Obituary: Marlena Spieler

Food writer who embraced history, geography and the sensation of taste and smell


Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.” When gastronome Brillat-Savarin wrote those words back in 1825, he was, supposedly, just referring to the relationship between food and one’s health.

But maybe, being French, he was also talking about the fact that food is much more than just fuel that keeps our bodies and minds working.

The power of food – be it poppy-seed studded Kaiser rolls in a San Francisco Jewish neighbourhood or an airy and aromatic rum babà that had come all the way from Naples – to conjure up a place, its history and its people was something that food writer Marlena Spieler, who had died aged 74, understood instinctively.

Food for her was not just a sensory experience but also something closely connected to the location and history of the place where it originated. So her books were not simply collections of recipes but also rich in information about geography and history. Background didn’t just matter, it made the recipe more enticing.

She was born Marlena Smith in Sacramento, California, the daughter of Isadore Smith, a baseball player who had played with Joe di Maggio during the Second World War, and nurse Caroline Dubowsky. California’s sunny skies, vivid colours and proximity to Mexico would inspire her interest in what she would call ‘sun-drenched’ cuisines.

Another powerful influence were the visits she made as a child to her grandfather’s neighbourhood, which she would later describe as “basically a small shtetl transplanted to San Francisco with delis redolent of pickle barrels”.

Her favourite place was the Ukraine bakery where “the air smelled heavenly of baked goods”. Yiddish was the language of her grandparents who, she would write, had “fled terrible things” in their native Europe. One of her relatives, her grandfather’s second wife, was from the Jewish community of Harbin, China.

A fervent Zionist, in 1967 she went to Israel to study Hebrew and Jewish history. She was working in a kibbutz when the Six Day War started and would later recall “the air raids all around us”.

It was in Israel that she discovered the exotic and spicy food of the Middle East – an epiphany that would change the course of her life.

Back in California a year later, she enrolled in the California College of the Arts in Oakland but soon she decided that she was a better cook than an artist.

Her first book, Naturally Good (1974), a collaboration with her first husband David Spieler, was ground-breaking, featuring exotic recipes that would a few years later be made famous by Yotam Ottolenghi, such as baba ganoush and shakshuka.

Spieler had found her calling and so embarked on a career as a food writer, writing cookery books and freelancing for a number of US papers, most notably the San Francisco Chronicle, for which she wrote the extremely popular Roving Feast column between 2000 and 2010.

After her divorce from Spieler in 1989, she moved to the UK where she married Alan McLaughlan and lustily embraced a life where food had the starring role.

A prolific book writer – she wrote 70 cookbooks and contributed to another 25 – she produced tomes on Jewish cooking (including The Jewish Heritage Cookbook, Best-Ever Book of Jewish Cooking, Recipes from my Jewish Grandmother), and several on one of her great loves, cheese.

Long before vegetarianism became fashionable, her 1997 Vegetarian Bistro broke the mould in offering vegetarian versions of traditional French dishes, and her 2007 hymn to the potato, Yummy Potatoes, so impressed that it won her an invitation to the UN’s International Year of the Potato conference in Peru.

She also appeared on the Radio 4 Food Programme for which she received the Guild of Food Writers’ ‘Radio Broadcaster of the Year’

But one of Spieler most passionate love affairs was with the food of Southern Italy, especially the much maligned city of Naples.

It wasn’t love at first sight (as she herself would acknowledge) but it would eventually lead her to become a passionate advocate of this most sensual, maddening, vibrant and life-enhancing of Italian cities.

Her 2018 book A Taste of Naples is really a paean to the city, its history and culture – with a few recipes thrown in. Spieler, for whom food was a sensory experience had found her perfect match.

Which is why a car accident in 2011 that caused her to lose her sense of taste and smell felt particularly cruel.

The woman who never went anywhere without her faithful polka-dot green tote, a veritable Aladdin’s cave from which the most delicious foodstuff would regularly be spirited out, seemed destined never to taste all that deliciousness ever again.

“It was like a musician losing his hearing” she would write, recounting that experience in a New York Times piece. But unlike Beethoven, Spieler was able to do something to try to repair the damage to the nerve responsible for taste and smell. And so she did, refusing “to give up on the relationship”.

For two years she kept on trying different foods and drinks, even if now they tasted and smelled foul. “I read and drank, read and drank, sniffed and sipped and drank,” she recalled.

It paid off: “After spitting out my first post-accident chocolate, I sampled as many types as I could. At first I could only tolerate the most insipid milk chocolate, but gradually I upped the cocoa level. Eventually, I loved dark chocolate again.” The world was bright again.

Marlena Spieler died suddenly of natural causes. She is survived by her second husband Alan McLaughlan, her daughter, Leah from her first marriage, three stepchildren, Gretchen, Philip and Heidi, and a grandson.

Marlena Spieler: born April 16, 1949. Died July 6, 2023

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