Breakfast From A Barrow
It’s 9 a.m. on a Sunday and Ina Garten has barely managed to squeeze her wheelbarrow through the door of the East Hampton cafe where we’ve agreed to meet.
“I’m so glad you’re here!” she calls out to me as she careens the wheelbarrow toward the back corner two-top where I’m seated, knocking over two waiters and a baby in a highchair in the process. “We’re going to have a wonderful day!”
The wheelbarrow is parked beside us, and it’s absolutely overflowing with oats. The beloved Food Network host can tell I’m staring at it, but before I get a chance to inquire, she’s given me instructions.
“Could you take a look at the menu and tell me if they have Ina’s Oats?”
I scan the menu and come up empty. She smiles.
“These,” she says, pointing to the wheelbarrow, “are Ina’s Oats. It’s a new breakfast recipe I’m working on—dry oats with cinnamon and freshly harvested honey from the honey bush in my backyard. When I’m developing a recipe, I eat it every day for two years. If I can do that without getting sick and dying, that means it’s a good recipe.”
Maybe that sounds like an impossibly high standard, but after more than 40 years in the culinary world, it’s fair that Garten is striving only for perfection. The 72-year-old has had a remarkable tenure, beginning with her purchase of a specialty food store in Westhampton Beach in 1978.
“One day, I saw a billboard that read, ‘NEW JOB FOR INA.’ I thought, ‘Well, I’m Ina,’ so I called the telephone number on the sign, and the very next day I was the owner of my very own shop.”
Garten had no formal culinary experience before owning the store. “I had to learn it all as I went: Mouthwash is not ‘mint soup.’ Humans don’t want to wear salt licks around their neck like a horse. Wearing a big chef hat doesn’t automatically make you a chef, but it does make you tall enough to ride Space Mountain. A lot of mistakes were made, but I figured it all out eventually.”
After 20 years with the store, it was time for Garten to move on. She placed a cardboard cutout of herself behind the counter to run the shop and began her new career: writing cookbooks and hosting a cooking show, all under the Barefoot Contessa name. But how exactly did she settle on the moniker?
“It’s been my nickname since childhood,” Garten explains. “‘Barefoot Contessa’ is Italian for ‘Mrs. Foot.’”
Although the oats have been within reach this whole time, Garten politely waits until my huevos rancheros have arrived to dig in. She then produces a ladle from her blouse and scoops out her first serving from the wheelbarrow.
“Mmmm,” she croons. “Now this is just fabulous!”
When Garten says something is fabulous, she really means it.
Her eyes roll back into her head with pleasure, and she starts slamming her fists on her chest like a proud orangutan. The oats barely reach her mouth before the ladle is back in the barrow, scooping out another heap. Little bits of food are spraying all over the table as she chews with her mouth open and groans in oat-induced ecstasy.
My dish is pretty good, but it quite obviously pales in comparison to what Ina’s eating. I’m now experiencing firsthand the exact feeling that happens when you watch her show: I’m totally jealous I’m not the one eating that.
A tennis ball-size bolus of chewed-up oats drops out of her mouth and leaves a wet smear on her signature chambray button-down. She grins through another ladleful. If only that had been on the menu, I think.
Out And About
I follow Garten and her wheelbarrow out of the cafe and onto the tree-lined streets of East Hampton. We’re off to buy groceries for the dinner party Garten’s throwing later today.
“Tonight we’re celebrating the re-opening of my friend Lyle’s pottery mill. He’s an excellent potter, but his shop has been closed for two years due to an unfortunate dybbuk box incident. Lyle tried everything to rid his shop of the demon: dry ice, a swarm of bees, dry ice and bees. But just when he thought he was going to have to give up, his rabbi came over and was able to lure the spirit into a Clarks shoebox with the help of an irresistible chunky leather sandal, so the coast is clear and the kilns are back in action! Lyle’s even gone through the trouble to make some commemorative dinnerware that we’re going to use during tonight’s meal. It’s going to be spectacular.”
I ask her how she first met Lyle, but she simply shouts the word “friend!” and takes off down the street.
