The Joy of...
“A joybook?! That’s genius,” I exclaimed, far more a proclamation than a question. “Yes, I call them my joybooks, because that’s what they do: They bring me joy,” Michael Saunders answered anyway, describing her tradition of stuffing her many cookbooks full of lovely letters, and other flattened memorabilia, she’s received from friends and family over the years. Each time she returns to an old recipe she also gets to return to a sweet memory. Hence the joy.
Michael Saunders, whose ubiquitous name is practically synonymous with Sarasota luxury real estate, has clearly learned to make proper use out of every square inch of space. If you aren’t familiar with the name Michael Saunders, then you probably aren’t from around here. Even if you don’t know Michael herself, you’re certainly familiar with Michael Saunders & Company. How could you not be? The company’s signature logo can be found dotting awnings and office doors from Bradenton to Boca Grande, and any social function is sure to have at least three MS & Co. agents in attendance. Not to mention the myriad local projects Michael Saunders & Company partners with in its dogged commitment to tirelessly giving back to the Gulf Coast community. Of course, Michael’s impressive work ethic and equally notable accolades and awards usually get the spotlight, and for good reason: She is a dynamic and elegant woman who is whip-smart with a good heart. Or, as my grandma would have said, “She’s all class.”
Michael founded her eponymous real estate firm 40 years ago from an unwavering desire to provide exceptional customer engagement, a term we hear all too often these days but a service that was far from status quo decades ago. Her backstory reads like a plotline to a great film: In 1976, the banks refused to lend money to a single mother and former history teacher, so she borrowed $5,000 from a friend to start a modest real estate company on St. Armand’s Circle. Forty years later, Michael Saunders & Company employs 900 people in a multitude of offices, and garners worldwide respect for its impressive achievements. I truly could go on (and on), but this is Edible after all, which, as you know, means we’re here for the food.
Michael proved full of surprises during this “In the Fridge Q&A.” With her bright baby blues and slight Southern drawl, few would guess she has a Barbadian father. Even fewer would guess that she never leaves home without a secret stash of salt in her purse to add flavor to any tasteless food in a pinch. She adds raisins to her red sauce, loves leftovers, can make a flour-free roux, travels with peanut butter, and fondly remembers the grasshoppers she ate in Mexico. She can appreciate a perfect New York City hot dog just as easily as she can applaud a multi-course meal at the famed French Laundry, and can effortlessly whip up dishes from curry to bolognese that’ll leave you longing for more.
So let’s dig in...
OK, Michael, let’s hop right to it. What is always in your fridge?
“Oh my dear, do I have to choose? It changes all the time based on the seasons. For me, the most important thing is that it’s fresh and local. But I can tell you I could never live without garlic or my homemade ‘simply salt.’ It’s a seasoned salt I created years ago and it makes everything divine. There’s chili powder, dry mustard, onion powder, paprika, garlic—a lot of garlic, a whole head of garlic—and a few other spices, so full of flavor! It complements everything: veggies, fish, anything grilled. Those items may not be in my fridge, but they’re always on hand. As long as you always have garlic, great salt, and great-quality olive oil, you are good to go.”
What is it you love about cooking?
“Cooking is my therapy. I find it a total joy. It’s a creative outlet and I love to surprise myself with what I can put together with whatever I have in my fridge. And I love making other people happy, so I thoroughly enjoy making homecooked meals for my friends who aren’t crazy about cooking.”
Where did your love of the kitchen begin?
“It began at a very young age. My father was a truly fabulous cook. He was from Barbados and British West Indies, and he brought that Barbadian method of having only the freshest ingredients and accentuating them with a handful of this and a pinch of that. My mom, on the other hand, was from Savannah, and loved making Southern, rich comfort food. We would all cook together and they never used recipes. We made meals up as we went, tasting and changing flavors as we went along.”
What influenced you after childhood?
