I was working on a memorial post yesterday when the news suddenly appeared that there was a much more timely memorial that I needed to write. The other could wait; considering the number of people who breathlessly said or tweeted that Charlie Trotter was the beginning of all food in Chicago, the first chef anyone knew by name from here, there wasn’t really reason to worry that too many others would pick up on the Sun-Times‘s obituary for a woman whose career dated back to 1950s prehistory, a lost Atlantis of food media before Trotter was even born.
Alma Lach died at 99, and it was apparently a long and good life, since the reports are that she had thrown a party just a few weeks earlier. And an intellectually active one to the end—she gave a talk to a women’s group devoted to fine food, Les Dames d’Escoffier, a few years ago on the subject of . . . creating art with Adobe Photoshop. She was also supposed to be working on another book.
So who was she? Basically, my friend Cathy Lambrecht of Culinary Historians of Chicago said, she was the woman who could have been Julia Child if she’d wanted to be. Like Julia, she studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, though in her case it came after both the book and the cooking show.
Her first book was A Child’s First Cookbook (you can get an e-book edition here, or see a piece Life magazine did on it here) in 1950, and in 1955 she hosted an early cooking show on TV (WTTW and later WGN), also for children, Let’s Cook. After earning the Grand Diplome at Le Cordon Bleu in 1956, she joined the Sun-Times as its food editor the next year, and held the position until 1965, when she launched her own cooking school. She made many TV appearances over the years, including on some national programs, but she seemed to have not been personally interested in pursuing stardom, and her major work in this time was her equivalent of Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a 1970 book originally entitled Cooking a la Cordon Bleu and then, after the school protested, republished in 1974 as Hows and Whys of French Cooking.
But French wasn’t the only cuisine that she influenced. Her husband, Donald, a professor at the University of Chicago, was a scholar of historical connections between Europe and Asia, and she popularized their mutual interest in food anthropology in a way that Craig Claiborne would later credit as a key inspiration for the Asian fusion cuisine of the 1980s. In recent years she lived in Ann Arbor.
All in all, the sort of life that brings back that prefeminist era of female achievement when motivated women accomplished a lot within what was assumed to be their sphere; from our vantage point it can seem a completely alien culture, except that there are still women like Alma Lach alive who lived straight through it into ours, doing much the same things they did all along.
The only member of Les Dames d’Escoffier whom I was able to reach before other news broke was Patty Erd of the Spice House, who said she didn’t know Lach well, but “I can tell that she was brilliant at modern technology which I found very impressive as I believe she was in her 80s and doing what she called pixel art work. She did a program for us at the Tavern Club where her artwork was displayed and it was amazing. Several times she sent me cards of her works, and I have a beautiful collection of her cards. So lovely that I could not actually bear to send them out! She was very generous with her time, and I was always impressed that such a highly esteemed person would take the trouble to answer the e-mail from essentially a stranger who was just a shopkeeper.”