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Oprah Winfrey’s turbulent relationship with food

Pervaiz Shallwani

Oprah Winfrey’s career has been defined by a love-hate relationship with food. For more than 30 years, the audience has watched as the rags-to-riches media mogul has publicly waged a personal battle with weight.

So after setting out to write her much-awaited memoir, Winfrey realized she needed more time to tell the complicated story of Oprah, and decided to take a personal detour: a cookbook.

“Food, Health and Happiness: 115 On-point Recipes for Great Meals and a Better Life” (Flatiron, $35) turned out to be so much more, becoming for Winfrey as much a cookbook as a memoir about a celebrity’s relationship with food going back to her days as a little girl living in inner-city Milwaukee.

The week before the book was released, a trimmed-down Oprah graced the cover of People magazine, sharing how she used Weight Watchers points to shed more than 40 pounds while consuming fried chicken, wine and bread. Recently, she announced a partnership with Kraft Heinz to make healthier ready-to-eat meals more available.

The book, which was released Jan. 3, came about in the months after her 2015 return to Weight Watchers, this time not only as the point-based dieting company’s public face, but also a board member and a 10-percent owner.

Childhood: The recipes are mostly from chefs that Winfrey has employed over the years. There’s no grandma or mom here, she said in a recent interview, days before her 63rd birthday.

“I don’t have any of those kinds of memories,” she said. “And anything my mother was making in the kitchen, you couldn’t put in this cookbook. ’Cause my mother actually put butter in her turnip greens. Anything that might be healthy is going to be smothered in butter and pig fat.”

But she shares how her childhood has affected her relationship to food in other ways. The basis for a chapter on soup comes from the TV show “Lassie.” As a 6-year-old, Winfrey remembers watching the show, not for the misadventures of a talented dog and Timmy, the little boy she saved week after week. It was the Campbell’s Soup that Timmy’s mom gives him at the end.

Years later, Winfrey learned that Campbell’s sponsored the show for 19 years, “but back then, product placement was the furthest thing from my mind,” she writes. “All I knew for sure in those days was that my world would be perfect and we’d all live happily ever after as the credits rolled if my mom would ladle up a great big bowl of Campbell’s soup just for me.”

For Winfrey, that was “out of the question,” she writes. Her mother was a maid. “Even wishing such a thing was absurd. My mom did the best she could do, but to this day I have clear memories of putting grape Kool-Aid on my cereal because we were too broke to buy milk. The truth is, I remember times when we couldn’t afford any food.”

That’s why she begins the book with 19 soup recipes. “Every one of these soups gives me a deep and instant sense of well-being.”

Q&A: Recently, Winfrey took a break from filming the movie adaptation of “A Wrinkle in Time,” the 1960s-era, science-fiction, fantasy children’s novel by Madeline L’Engle, to talk with Newsday about writing the cookbook, her public battle with weight gain, why the standard is not the same for overweight men and her current obsession with cacio e pepe, a simple pasta of noodles, water, pepper and cheese that can be the ultimate bowl of comfort when the ingredients meld.

Question: What made you want to finally write a cookbook?

Answer: I was supposed to be writing a memoir, and I realized how hard it is to write a memoir and to do it well. I really needed more time to think about the entire story of my life. But the story of food was something that I could articulate, and form a story around and meet a deadline. Number two, I had started the Weight Watchers program, and everybody who came to my house was asking is this on Weight Watchers … meaning the pasta, the tacos, the stuffed tortellini. So I just woke up one day thinking, oh, what if I did a cookbook? Maybe I can tell my story of food along with recipes and ideas for other people who find it unbelievable that you can eat regular food, delicious food and still lose weight. So it’s a combination memoir cookbook.

Q: You have a knack for connecting with people. How did you envision doing this through the cookbook?

A: My whole life is about story. That to me is what makes us human. You may like the story or you may not like the story, but that’s at least how you get to know somebody. To know that it’s not just a bowl of soup for me, but what soup represents.

Q: What did you learn about yourself as an eater and your very public battle with weight?

A: I have struggled my whole life with it. I have used food as my drug of choice, as my comforter, as my solace. Am I tired? Am I hungry? Let me eat to decide if I’m tired or hungry.

It’s about choosing more wisely, with a smarter sense of yourself and what you want, then just eating everything you want. I bring my lunch to set and I have them make it in the hotel, so I know how it is made. So, I am the person in the kitchen in the hotel, saying to the guy, “I want potato leek soup, but I don’t want any butter in it, I don’t want any cream in it. Puree the potatoes, don’t leave them lumpy. They’re very familiar with me in the hotel kitchen. They give me a little Tupperware, plastic thing every day and I bring back my Tupperware, ’cause that’s what a good neighbor does.

Q: One the of the first things you mentioned to TV executive Dennis Swanson when he offered you a job in Chicago was being black and overweight. How long have concerns about your weight played a role in your life and why do you think they still exist?