Despite her septuagenarian status, Garten’s always on the move. Her days are tightly scheduled, and I realize I’ll have to stay focused if I’m going to keep up.
I follow Garten, as well as the trail of leftover oats that are spilling out of the wheelbarrow by the pound, straight into an organic farmers market where Garten immediately begins digging through a box of arugula, occasionally throwing fistfuls of the greens down onto the asphalt.
It’s clear that her years in the industry have fine-tuned her instincts. She assesses foods with lightning speed and precision, tossing them into the wheelbarrow if they’re good to go, or directly to the ground if they’re not up to par. Three pounds of raspberries into the barrow. Two raw chickens to the floor. She pays for nothing.
Tonight’s menu consists of three Barefoot Contessa staples, all of which have appeared in Garten’s best-selling cookbooks: Ina’s Arugula Salad from Barefoot Contessa: Food For Meals, Ina’s Roast Chicken (Ina Edition) from Barefoot Contessa: One Really Good Recipe And Then A Bunch Of Cold Mayonnaise Salads and Ina’s Raspberry Tart For Ina… And Ina! from Barefoot Contessa: Baptisms!
Garten breezes through the farmers market, and within minutes, we’re walking toward her house with a wheelbarrow full of ingredients for tonight’s meal.
“Thank goodness that’s over with,” Garten says. She sighs, almost like she’s trying to shake the experience off of herself. I facetiously ask if she hates groceries, but she returns with a serious nod. “Of course I hate them. Groceries are food I haven’t made taste good yet. They are the enemy.”
Ina In Love
We turn down the driveway toward Garten’s stunning, palatial home. Her rustic, impeccably appointed shingle-style house is an impressive sight to behold, but the crown jewel of the property is the marble sculpture on the front lawn of Garten lifting her husband, Jeffrey, high over her head.
If the sculpture hadn’t already been a dead giveaway that the home was Garten’s, then the fact that I can see Jeffrey anxiously waiting in one of the windows definitely is.
When Jeffrey spots us, he runs to the door and flings it open, practically panting. They’ve only been apart for two hours, tops, but he’s holding a sign that says “WELCOME INA,” like he’s a limousine driver picking her up at the airport after a long trip abroad.
“Jeffrey!” Garten cries out.
The couple begins running toward one another. It’s incredibly sweet. It looks like they’re moving in slow-motion, like the leads in a romantic movie, but it’s more likely just the top speed for two people in their seventies. Ina lifts Jeffrey into the air and spins him around and around for several minutes. Jeffrey squeals.
As much as Ina Garten has made a name for herself, she’s made a name for her husband, too. The couple first met while fighting for opposing sides during the Vietnam War, and according to Garten, it’s been nothing but bliss since. Garten even immortalized their love in her 2016 cookbook, Jeffrey’s Romantic Cuisine: The Barefoot Contessa Guide To Being Madly In Love With Jeffrey, wherein she features recipes like Ina’s Sexual Mac And Cheese For Riling Up Jeffrey, Ina’s Jeffrey’s Favorite Marinara Sauce, and Ina’s Triple-Salted Love Juice (Jeffrey’s Special Private Kool-Aid).
Every Sunday, Jeffrey leaves Long Island to spend the week in Connecticut where he teaches a course at the Yale School of Management called “Introduction To Loving Your Wife, Ina.” Though the couple would prefer to spend more time together, Garten shows me the system they’ve devised to make long-distance work.
“It’s our special connection machine,” she says as she pulls a tin can out of the wheelbarrow. She explains that a 100-mile long string connects her can to a can that Jeffrey brings with him to Hartford. Jeffrey proudly takes his can out of his briefcase and shows it to me. “During our days in the Mekong Delta, we’d use two clams connected by a reed!”
A black Town Car pulls into the driveway. Jeffrey turns his “WELCOME INA” sign around, revealing that the other side of it reads, “HELLO CHAUFFEUR.” Jeffrey holds it up to the driver’s side window and the doors unlock. Before sliding into the backseat, he passionately licks his hand, then blows the kiss to his wife.
