DEATHS

Food critic Lucy Cooper dies at 95

 

ebrecher@miamiherald.com

Lucy D. Cooper wrote about food and restaurants for the Miami Herald under the headlines “Behind the Menu” and “Wine and Dine,” and authored the 1988 cookbook, Southern Entertaining; A New Taste of the South.

As heartily as the Pennsylvania-born daughter of Italian immigrants had embraced the foods of the Deep South when she married an Alabama native, Cooper also embraced — and urged cooks and diners to explore — ingredients that Latin American and Caribbean cooks were adding to the cuisine of South Florida.

She also championed the young chefs who were introducing them to their menus.

Among them: Norman Van Aken, who said Cooper’s glowing 1985 review of his Key West restaurant, Louie’s Backyard, gave it “a tremendously big lift and was a big deal for my career’’ that “vindicated’’ his culinary vision, something that his own staff doubted at the time.

She wrote: “There are food writers, food faddists and knowledgeable epicures who view with skepticism the hype about New American Cuisine. They doubt that such a cooking style even exists.

“Before pronouncing any final judgments, skeptics should dine at Louie’s Backyard, where it is pristinely clear that there indeed is a New American Cuisine, one that can reach transcendent heights.’’

Van Aken called Cooper “regal, and a great lady,’’ who wrote during a time when “there was a standard to be upheld in food writing and restaurant criticism. She was South Florida restaurant criticism.’’

Cooper, of Fort Lauderdale, died in hospice care at Hollywood Memorial Hospital South on June 5. Born Lucy Deflaviano in 1917, she would have celebrated her 96th birthday on July 7.

Son Robert Dudley Cooper, of Dania Beach, said she succumbed to the infirmities of old age. She’d been a widow since her husband, trucking executive Guy Dudley Cooper, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 1961.

He called his mother “very classy. Sweet, and there was no phoniness.’’

Though refined and proper, Cooper could be as tart as a key lime when either cuisine or ambiance failed to meet her rigorous standards.

Example: this 1982 evisceration of Chef Onecio’s Gourmet Restaurant in Broward County.

“Chef Onecio should have been content with the trattoria-style restaurant he owns on West Oakland Park Boulevard, where people line up for the early-bird dinner specialties,’’ Cooper wrote. “His new establishment, which is pretentiously billed as a gourmet restaurant, is made up of several large, dismal rooms yawningly empty of decor....

“The menu is one of those boring, me-too epistles that food people locked into the 1940s like to call ‘continental.’ It reeks of the usual clichés — lobster Newberg, shrimp Newberg, vichyssoise and Caesar salad, to name but a few.’’

As always, she ended the review with the question: “Would I return?’’

“I can’t imagine why,’’ she sniffed. “There are literally hundreds of such undistinguished restaurants in Broward that hardly warrant the first visit, let alone the second.’’

An accomplished cook who “made incredible Italian stuff,’’ according to her son, Cooper developed an interest in food while her family ran a grocery store during the Depression.

In her book, she writes about how her appreciation for Southern cooking began when she moved to Washington, D.C., during World War II — “those were the days when the area was graciously Southern’’ — and deepened when she married Alabama-born Guy Cooper.

They met during the war when Lucy worked as a defense analyst in the capital and Guy, president of Cooper-Jarrett Trucking Company in Chicago, won a government contract to transport fresh food for the stateside military.

They lived in Naperville, Ill., where Lucy Cooper began her writing career covering social events, and bought a ranch in Mississippi.

His father had “excellent taste in restaurants,’’ Bob Cooper said, and introduced wife Lucy to fine cuisine. Learning about it, and eating it, became a lifelong passion.

She wrote that every year, she’d go to France and Italy to study with famous chefs, dine at three-star restaurants and tour wineries.

Keeping her figure, given her job and “proclivities,’’ was “a constant and wearisome struggle,’’ she wrote in a 1982 column. “It means dieting when eating at home and a continuing regimen of exercise, both of which I hate. But I hate the alternative even worse.’’

His mother was equally serious about writing as she was about cooking, Bob Cooper said.

“She would work hard to get just the right phrase. She had a very elegant writing style.’’

The Herald hired Lucy Cooper in the 1970s as the Broward social columnist. But editors soon tapped into her love for, and knowledge of food. For awhile, she managed to stay anonymous, but by 1988 restaurateurs sometimes spotted her.

She explained to readers how she operated.

“Never, never announce, never never let anyone pick up the tab. . . . When you’ve been doing it a long time, it’s your work, it’s your business, so you want to do it with the least fanfare.”

She said she got a certain feeling when someone realized who she was.

“I can’t help but order knowledgeably. I know what I’m ordering, and I know how to order. I know how to order a wine. This may or may not be what a woman normally does. Or they begin to think, well, I’ve ordered quite a bit of food. I just get the feeling that they do know, because maybe they’ll bring in the first team (their best waiters, etc.)...

“I can’t stand it when they kind of fawn over you. What I do try to do is look around and see what kind of attention the other people are getting.’’

On Feb. 17, 1989, Cooper signed off as restaurant critic, though she continued to contribute to The Miami Herald and The Sun Sentinel into the early ’90s.

“Most people think being a restaurant critic is a dream job, nothing but gluttonous fun,’’ she wrote. “But like most jobs, it has its glorious moments and its bad ones.

“Critics are loved by many and despised by others. A good review brings adoration from the restaurateur. A bad review brings accusations of viciousness, incompetence, vengeance and prejudice, not only from restaurateurs but from the diners who like that restaurant.’’

She wasn’t going to give up writing about restaurants and food, she added, “but I want to write about them in less hectic, more contemplative and creative ways. And I’d like to spend a few less nighttime hours battling I-95.”

In addition to her son, Lucy Cooper is survived by her step-son, Peter Dudley Cooper, of Oklahoma.

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. June 24 in the chapel of St. Pius X Catholic Church, 2511 N. Ocean Blvd., Fort Lauderdale.

Her ashes will be placed next to her husband in Naperville.

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