Chef, Restaurant Owner, Author
“That’s why everybody in my life gets a second chance.”
Ina Pinkney was the chef/owner of The Dessert Kitchen Ltd. for 10 years. In 1991, she opened Ina’s Kitchen, which quickly became Chicago’s Premier Breakfast Restaurant. In 2001 she opened Ina’s on Randolph. In 2005, Ina’s was the subject of a CNN show called The Turnaround. She also appeared in a national Quaker Oats commercial as herself — the Breakfast Queen.
In December 2013, she closed Ina’s and sold the building to Marc Malnati. Ina immediately launched a series of appearances for her book Taste Memories: Recipes for Life and Breakfast, which mixes memoir and popular Ina recipes. She also writes a column, “Breakfast with Ina,” for the Chicago Tribune.
Our conversation took place at her condominium on the north side of Chicago. She talks here about learning to live with polio.
More about Ina Pinkney here.
See also Part Two of this interview, in which she talks about the opening and closing days of Ina’s.
You told me that you “have a serious issue with being fearless,” and that it “scares everyone around me.” Where does that come from, do you think?
I’m sure that comes from having had polio at 18 months and having gone through a very problematic childhood with a disability. It came from being told when I was six, in 1949, that I was going to the hospital. They never prepared children for the experience like they do now.
They also didn’t think that I understood, having heard adults talking –I always sat with the adults; I couldn’t play with the children –that in 1949, people went into the hospital to die. They didn’t go to get better. I remember medicine was barbaric compared to now.
And you never said the word cancer out loud in those days, you would always mouth it. So the whole world was sort of not ready for anything magical in medicine. They thought they were doing cutting edge at the time, and maybe they were, but [the hospital] sure wasn’t a place to go get well.
And so when they said they were taking me to the hospital, I thought they were taking me to die. I gave my brother all my toys, and I said goodbye to people with a finality they could not hear, and I went to the hospital. Well, when I woke up, I thought, at first, they had made a mistake. But I understood in that moment that I had a second chance, and so everybody in my life gets a second chance.
The fearlessness, then, comes from the fact that I was ready to die at six. And so I’ve been ready to die every day since. It would be a sadness and a tragedy and an inconvenience or whatever it is for everybody if I died tonight. Me? I’m ready. I’ve been ready every day. And I don’t just say that. I don’t pay lip service to that. I live every day as, Did I have a good day, did I get something accomplished? This could be it.
And you seem to have a lot of good days.
They’re all good. I have never had a bad day. I’ve had a couple of really shitty hours in the day, but the whole day wasn’t lost. (Laughs) Yeah. I live this way.
Did polio give you any advantages, especially in your work?
The advantages were and are very clear in my life. First of all, I sat with adults, so I learned adult conversation very, very early in my life, and I learned to be a committed listener. If I was going to say something in this group of adults as a six or a seven or an eight-year-old, it surely had to be a cogent comment. I had to pay close attention to what was being said so that I could participate and be heard. So being a committed listener, learning adult conversation very early, and understanding second chances after that surgery.
Also, there’s always been a sense of “otherness” about me as a result of the disability. When I was sitting in the classroom in grammar school, I was the envy of all the kids because I was so smart, but in the schoolyard, I was prey. My books were tossed, I was made fun of.
You were in braces?
Yes, braces or cast, depending. Going upstairs before the school bell rang to get to my third floor class was essential for me, because getting jostled would have been difficult. But I had to leave the schoolyard to go upstairs first. So while that was extraordinarily important to me to do that, it was horrifying for me to do that, because then it just pointed me out again.
I never had to go down in the fire drills, those dreaded fire drills that we all had to go through. They would leave me sitting in the class. And I was grateful that I didn’t have to do the steps again, but everybody who walked out the door gave me the look. So I couldn’t win either way. Either way, it was never going to be all right.
So the sense of otherness that I experienced all my life was as a result of that childhood polio. Did that hold me in good stead in some ways? Yes it did. I was always able to see the whole picture. You meet people, and they see this, [She indicates a narrow perspective with her hands] but because I had to be hyper-vigilant in that otherness, I see everything. So did all that teach me something? Oh yeah, oh yeah, taught me something. Going into the hospital as a six-year-old and then as an eight-year-old, you have to figure out where the fear is.
What does that mean?
What am I afraid of? Am I afraid of leaving my family? Am I afraid I’m never coming back? Am I afraid they’re going to hurt me here? Am I afraid I’m never going to get well? You have to sort of navigate that bunch of fears as an eight-year-old being left in New Jersey at the Jersey City Medical Center for an operation, and you have to figure out what it is, what’s the price of admission.
Is it identifying what the fear is so you can address it?
Not so much address it as determine, is that worth spending my energy on? If I go to the hospital and they hurt me and I have a cast on my leg, which is a fear-inducing thing, but I can come out walking better, then I’m not going to waste my energy on that fear. I had to differentiate the fears and decide what was worth being afraid of based on the outcome. What was the return on investment here? What was the ROI?
How much of this way of thinking came from your parents?