“When I was older and living here, I got serious about cooking in a more structured way. There was a wonderful butcher in Bradenton Beach who I always got my meats from and we’d talk about food. I told him, ‘Gus, I’m going to learn how to seriously cook this summer’ and he told me ‘We’ll work on learning to cook seriously together.’ One day he brought in two boxes of Gourmet Magazine. Now this is back in the ’60s—people probably don’t remember Gourmet Magazine of the ’60s. They were extremely complex. Each recipe had at least 30 ingredients and most of them were incredibly hard to find back then. I can’t tell you how many times I had to write a letter to a distributor to have specific ingredients sent to me. I made an Indonesian rice dish once …” (She laughs and lets out a small sigh.) “In comparison to cooking today, well, it’s much easier and much more fun! But those recipes gave me a love of complex, layered flavors in whatever I prepare. Also, the author M.F.K. Fisher greatly influenced me. She was a food writer who really made you think so differently about food.
[Fisher’s books] How to Cook a Wolf and Consider the Oyster changed my entire relationship with food. She didn’t write recipes, she wrote about being attentive to the guests, the table setting, the flowers, the seasonings. She made me realize eating wasn’t about being hungry, it was all about the experience and enjoyment of the meal and the company.”
How true. Our society often forgets to stop and smell the roses.
“Yes, even if I’m eating alone, why not use a cloth napkin or grab a piece of greenery from outside? It makes the meal much more special.”
Where do you get recipe inspiration from these days?
“My wonderful cookbooks. I call them my joybooks. Whenever I receive notes that are special to me—from friends or family—I’ll put them in one of my cookbooks. I have cookbooks with notes that go back 50 years. Whenever I open one to make a special recipe, out fall all these wonderful notes from friends from the past. It’s nice to find good recipes online, but I find it much more personal and inspiring to go back to a cookbook. It’s a feeling you just can’t replicate online.”
And your favorite recipe?
“I have several go-to recipes that all surround comfort food. I make an incredible curry recipe and a great bolognese, but I’ll change it each time I make it based on whatever I may have on hand. I love to delight and surprise people, even myself, with different twists on traditional dishes, like putting raisins in my bolognese.”
What a unique idea! My mother always adds raisins to her tuna fish and it’s an absolute game changer! The raisin is underappreciated.
“I agree. It is indeed. It’s delicious in the bolognese, you must try it! It brings an unexpected sweetness to the tomato sauce.”
Speaking of surprising flavors, what else might people be surprised to know about you, food-wise?
“I’m known to travel with my own salt; I always have it on hand.
There’s nothing worse than under-seasoned food, so if you can’t find any other seasoning, salt will rescue any dish! And I travel with peanut butter. You can always depend on peanut butter—it never lets you down. I also prefer simplicity. I’d much rather eat at home than out. Honestly, I’m a homebody and I like to be casual.”
What’s a go-to meal for you?
“I have many favorites, but there’s nothing better than something great on the grill ... something perfectly seasoned and cooked, a glass of red wine, and being outside.”
The most unusual thing you’ve ever eaten?
“Oh, that would probably be salted grasshoppers in San Miguel de Allende [Mexico]. They were sold from a large bucket by a street vendor and scooped straight into paper bags. They were perfectly crisp and delicious.”
Most memorable meal?
“For me, memorable meals are all about meals with friends. One of my most memorable meals was a surprise birthday party at French Laundry. All of my friends flew in! What can I even say about a four-hour experience of perfectly paired food and wine? On the other hand, I love a good New York City hot dog. I have a favorite stand I visit every time I’m there.”
What’s a dish you wish you knew how to make?
“I wish, over the years, I’d become a better baker. The few times I’ve made bread, I’ve found it hypnotic—like meditation. Making bread is wonderful, but I’m just not a baker. I don’t make cakes, cookies, pies ... give me every other course! But now that everybody is glutenfree, it’s a good thing I didn’t waste my time learning how to make bread!”
Ha! Everything is gluten-free these days!
“It is. I recently made shrimp and grits for my gluten-free friends, and, as you know, good shrimp and grits requires roux. But I did some research and discovered flour made from cassava that worked just as well and turned out wonderfully. There’s always something more to learn.”
And always something more to eat. Which makes me wonder: leftovers—yes or no?
“I’m certainly a big-time leftover gal. I love to make large batches of soups or sauces and freeze them in small containers so I can serve one or two people. And I love to repurpose leftovers from the night before, like turning roast chicken into chicken salad.”
And, lastly, what would you never have in your fridge?
“Yogurt. I’m just not a fan.”