The first question that people ask me when they find out 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 is: "So what was he like?"
"Well, he wasn't at all nervous about meeting me," I reply.
As for me, I was cool as a cucumber in a blizzard. Except when I called him Paul Newton.
In addition, he is charming, extremely witty, and most of all, inspiring. His blue eyes light up the most when he talks about Newman's Own Food Company.
Giving his friends old wine bottles filled with his homemade olive oil-and-vinegar salad dressing for gifts was the beginning of it all.
"After Christmas, they would come back for more, knocking pitifully at the door with their tin cups, saying, 'Salad dressing, salad dressing.' If that didn't work for them, they'd send their children -- forlorn little kids in rags, from Westport, Conn. Imagine all the trouble they went to to get those rags."
So, in 1982, "out of sheer revenge," he made salad dressing the first product of Newman's Own. Other foods followed: Bandito Diavolo Spicy Salsa Inferno, Sockarooni Spaghetti Sauce, Oldstyle Picture Show Popcorn and Old Fashioned Roadside Virgin Lemonade, among others.
Today, Newman's Own has more than 14 factories internationally that manufacture and distribute his foods as far away as Iceland. Although the company has proven itself to be a formidable player in the food industry, the delicious part of the whole business is that Mr. Newman donates all profits after tax to hundreds of charities -- more than $50 million so far, concentrating on those that provide assistance to children and the elderly.
He attributes his company's success to the fact that "food and charity make a wonderful blend," and that people enjoy buying his products because they are getting much more than a great food product.
"It enables them to give a little, too," he says.
As far as his next product goes, he remains tight-lipped. "I don't want to tell you," he says, smiling. "It's so good, I don't want the competition to get a jump on it."
In addition to making a name for himself in the food business, Mr. Newman is admired for his accomplishments as actor and race-car driver and for his successful 35-year marriage to actress Joanne Woodward. As we sat at a small, wooden table in his living room, a bowl of his favorite salad between us (recipe below), he allowed me a glimpse into his private world -- his food world, at least.
He grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, and remembers 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 to eating fish through Christmas." But that doesn't mean he "wouldn't go face down in a plate of Beluga caviar."
As for what he would fix for an anniversary dinner . . .
"Sliced cucumbers with caviar."
And if he happens to ask you out for an ice-cream cone, just so you know, he's a rum-raisin kind of a guy.
One of his most notable eating scenes on film was in "Cool Hand Luke," where he bet that he could eat 50 hard-boiled eggs. And much to the discomfort of the viewers, painfully did so. I wondered, as a result, can he look an omelet in the eye? Are his Easter eggs plastic? When he passes a chicken farm, does he find himself clucking uncontrollably?
"I never swallowed an egg -- the magic of film," he says. "Now, Henry Fonda, he was the best film eater of all time. 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 eight, 10, 20 shots."
As we talked, I reached for a tortilla chip, served right out of the bag (and offered with a choice of Newman's Own mild, medium or hot salsa), took a big drink of water and knew it was time to bring out the big guns -- the three food questions I'd been most hungry to ask him.
First Big Question: If he were at a friend's house for dinner, and the hosts proudly announced that they were serving their finest dish, and it tasted like dog food, how would he handle it?
Without hesitating, Mr. Newman says, "I'd bark -- and then choke it down."
Second Big Question: Who, from history, would he like to have as a dinner guest?
"Well -- God would be all right. Actually, one of my most memorable dining experiences was in Monaco. I had dinner with Peter Ustinov, David Niven, Princess Grace and Prince Rainier. They were all such great storytellers and the company was so exceptional, I barely spoke a word and can't even remember what we ate."
My final (and favorite) Big Question: Have you ever put the ice-cube tray back with one ice cube in it?
After a penetrating glare, he answers, "I have three nooses hanging in my kitchen for offenders. It drives me more crazy than anything in life. The answer is: Never!"
Then he calms down (I checked the ice-cube trays to make sure they were full) and shares a recipe.
Paul Newman's favorite salad this month
Makes 4 servings
1 small head Bibb lettuce, torn into bite-size pieces
2 to 3 endives, thinly sliced
2 tomatoes, diced
1/2 sweet red pepper, thinly sliced
1/2 sweet yellow pepper, thinly sliced
1/4 cup thinly sliced purple onion
1/2 cup Newman's Own Olive Oil and Vinegar Salad Dressing
6 slices crisply cooked bacon, crumbled
Toss together lettuce, endives, tomatoes, red and yellow peppers, onion, salt and pepper to taste, and dressing in large bowl. Sprinkle crumbled bacon over top when ready to serve.
Robin Benzle is the author of "Cooking with Humor" and the forthcoming "The Ziggy Cookbook: Great Food From Mom's Diner," VanTine Publishing.
+ Los Angeles Times Syndicate