My father was the optimist and the champion; he was my champion. So if he was holding my hand, there was no chance I was ever going to fall. But if I fell across the room, and he went to help me, he would pick me up always with the words, “You just have to get up one more time than you fall.” (Chuckles) And he always said it. With love and with determination. He always said, “I got confidence in you; you can do anything.” So from him I learned that. My mother didn’t have that. I’m not really sure what I learned from her. I’ve been really trying to think that through. She was never a happy person. Not a depressive, but not a happy person. So my father, definitely.
My mother would sometimes say, “Straighten up! Why are you walking like that?” And I would think, how could she not remember? When I asked to have another surgery when I was 15, she said no. She said no. My father said yes. And we did it. But she didn’t want to go through it again. She said, “I can’t go through another one like that,” and I’m thinking, it’s my body, it’s my pain. But she must have had unbearable guilt about where she took me that the other mothers didn’t have to take their children. I was the only kid in an apartment building teeming with babies and children that got polio. So her guilt must have been overwhelming, and how she coped with it was to put it aside.
Are you mostly your father?
I am, yeah. Oh yeah. I mean, my mother had great determination and really kept the course, kept the family on course, and I have that as well, but in terms of how I live my life and how I see the world… Yeah, that’s my dad.
Did you connect with other kids with polio?
We never talked about polio and my leg, so I never knew other kids. I only knew a book called Madeline from the library. My first trip to the library, we found this book. I kept telling my mom, you have to keep taking it out, renew it, until she finally bought it. It was about a little girl who had an operation and had a scar. It was appendicitis. But she had a scar; I had a scar. It was the only time I understood that I wasn’t alone. I was in a ward or a semi-private room, and I didn’t connect to them. They were there for all kinds of reasons, so it wasn’t as though I understood what was going on with them, I didn’t. I didn’t, I was so busy making sure that I was intact, for when I got out of the hospital, that I don’t remember the other kids. I remember reading to them, I remember reading to the younger kids, wheeling myself out and in the big open area, reading to them. That I remember very clearly.
You’re an interesting set of contradictions, Ina .The way you’re describing your childhood and the otherness and the way you were treated at school, I could imagine becoming withdrawn, but I find you so open to the world.
I’m sure that’s my father, I’m sure that’s my father. He was the one who never saw any limitations. Even though I had physical limitations, I didn’t feel emotional limitations or psychic limitations or spiritual limitations. I didn’t feel any of those. Physically, yeah, always. But he was the one who just said, “You’re pretty terrific.”
Do you think a lot about your childhood and how it impacts the person you are today?
I don’t really pay a lot of attention to it, because I think I’ve excavated it enough in a way. It was sort of an archeological dig for me. When we talk about it, it’s very present. I can pull it up and tell you what I think, but I don’t spend much time thinking about that. I try to be in the present with everything I do right now.
Tell me about meeting Maria Tallchief.
I have an image of a ballerina on my leg brace. I do. (Laughs) So Maria Tallchief. When I was three years old, my mom took me to see the ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the hopes that I would keep exercising, because I was so tired of exercising. It was painful; it was unrewarding — the hot pack treatments, being called away from playing to come in the house to do all this. I hated my life at that point. I hated exercising, even though my dad was trying really hard, and he was great at it, it was hard. I was three years old; I was already jaded and miserable.
And my mother took me to the ballet. I remember we had to fold both of our coats so I could sit on them so I could see. And the lights dimmed, and the curtain opened, and the single ballerina came out twirling, and I fell in love with her, and I fell in love with the ballet. In that moment. I could barely breathe. It was Maria Tallchief, our nation’s first and most magnificent prima ballerina. Native American. And the thought of her and the vision was extraordinary. Every day my dad would help me do my exercises, and if I would say, “Oh, Daddy no more, no more,” he would say, “Maria Tallchief wouldn’t say that.” And I carried on.
Well, I was writing a newsletter [for my restaurant] two years ago. I wrote in there, “People I’d love to feed.” And some of them were silly and some were funny. Then I had room for like one more name at the bottom of this, because it was a very specific template, and I thought, “Oh my God, Maria Tallchief! I would love to feed Maria Tallchief.” And I just wrote it in. We printed the newsletter, hard copy, people picked it up in the restaurant, they would read it over breakfast. And as this one woman is leaving, she said, “Um, Maria Tallchief? I’m gonna bring her in next week!” I didn’t know what to say. The woman called me the next day –Marian, a regular customer for years– she said, “I’m bringing Maria in next Wednesday at noon, is that okay?” I went, (Mimics a stunned look) “Uh-huh.” I knew she lived in Chicago, but I had no idea anybody knew her.
And the door opens, noon, Wednesday, and in walks Maria Tallchief with that head up and that motion. Now she’s very arthritic, very, very. But boy, the elegance and the way she held her head. Sit downs; I’m sitting right across from her, and she’s very haughty in a way. “I have no idea why I’m here!” And I said, “I have a story to tell you.”
And I told her the story that I just told you about falling in love with her and that her name was spoken, I said, “And, so Miss Tallchief, whatever mobility I was able to recover was as a result of your name being spoken in my home.” And she just cried. And I just cried.
And I got to do it! I got to live out that dream. And I own that, you know? It’s like magic for me, to be able to tell her what she meant to me all my life.
That is a perfect moment.
I’ve had a lot of perfect moments.