Even for herself, she would whip up something fancy for dinner like oysters smoked in tea, she says, adding, however, that "that's not really a complicated kind of thing."
So imagine her bewilderment, really bedazzlement, by Susan, who lived sparingly in small-town Connecticut and created simple food that was staggeringly good. "One of the first things that she made for me was she poached an egg and put it on a piece of toast," Altman says. "I was kind of in a crazy way sort of transfixed by this," she says. "She wasn't using contraptions. She wasn't using expensive stuff, and it was delicious and satisfying and emotionally satisfying, and it spoke to all of my senses, and things started to change at that point."
In simplifying her relationship with food, Altman aims to make the case that everyone else can, too. "If your ingredients are simple and the best quality that you can afford, and you don't dither with them in service to trend, you will eat very, very well, and you will feed your family," she says.
The problem, however, is that many people don't even know how to do that, she says. In our hyperscheduled lives, cooking has taken a backseat to grab-and-go eating. "Until we can get back to food as sustenance, rather than food as fuel, we'll be stuck," she says. Despite the move toward organic food and farmers markets, both of which Altman advocates, "it means nothing if people don't know how to feed themselves."
So where does one start? With what Altman calls "quiet time"—a few minutes to decompress. It's up to each of us, she says, to find that rest.
For her part, cooking does the trick—providing a calming antidote to busy weeks. But even sitting down to eat at a restaurant helps. Altman whose weekdays start at 5 a.m. typically stops at a restaurant for coffee and oatmeal on arriving into Manhattan for work. Those days tend to turn out better for her than "the ones when I'm sort of shoving a hard-boiled egg down my throat while having a meeting at the same time."
To make life simpler, Altman suggests starting simply. Although people often suggest cooking one day for the rest of the week, she finds the task to be "too big." Instead, focus on making one favorite dish. "Just giving yourself the pleasure of eating something that you made, that you know you love and your family loves, I think is hugely empowering," she says. Cookbooks by Chez Panisse restaurateur Alice Waters and Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, she says, offer basic recipes.
And when it comes to relationships, simplicity also plays a role.
"We want the Cinderella story," she says. "We all come to the table with a lot of shoulds," about the requirements one wants in a mate, and those restrictions can get in the way of finding a harmonious match with whom you can face life's unexpected trials. "What you want in life is a partner who is going to help you get through that, and you need to help them get through that," she says, adding, with a laugh, that "of course, extreme attraction helps."