class called “Homemaking.” I learned how to make cocoa, chocolate pudding, oatmeal and the basic white sauce. That was my culinary knowledge when I got married. Being a book person, I did the logical thing…turned to cookbooks. Joy of Cooking, Fannie Farmer and Betty Crocker were my textbooks. I read them as if they were storybooks, absorbing basic information.
Things were simpler in the beginning, before we were vegetarian or nutrition conscious. Meat, fish, or chicken, potatoes or white rice and a vegetable or salad… the typical “balanced meal” of the 50s.
Then came Adele Davis’ Let’s Cook it Right, not vegetarian, but a whole complicated world of new concepts like wheat germ and blackstrap molasses and yogurt and no preservatives, and organic. I did try the recipes. I learned how to bake whole wheat bread. At that time unless you lived near a good bakery, there was no way to get bread without preservatives, and there was no such thing as already baked organic bread.
Another important lesson I learned was that no matter how nutritious the food was, my kids would not eat it if it was too strange, or didn’t taste good. Cookies made with blackstrap molasses did not go over well with them. They sneaked jelly sandwiches on white bread and forbidden candy from the neighbors.
My son became a vegetarian before I did, and I was sure he would starve to death. It was he who taught me how to make the basic “stir fry” with brown rice and tofu and vegetables. After that I simply adapted what I knew, found Laurel’s Kitchen, and went on from there, realizing how much I enjoyed the whole process of “creative cookery.”
What roles have you played at Amy’s?
Because of my cooking experience it was only natural that I become Amy’s first “product developer” and work on the original vegetable pot pie. We’d decided that as company strategy, we’d take the most popular commercial products and adapt them. The Pot Pie was an obvious choice. I worked on it for a long time because “product development” is not quite the same as “creative cookery”. One must measure carefully and create a recipe that could be used in production. There were many problems getting the first product into production, but when introduced at a Natural Foods Expo, it was an instant success.
I also worked on some of the other early products...the Apple Pie, Broccoli Pie, the California Burger and the Mexican Tamale Pie.
In those early days, I also did the sourcing and purchasing of raw materials, helped with sales and marketing, handled all customer relations matters and participated in company decision making. The most important role was that of writing the “stories” on the packaging and copy for ads and promotional material. While whole departments have taken over most of my prior roles, I still do the writing for packaging as new products are introduced.
At 76, what is your secret to your good health?
Mostly a mental attitude which does not accept the common belief that one must get sicker as one gets older. Quite the contrary, I have none of the ailments usually associated with aging. Being a non-drinking, non-smoking vegetarian has helped. Periodic fasts and detox cleansing diets have helped. Sensible eating, including lots of organic fruit and vegetables, mostly raw, with not too much salt or sugar or cooked fat has helped. Skilled “alternative health care professionals” have been important allies all along. (On the other hand there also has been lots of pasta and chocolate and ice cream, which have added more weight than I care for.)
For exercise I do some Yoga, some Feldnkreis, plenty of walking and bicycling, dance around my living room and climb up and down the steps to my apartment several times each day.
Which is your favorite Amy’s product?
Since I enjoy it so much, I generally do my own food preparation “from scratch” and eat Amy’s food as a treat. My favorite is the Cheese Enchilada Dinner. Recently, I rediscovered Amy’s Apple Pie and loved it.