By Robin Benzle
The first question people ask me when they find out that I spent an hour with Paul Newman over lunch at his New York apartment is; Are his eyes really that blue? The answer is, yup, as blue as a bottle of Windex. The second question people ask is; how on earth did you get an interview with him (he hadn’t done an interview in more than five years and was notorious for not signing autographs)? When I asked him the same question, he simply said, ‘You’re not Barbara Walters.’
As we sat at a small, wooden table in his warm and antique-filled living room; a bowl of his favorite salad between us, he cordially allowed me a rare glimpse into his private world – his food world, at least.
Growing up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, Paul Newman remembers nostalgic dishes from his Hungarian mother, such as ‘great goulash, pot roast, things with noodles and mashed potatoes.’ Today, he describes his likes as those of a simple man on the street corner. He’s a salad nut, loves hamburgers, and ‘wouldn’t object eating fish through Christmas’. As for what he would fix for an anniversary dinner for Joanne? “Sliced cucumbers with caviar.” “That’s all?” I ask. “Anniversaries come around once a year, and I’m not working much,” he replies. And if he happens to ask you out for an ice cream cone, just so you know, he’s a rum raisin kind of guy.
One of his most notable eating scenes in film was in Cool Hand Luke, where he bet he could eat 50 hard-boiled eggs – and much to the discomfort of viewers, painfully did so. I wondered, as a result, can he look an omelet in the eye? “I never swallowed an egg – the magic of film,” he said. “Now, Henry Fonda – he was the best film eater of all times. He would have a garbage can next to the table during an eating scene. Then, he’d pack his cheeks just like a squirrel, never swallowing a bite, and use the same food for 8, 10, 20 shots.” Speaking of eggs, Newman sometimes gets up on Sunday mornings and fixes eggs fried in bacon grease – and he even helps with the dishes.
I reach for a tortilla chip, served right out of the bag (and offered with a choice of Newman’s various salsas), take a big drink of water, and ask him the three food questions I’d been most hungry to ask.
If he was going to a friend’s house for dinner, and the hosts proudly announce they are serving their finest dish – and it tastes like dog food, how would he handle it? Without hesitating, Newman replies, “I’d bark…and then choke it down.”
Who, from history, would he like to have as a dinner guest? “Well – God would be all right.” Then he described one of his most memorable dinners: “Once I had dinner with Peter Ustinov, David Niven, Princess Grace and Prince Rainier. They were all such great story-tellers and the company was so exceptional, I barely spoke a word and can’t even remember what we ate.”
My final question: “Have you ever put the ice-cube tray back with one ice-cube in it?” After a penetrating glare, he answered, “I have three nooses hanging in my kitchen for offenders. It drives me crazier than anything in life. So, the answer is, NEVER!”
Then he calmed down and shared two of his personal recipes with me.
Paul Newman’s Favorite Salad This Month
1 small head Bibb lettuce
2 – 3 heads Belgian endive, thinly sliced
2 medium tomatoes, diced
½ each, yellow and red bell pepper, sliced
¼ cup thinly sliced purple onion
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup Newman’s Own Olive Oil and Vinegar Dressing
6 slices crisp, cooked bacon, crumbled
In a large bowl, toss together all ingredients, sprinkling crumbled bacon over the top when ready to serve. Serves 4.
(In his own words)
Good hamburger buns
Thinly sliced Bermuda onion
Newman’s Own Salsa
Slivered kosher dill pickles
“Don’t make the mistake of using ground round or sirloin in this recipe,” says Newman. “Many hamburger cooks fall short of my standards because they use meat that is simply too good. I cook all my hamburgers on the outdoor grill or the indoor fireplace grill, and ground chuck is best suited to a hot, charcoal fire.”
“Form the chuck into patties of the preferred size. I toss them from hand to hand to keep them fluffy. Never pat down the meat or the hamburger won’t be able to breathe while it’s cooking. Also, never put salt, pepper, or any other seasoning in the meat before cooking because that will toughen it. The idea of adding onions, eggs, bread crumbs, or any other ingredient to the meat raises my hackles. Never confuse steak tartar with the pure hamburger.”
“Prepare the charcoal and grease the grill with vegetable oil, but don’t put the meat on the fire until is a uniform grayish-white. Sear the burgers well on one side and turn them only once. After turning them, lower the grill for a brief time to sear the other side. The result: a hamburger that is crisp on the outside, tomato-red inside.”
“While the Newmanburgers are cooking, toast the buns around the edge of the grill. At my house, tomatoes, sliced onion, salsa and pickles are the inevitable accompaniments. If corn is in season, it is also made part of the meal, always cooked for precisely three minutes and not a second longer in boiling, sweetened water.”
“Although the Newmanburger is usually enjoyed with frosty mugs of beer, on occasional impulse I serve up a bottle of 1962 Mouton-Rothschild, and that’s when the Newmanburger tastes its best!”
© by Robin Benzle.