We all know Patti LaBelle as an iconic singer and performer, but what you might not know is that she is nearly as passionate about cooking as she is about music. She found the kitchen a magical place to be ever since she was a small child, learning to cook and bake alongside her parents. As a well-traveled superstar, she now shares her culinary experience and knowledge with the world by way of a series of cookbooks. Miss LaBelle talked with contributor Shauna Sever about the joy she finds in cooking for family and friends. Patti also shared with us the recipe for her world-famous Sweet Potato Pie and her Child, That's Good Chocolate Bread Pudding.
Shauna Sever: I read once that you said that you think you cook better than you sing. Is that even possible? Is that true?
Patti LaBelle: I think it's true. I can cook my face off and I can also sing my face off too. I've been cooking longer than I've been singing, so I think that tops it.
SS: It's obvious from this book that you are as passionate about the art of hospitality as you are about the art of music. To me, both of those arts are about feeding people in different ways - serving them and elevating life. Do you draw that comparison? And I was wondering what is it about you and your upbringing that makes both of these arts have such an importance in your life.
PL: In my upbringing, I was a very shy child. I stayed under my mother's apron in the kitchen. I learned to cook most things from her and my father. I think I was born to cook and born to sing.
SS: Do you think that there's a connection between the two?
PL: Between the singing and the cooking? I don't think so. I do everything separate. It's like when I perform on stage it's to that audience. Although I do want to please the audience, I want to make them smile as I do when when they taste my food. I want to see a smile and I want to hear, "More! More! More!" I get ovations and they do call me back to sing; when I make the food for my friends, they call for more. So I guess in that way, yeah.
SS: You can't blame them because this is a book full of home-baked classics. I noticed that a lot of the ingredients in the book are just pantry staples, nothing too fancy or hard to get. I was wondering why this is such a signature part of your cooking and baking style.
PL: I'm a basic cook. I don't measure; I have soul drops. When someone asks, "How much did you use for that peach cobbler? What measurement?" You know, they use a measuring cup. I'll tell them that I just use my soul and my feeling. I just drop stuff in -- and drop it like it's hot! [laughs] And it's basic. You don't have to go all out buying fancy stuff.
SS: Can you tell us about some of your earliest baking memories?
PL: Can I give you my earliest cooking story first? My shyness kept me in the house all the time with my little dog and cat. I would go to the garage -- we had like a little backhouse -- and I would take different things like ketchup, hot sauces, salt and pepper, and create my own little red sauces. I never let the dog taste it because it was kind of spicy, but my dog always gave me the bark of approval. So, I knew it was good. That's how it started. Then by being with my mother and my father and another lady who live with us, Naomi; they were some of the best cooks around. That's when I really started.
SS: This book is full of beautiful stories. What do you think it is about baking, and sweets in particular, that makes for such easy storytelling?
PL: Baking items and sweets bring pleasure to people. And I always say that I do prepare sweet for other folks. I use agave and some sugar, I make substitutions because I am a diabetic. But I can give you anything you want. I can make everything like the macaroni and seven cheeses, but I don't have to eat it. I just love preparing food for people; it's been in my family forever.
SS: I've noticed the desserts are especially powerful when there's a crowd; you can really draw a crowd when you put a great dessert out.
PL: You sure can. It's pleasant.
SS: It elevates the everyday. Just like great music great.
PL: It sure does.
Recipe: The Sweet Potato Pie
Photo: Amy Roth
SS: It's clear in this book how important your family and friends are to you, but also the starring role that food plays in fostering those relationships and you share lots of stories about that. Can you share some examples of that?
PL: Sure. My sister Jackie brings back most memories and I most talk about that whenever I have a conversation like this. I was always the cook in the family. My three sisters didn't cook at all. And she loved my egg and bacon sandwiches with buttered toast. She was at a hospital five minutes away from my home in Philadelphia, and I was there every day that I could when I was home. I went on tour and when I got back on this particular day I was beat up, I was so tired. She called and asked if she could have had one of my bacon and egg sandwiches. I said, "Oh honey, can I please bring it tomorrow?" She said, "Okay." I got a phone call from my aunt who said, "Don't bring the sandwich, your sister passed about 20 minutes ago." So, whenever I make of red velvet cake -- that was also one of her favorites -- it's redemptive. I think of Jackie and I say that I hope she's forgiven me. That's a sad story, but it's real.
SS: It's a powerful story, and that's so true of our time in the kitchen. In the book you say that -- and I love this line -- "recipes have the amazing power to bring loved ones back to us, if not literally then certainly emotionally, psychologically and sometimes mystically." And you say that in relation to your chocolate bread pudding; can you tell us about that?
PL: That was something that I made for my son's friends back in the day. They all hollered and screamed after they tasted it. They loved it! And then I have a good friend, Luther Vandross, who loved that also. What happened with Luther is he would say, "Bring me some lamb chops and that chocolate bread pudding." When he was in a facility I went and saw him a lot and I brought that, and he said, "Awoowoowoo!" when he ate it; he was just so pleased. And I loved to bring pleasure to faces and taste buds. And I love for you to say, "Oh my god, what is this recipe?" or, "Can I have seconds or thirds or take some home?" Of couse, you can. All that stuff gives me joy.
SS: This is your fourth cookbook. And there are a lot of celebrity cookbooks out there these days. I imagine it must be a challenge to try and do something new to set a book apart, maybe kind of like how it's difficult to put out albums in a crowded field. Do you think about that at all when you're making the book or do you just tune that out?
PL: To be honest, I do me. Whatever Patty thinks is right, I'll do it. I'm not competing with anyone, nor am I trying not to make the same thing. Because most of the times we all make the same desserts; I just believe in mine. I was watching Valerie Bertinelli and she was making her pasta and meatballs, and it was the same exact way I did mine. And I said, "That's fun!" I love to see comparisons and what little different things she did with her meatballs that I didn't do with mine. I just go on and create. I'm very spontaneous at the stove; I try different things and you get a different taste every time. I'm very pleased with most of the ingredients that I use.
by Patti LaBelle
SS: I'm impressed because you're as good of a cook -- a savory cook -- as you are a baker. And usually there's the baker mentality and the cook mentality. But you seem to be able to go between both with ease.
PL: I try.
SS: In such a legendary life where you've accomplished so much and seen so much, what is even left to do? Is there anything new you would like to master in the kitchen?
PL: I don't think so. [laughs] I think I've done as much as I want to do in the kitchen.
SS: You really have done it all. Thank you so much for talking with me, Patti. It's been a pleasure.
PL: Oh, thank you so much.