Sheila Lukins

Sheila Lukins' book "The Silver Palate" is one of the top 10 best-selling cookbooks of all time. She helped popularize gourmet cooking in America's home kitchens. She also ran a pioneering gourmet takeout shop and wrote a column for Parade magazine. (Los Angeles Times)

Sheila Lukins, an influential cookbook author whose "The Silver Palate" demystified and helped popularize gourmet cooking in America's home kitchens, has died. She was 66.

Lukins, who also operated a pioneering gourmet takeout shop, died Sunday at her home in New York City, announced Parade magazine, where she had been food editor.

Lukins was diagnosed with brain cancer three months ago.

"The Silver Palate" is one of the top 10 best-selling cookbooks of all time. She wrote it with her business partner, Julee Rosso, in 1979, two years after they opened one of the nation's first gourmet takeout shops, in New York City.

The food entrepreneurs benefited from perfect timing.

Takeout food was beginning to boom in the late 1970s as a growing workforce of women realized they needed shortcuts in the kitchen.

"From tiny little shops like the Silver Palate, people started realizing they didn't have the time but still wanted it handmade and delicious," said Mary Sue Milliken, co-chef and co-owner of the local Border Grill and Ciudad restaurants. "Look what's happened -- now you walk into every grocery store and they have this 'grab and go' thing, which all spawned from these shops."

The "Silver Palate" cookbook was praised for simplifying and reinterpreting "highfalutin home cooking" and benefited from a new and growing appreciation in the United States for ethnic cuisine.

Sauteed chicken livers with blueberry vinegar, caviar eclairs, pizza pot pie "and pesto by the quart were suddenly the rage from Boca Raton to Bellingham," Kathie Jenkins wrote in The Times' Food pages in 1994.

"Just about anyone who threw a party in the '80s turned to a 'Silver Palate' cookbook. It guaranteed a party that everybody talked about," said Nancy Silverton, a Los Angeles chef who owns Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza.

Lukins attributed the cookbook's popularity to home cooks who "were ready to become stars in the kitchen," she said in a 1992 Associated Press article.

" 'The Silver Palate' cookbook was a real turning point for a lot of people in looking at food in a big-picture kind of way," Milliken said. "I loved the book, and it was definitely something I refer to a lot."

At Parade, Lukins succeeded Julia Child as food editor in 1986 and wrote the Simply Delicious column for 23 years.

Her Parade recipes were "always really, really basic but inspirational," geared toward getting people into the kitchen, Milliken said.

One colleague considered Lukins "the Rodney Dangerfield of food. She didn't get no respect," said Clark Wolf, a food and restaurant consultant whose recipe for bruschetta was included in "The New Basics Cookbook" she wrote with Rosso in 1989.

"Because she and Julee wrote books that were fun and easy and accessible and sold millions of copies," Wolf told the New York Times in 1997, "all the food historians whose books sell 6,000 copies got very cranky."

Born in 1942 in Philadelphia, Lukins grew up in Westport, Conn., and was raised by her mother, a former dental hygienist and her stepfather, a manufacturer.

After graduating from New York University in 1970 with a bachelor's degree in art education, she moved to London with her husband, Richard Lukins, who operated a security business.

Bored, she enrolled in cooking classes at Le Cordon Bleu culinary institute but later emphasized that she "took the dilettante course rather than the diploma course."