Ina Garten’s first drink came out of a bathtub at a Dartmouth fraternity house. “On Sunday, they used to make something called Fog Cutters, where they’d take all of the booze leftover from the week, put it in a bathtub and drink it,” she says, barely containing her laughter at the thought of it.
Aside from the cherries her father used to fish out of his Whiskey Sours for her and her brother when they were kids, that Fog Cutter was her first taste of alcohol. “I do also remember getting sick on Screwdrivers,” she adds. “The thought of drinking one now, you know, how many years later—I couldn’t possibly do it.”
We’re inside the barroom at The Mark, a Jean-Georges establishment just off Madison Avenue on a recent afternoon. In the city for the day to take meetings leading up to the release of her tenth cookbook, Cooking for Jeffrey, she’s looking positively Ina—gently tousled bangs and bob, crisp white button-down, chunky necklace—as she orders a cranberry juice and soda. She still has dinner ahead and a ride back to East Hampton, and something tells me she doesn’t routinely day-drink with strangers.
But there is a mischievous wink in the way Garten talks about drinking that’s become a hallmark of both Barefoot Contessa—where pitchers of Margaritas are something of a recurring character—and her books. “I can’t understand books where drinks are written in a single serving,” she says. “So I never write a recipe for one drink. Who wants to drink one drink?”
If Garten were to have just one drink, however, it’d almost always be a Whiskey Sour. They’ve already come up several times in conversation before I ask if I was right in noticing a theme. “Yes, definitely a theme,” she says, before launching into a story about a somewhat misguided bar crawl she’d organized in Paris a few New Years Eves ago. She figured that the true test of a great bar was whether they could make a great Whiskey Sour. So, she lined up six stops, wherein she, Jeffrey and two of their friends would have one Whiskey Sour at each, to compare them.
“I was so drunk at the end of the night,” she says. “The Whiskey Sour Test—it was a tough job, but I had to do it … for my friends.”
The causal way in which she invokes her escapades in Paris, her Upper East Side pied-à-terre, her life in East Hampton, is so self-possessed that it lacks the pretense one might reflexively assign to each scenario. It feels as normal as going to Costco and driving a minivan back to a two-bedroom home in suburban America. Which is why her reality seems both woefully out of reach, and perfectly relatable. It also, I realize, might have something to with the fact that, while her life may have plenty of baroque flourishes, her taste in food and drink does not.
“Entertaining is really not about the stuff that you’re serving, it’s about connecting with people; if you’re worried about what it is that you’re drinking … [it] just gets in the way,” she says. “So, if there’s smoke coming out of your drink, I don’t know what you’re thinking. Am I supposed to ingest this, or blow it away?”
Throughout our conversation, dry ice comes up frequently. The following week, she’ll be heading to Washington, D.C., to film a show at José Andrés’ barmini, which is known for applying the chef’s same modernist bent to cocktails. Garten uses smoking cocktails as a shorthand for the avant-garde, which she associates with an endless pursuit of the unfamiliar. She peddles in the opposite—in what she calls “remembered flavors.” Good, to Garten, is not reliant on a thing’s ambitions for itself or for her, or about pushing any perceivable boundary. Good is about enjoyment, and when I ask her if she’s ever really felt tempted by trend to change directions in her cooking, she nearly finishes the question for me.
“To do something more cutting-edge than roast chicken? No. I’m embarrassed to say, no. There are a million different ways to do what I do. I want to make it simpler, more accessible, more delicious, more familiar,” she says, pausing. “All of that is, I don’t know, maybe very Japanese in a way—always looking inward to make it more perfect, rather than looking outward to make it more … different.”
In that moment, I realize that part of the elevation of Ina Garten to a pop cultural icon for women my age is that she represents, in a way, a destination for all of our ambitions and anxieties that is defined by a confident catharsis. Her contentment acts as a quiet feminism, gently urging forward. If only Siri’s voice sounded like Ina’s, I thought. (Tim Cook, can you hear me?)
Toward the end of our conversation I get up to pay our check at the bar. The bartender, a young woman likely in her late 20s, turns around to hand it to me. “What’s she like? The Contessa,” she says with slight, unidentifiable accent. “I am a huge fan.” The male bartender, a few years older, walks over: “Me, too.” They both quickly trade memories of moments on the show, gushing about the rotating cast of tony gay men, her collection of button-downs, her enviable relationship with Jeffrey. I excuse myself to finish off my Aperol Spritz, aware that I’ve already kept Garten too long.
As we’re both getting ready to leave we get on the topic of Brad and Angelina, who’d announced their divorce the week prior. She tells me a story about a friend of a friend who was a thrown by the news, feeling a loss of faith in marriage and partnership in general. The woman, says Garten, told her friend that at least she still had Ina and Jeffrey. “If they broke up,” the woman said, “I’d have to take a day off work.”