Cookbook author was Sun-Times food editor
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter November 2, 2013 9:58PM
Updated: December 5, 2013 6:16AM
Some say Alma Lach could have been as big as Julia Child.
Though her talent was touted by New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne, Mrs. Lach — an influential cookbook author, restaurant consultant, TV host and former Sun-Times food editor — didn’t seek fame, according to friends and foodies.
“Cooking was her life. She talked about food, she made food. She loved to cook and to design, create,” said her daughter, Sandy Arlinghaus.
She started out life as a farmer’s daughter in Petersburg, Ill., about 20 miles from Springfield. After graduating from the University of Chicago, she evolved into an international traveler and gourmet. In 1956, she became one of the first Americans to receive the Grand Diplome, the top cooking degree from the Cordon Bleu School in Paris, said University of Michigan culinary historian Jan Longone.
She and Child “each are a major contribution to culinary history,” Longone said.
Mrs. Lach died Oct. 21 in Ann Arbor, Mich. An inveterate entertainer who often held twice-weekly dinner parties, she hosted a party a few days before she died at 99.
Mrs. Lach was educated in a one-room schoolhouse, where one of her teachers was a relative of “Spoon River Anthology” author Edgar Lee Masters, who spent part of his childhood in Petersburg. Her father, John Satorius, grew corn and soybeans. Her mother, Clara, made mouth-watering pies and fried chicken and mashed potatoes with country gravy.
At age 6, she was already learning to cook in her mother’s kitchen, Claiborne wrote in a 1968 article about Mrs. Lach.
“My mother knew how to milk a cow,” Sandy Arlinghaus said. “My mother knew how to drive a tractor at 10, and she drove a car at 8.”
She followed her sister to the University of Chicago, where they studied home economics. There she met her future husband, Donald F. Lach, a graduate student who became a renowned history professor who analyzed links between Europe and Asia.
It may have informed her cooking. In his New York Times article, Claiborne said Mrs. Lach believed the two great cuisines of the world were French and Chinese, and “through some bizarre turns of history and navigation the French was derived from the Chinese. It is evident, she thinks, in some of the French brown sauces that [resemble] the Chinese.”
Mrs. Lach spent her first years of married life in Elmira, N.Y., where her husband taught at Elmira College, and she ran a catering business from her home.
They returned to the University of Chicago when he landed a teaching job. In 1949, he won a Fulbright Scholar Award for study in France. Mrs. Lach enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu and found a refuge from Paris’ damp and cold.
“It was a marvelous escape for a few hours each day,” she told Claiborne, “totally absorbing. And, besides, it was nice and warm.”
From 1957 to 1965, she was food editor of the Sun-Times.
“At that time, it was very easy to make a difference because people were tired of gravy and mashed potatoes,” Mrs. Lach said in a 2008 Sun-Times interview. “I was introducing them to French cooking and sauces, not gravy.”
“You couldn’t be pure French,” she said, noting that she also featured recipes like barbecued tuna buns. “You more or less had to make it fit into their lives, rather than having them change their lives.”
She hosted an early WTTW kids’ show, “Let’s Cook,” and appeared on “Over Easy,” a PBS show featuring Hugh Downs. She also worked as a consultant for restaurants and Midway Airlines.
Lettuce Entertain You founder Rich Melman hired her in 1975. She took him to a variety of eateries and urged him to try new foods.
“She introduced me to blinis and the way to eat caviar,” he said. “She was very important in my development of food. I remember her doing special batters for calamari used in Asian techniques that made them crisper.”
The Pump Room menu was developed with her advice.
“She had a little Julia Child in her, I think,” Melman said. “I think she could have been” a food star, but “I’m not sure she was a natural promoter of herself. I don’t think that was important to her.”
Still, when customers arrived at Hyde Park’s Tai Sam Yon, one of her favorite Chinese restaurants, they’d tell the staff, “I’ll just have what Alma eats.”
Her classic cookbook “Hows and Whys of French Cooking” was published in 1974 by the University of Chicago Press. It was a resounding hit, selling 25,000 copies in a short time, said Garrett Kiely, director of the University of Chicago Press.
It also was the first general-interest book printed by the academic publisher, which usually produces scholarly tomes that sell in the range of 1,000 copies, said executive editor David Brent.
“In a way, this book paved the way for other general-interest books published by the press, like “A River Runs Through It.’ “ Kiely said.
Bruce Kraig, retired president of the Culinary Historians of Chicago, still uses a dog-eared, food-spattered copy of the book. “I like it better than [Child’s] ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking,’ ’’ he said. “The recipes are simpler.”
“A lot of people use [it] as their bible,” said Barbara Glunz, an owner of the House of Glunz wine and spirits shop.
Mrs. Lach and Child were enormously skilled gourmet cooks and writers, but they remained very different, said Joan Reardon, author of the book “As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto.” “Although Alma did appear on both local and national TV, her books sold because of content, not because of her voice, and ‘hamming it up’ like Julia did. Alma was not a ‘foody star’ and did not try to be one.”
In 2007, the Chicago chapter of the Les Dames d’Escoffier International honored her as a “Dame of Distinction.”
Both early adopter and outlier, she was adept at her computer. At 95 or 96, she presented a lively lecture on Adobe Photoshop to Les Dames, Glunz said.
Mrs. Lach is also survived by a grandson and great-grandson. Services were held in Petersburg. A private celebration may be held in the future in Chicago.
Contributing: Andrew Patner