Garten catches it with both hands, raises her arms above her head, and shakes her hips from side to side. It’s a goodbye gesture shown countless times on Garten’s TV show, but watching it in person is deeply moving.
Through the tinted windows, I can faintly see Jeffrey sobbing and banging his forehead on the glass to get out. The car pulls out of the driveway, and Jeffrey’s panicked shrieks remain audible as his driver takes him away.
Garten growls “I love you” into the tin can as its string whips past us, following after the car. A fat tear rolls down Garten’s cheek. She wipes it away with her neckerchief then shouts, “Giddy up!” before taking off with her wheelbarrow across the lawn.
In The Kitchen
“It’s my job as host to make everyone feel at home,” Ina says as she assembles the raspberry tart. “So I always tell my guests, treat my house like it’s yours. Put on my clothes. Nap in my bed. Go into the master bathroom and take the kind of explosive dump that you’d only do if you knew you were going to have the house to yourself for a while.”
We’re cooking in Garten’s barn, a multi-purpose space that serves as her office, the set for her TV show, and an AirBnB she rents out to couples looking to role-play as her and Jeffrey for a weekend.
In the otherwise pristine kitchen, there’s quite glaringly a pair of rollerblades on top of the counter. When I point them out to Garten, she gets an excited look in her eye and puts them on. Once standing, she tells me to spin her around. More curious than confused, I gently pull her in a circle.
“Faster!” she demands. “Faster!”
Admittedly, I’m afraid of injuring one of the most celebrated food stars in America. I don’t pick up the pace.
“MUSH, DOGGIE!” she yells. “MUSH!”
I oblige. She builds a shocking amount of momentum. Garten really just might be good at everything.
“Weeeeeeeee!” she exclaims, throwing her arms in the air like she’s on a rollercoaster. I have no idea what the hell we’re doing.
Garten abruptly stops herself on the counter. She skates over to the wheelbarrow and takes out the one raw chicken from the farmers market she didn’t throw on the ground. Still wearing the skates, she starts seasoning the chicken on a cutting board, quietly humming the 1-877-KARS-4-KIDS jingle as she goes.
“I create simple recipes that anyone should be able to make,” Ina explains as she zooms toward a spice rack. “But I’ve gotten so good at cooking that I need to give myself a handicap to make sure a recipe is easy enough for non-Inas to make.”
And as a non-Ina, Garten gives me the less challenging task of setting the table out on the patio. She hands me a big chef hat to wear while I do it, reminding me that though it could help me pass the height requirement for Kingda Ka, it’s not going to suddenly imbue me with any of her cooking or hosting prowess.
Once outside, I turn on the bistro lights lining the perimeter of the party space and sink into a wicker recliner. It’s a purple-pink sunset, and the last bits of golden light illuminate a row of shrubs, each one carefully trimmed into a different Jeffrey shape—Waving Jeffrey, Sunbathing Jeffrey, Disco Jeffrey, Sheriff Jeffrey. I’ve never seen love expressed so openly and sincerely between two people.
Suddenly, a kindly middle-aged man in a smock is standing across from me. I nearly yelp from surprise. How he made it across the entire yard without making a sound, I’m not sure. He stares at me, smiling, holding a wooden crate full of ceramics.
“I would shake your hand, but I’m holding this box,” he says. “I’m Lyle. I’m so excited to reopen the store, and we’re going to have a lovely time tonight!”
He starts to set the table with his handmade plates. They’re a deep forest green, and engraved into the center of each plate, there’s a horrifying dybbuk being sucked ass-backwards into a shoebox. It should be tacky, but it’s beautiful.
I return to the kitchen where I find Garten undoing her top. “Just changing into my evening attire,” she tells me.
She unbuttons the shirt, revealing a second, identical chambray underneath it. She stuffs the original down the garbage disposal. I watch the whole thing in awe.
Garten takes the Ina’s Roast Chicken out of the oven. “Thank goodness,” she says, wafting the rich, herbaceous scent up to her nose. “It’s finally not groceries anymore.”
She takes a second, deeper inhale and is so overcome by the aroma that she’s knocked to the floor.