A: I think it’s the last great prejudice that people hold. People who are overweight are discriminated against all the time. It’s just not politically correct to say it. I’ve been overweight walking into a store as Oprah Winfrey, ’cause who else could I walk in as, but I have been overweight, and I’ve been the weight that is best for me. You still get treated differently. Because everybody knows even when you’re overweight and you got a lot of money you can’t wear anything in this store. So there’s a certain air, treatment about that. It’s like let me show you some shoes, or let’s move to the glove section. I have been so overweight that I’ve been in stores and that’s all I really could wear.

Q: Do you think men like former Fox News executive Roger Ailes worry about their weight?

A: No I don’t. I don’t think very many men do. But let’s not even kind of pretend that there isn’t a double standard. Of course there is. I don’t spend a lot of time focused on the fact that there is a double standard. I recognize that there is one. I didn’t decide to go to Weight Watchers because I wanted to please anybody or I wanted to look a certain way for the audience. It has worked both ways for me. I remember when I got really, really, really skinny … and people turned on, because the women who were overweight felt that they had someone like them who represented them on television. It works both ways.

Q: Is there another cookbook in the works?

A: Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. Right now the only thing that is in the works is me trying to finish this movie. I have never done wire work before where they shoot you up and you’re hanging from the ceiling and trying to fly and trying to balance yourself. It’s fun, but it’s also exhausting.

Q: What have you really been into cooking lately?

A: The easiest thing to cook in the book, and I can’t get enough of it, is called pasta cacio e pepe. That’s my favorite thing. It’s three ingredients. I have all these girls from South Africa who are in school, and they now have their little hot plates, and they’re making pasta in their room, and they’re like, “I did it.” Well, it’s kind of hard not to do it. It pasta, it’s water, it’s pepper, it’s cheese.

Tuscan Kale and Apple Salad

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup dried cranberries

1 bunch Tuscan kale, stemmed and torn into bite-sized pieces

1 head butter lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces

1/2 bulb fennel, cored and shaved on a mandoline

2 ribs celery, sliced

1 small Gala apple, cored and sliced

1 small Granny Smith apple, cored and sliced

1/4 cup walnuts, toasted

In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, vinegar, salt and pepper. Whisk in the oil until emulsified, then add the dried cranberries. Set aside.

Place the kale in a large bowl, drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the dressing, and gently massage the leaves for about a minute to soften them.

Add the lettuce, fennel, celery and apples. Add the remaining dressing along with the cranberries. Top with the toasted walnuts and season with salt and pepper. Spoon into bowls and serve. Makes 4 servings.

Art Smith’s Unfried Chicken

1 cup buttermilk

1 tablespoon Louisiana hot sauce or hot sauce of choice

2 boneless chicken breasts, cut in half

2 chicken thighs

2 chicken legs

11/2 cups multigrain or whole wheat panko breadcrumbs

3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon ground cayenne

11/2 teaspoons onion powder

11/2 teaspoons garlic powder

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 teaspoon salt

Optional: 1 lemon cut into wedges

In a large bowl, whisk together the buttermilk and hot sauce. Submerge the chicken pieces in the buttermilk mixture, cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour but no more than 24 hours.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a large zip-top bag, combine the breadcrumbs, Parmesan, black pepper, cayenne, onion powder, garlic powder, smoked paprika and salt. Seal the bag and shake to combine the ingredients.

Remove the chicken from the buttermilk, let excess drip off and transfer directly to the bag with the breadcrumb mixture. Shake the bag to evenly coat the chicken in the breadcrumbs.

Remove the chicken from the bag and lay flat on a nonstick baking sheet. Place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes.

Slice the chicken, arrange onto plates and serve (with lemon wedges if using). Makes 4 servings.

Pasta Cacio e Pepe

12 ounces dry spaghetti

Sea salt

1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese, or as needed

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

Fresh black summer or winter truffle, grated on a Microplane, or Sabatino truffle zest, optional. Order at sabatinotruffles.com

Bring a tall saucepan of water to a boil over high heat and season heavily with salt.

Add the pasta and cook until al dente according to the package instructions.

Set a pasta strainer into a separate large saucepan. Pour the pasta into the strainer, reserving the pasta cooking water in the pan below. Remove the strainer with the pasta inside and ladle out 1/2 cup of the hot pasta liquid into a heatproof container.

Create a Bain-Marie by placing a large heatproof bowl over the saucepan with the hot pasta water. Transfer the drained pasta into the bowl, gradually add the cheese and hot pasta cooking water, and using two large spoons or forks, toss the pasta vigorously until you have a creamy consistency. (If the sauce is too watery, add more cheese; if the sauce is too dry, add more pasta water.)

Top with a sprinkle of grated truffle, a little salt, and the pepper, spoon into bowls, and serve.

Makes 6 servings.