“Mmmm,” she moans from the tile. “I love the way birds smell.”
She picks herself up and starts taking off the rollerblades. I tell her that I just met Lyle outside and ask who else I can expect to meet tonight, but she just bursts out laughing.
“I have no idea,” she tells me. “Friends are the people who suddenly appear on your patio when it’s dinnertime. Sometimes it’s a gay florist from Montauk, other times it’s Jennifer Garner. There’s no way to know.”
She grabs a tray of whiskey sours and opens the sliding glass door leading to the patio. “Let’s find out who we’ve got today!”
She quickly looks around, then turns to me. Frowning, she whispers, “It’s not always a home run.” Seamlessly, she regains her poise and steps out onto the patio with a warm, welcoming smile.
“Jonathan Van Ness!” she exclaims. “I’m so glad you’re here!”
The Queer Eye star is seated on the sofa, chatting energetically with two middle-aged women wearing caftans.
“Ina, so good to see you!” he says, rising to give Garten a hug. “You look stunning, henny! What’s your secret to being so pretty?”
“There’s no secret! Just brown hair, chambray, and hospital socks!” Garten laughs. The rest of us laugh, and Jeffrey pops up behind the fence and laughs, too. It’s hard not to be in good spirits when you’re in the presence of the queen.
Garten tells me that the women in caftans own a slate company in Westhampton that specializes in cheese boards, but they recently had to shut down their shop.
“Dybbuk,” one of the women explains to me. Jonathan Van Ness nods along. Apparently, this news is old hat for everyone else.
“But Rabbi Rabinowitz,” the other woman says, gesturing to a yarmulke-wearing man on the lawn who’s playing bocce ball, “successfully trapped it in a Dansko clog shoebox, and we’re reopening next week!”
“We’ll have to throw a party!” Garten insists. “I’ll make Ina Garten’s Ina’s Linguine with Shrimp Scampi (Ina Style)!”
“Oh my God,” Jonathan Van Ness says. “Can I come?”
Garten cracks up laughing and politely tells him no.
Garten disappears back into the kitchen while I take a lap around the party. Lyle, who appears to be taking advantage of Ina’s request that he make himself feel at home, walks out onto the lawn wrapped in a terry cloth robe with “INA” embroidered on the breast, his hair wet from taking a bath.
Out of the corner of my eye, I once again see the unmistakable puff of curly white hair that could only belong to Jeffrey, this time sticking out from behind a statue of he and Ina embracing during the fall of Saigon. I hear what’s either a bird call or the faint sobs of a lovesick Yale professor, but before I can investigate, I’m distracted by a loud crash coming from the barn.
“Fore!” Garten cries.
I turn to see that she’s not only smashed her wheelbarrow through the sliding glass door, but she’s somehow got it wedged in the doorframe. After a few pushes, she realizes it’s stuck, shrugs, and gleefully climbs over it. She raises her arms above her head and shouts, “Dinnertime! Grab your custom plate and get in line for Ina’s Food!”
It occurs to me that the party is more about Ina than it is about Lyle, but even Lyle—who’s now in Garten’s shed using a leaf blower to dry his hair—doesn’t seem to mind.
While Garten waits to dish out some servings with her trusty ladle, she sneaks a bite of the chicken. She loves it so much she begins gyrating and pulling out her hair until she loses control of her body and collapses into the wheelbarrow.
“Mmmmm!” she screams. It sounds like if a foghorn could orgasm. The chicken, I gather, must taste incredible.
“How easy was that?” she says, patting her stomach with satisfaction as Rabbi Rabinowitz helps her back onto her feet. “There’s nothing better than the flavor of a dead bird!”
While waiting for my dinner, I imagine myself as the kind of person who has a life like this, like Garten. Custom ceramics straight from a potter. Rollerblading around the kitchen. Serving dinner from a wheelbarrow. Eating oats from a wheelbarrow. Owning a wheelbarrow. I’m at peace just thinking about it.
But that’s not my world—it’s Ina Garten’s, and we all just wish we were living in it.