Whether strolling through her own verdant back yard in Santa Cruz, California, opposite, or picking the pick of the organic oranges in a nearby orchard, above Nell Newman relishes her ties to the earth and its bounty.
Photography by Thomas Burke
If Nell Newman, daughter of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, could have her way, she would help people understand the connection between themselves and what they eat as a way toward creating a healthier planet. “I’d love to see people go to the farmer’s market,” she says, “buy food that has just been fresh picked, and then sit down as a family and eat.”
Her connection to the earth and to her family has led Nell on a journey that spans over twenty years, and crosses the country. The journey also has combined her two seemingly disparate passions—birds and food. Once a crusader for endangered species, she today runs the organics division of Newman’s Own, a line of healthy snack foods that includes pretzels, chocolate bars, cookies, and tortilla chips. Nell is the first to say that her work in organic foods was inspired by her childhood in rural Connecticut, where she ate vegetables from her mother’s garden and made pies of apples picked from their trees. When the gardeners came and sprayed the yard, Nell cringed. “If my mom wasn’t home,” she says, “I’d tell them to go away.”
At the age of thirteen, she became interested in birds, particularly in falcons, a species near extinction from DDT. Unbeknownst to her, her love of this endangered species was setting the stage for her future as a proponent of organic foods. On a more immediate level, she kept wondering how man could be killing off a unique creature that once graced the skies. Finding the answer to that question eventually led her to attend the College of the Atlantic, in Bar Harbor, Maine, a school devoted to human ecology. The school’s mission: to spark the study of the interrelationship between humans and the natural, social, and technological environment.
Armed with her B.A., Nell headed to New York to take a job with the Environmental Defense Fund, but city living ruffled her country soul. She wanted to be closer to nature; so she headed west to California where she worked for the Ventana Wilderness Sanctuary. It was during this time that she developed a friendship with Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame. “I ate there whenever I could,” she says, “and I loved how Alice believed in using only seasonal food that had been organically grown. To me, she is proof that organic food doesn’t have to taste like ‘health food.’”
Two and a half years later, Nell landed in Santa Cruz at the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group, where she raised funds to help reintroduce endangered birds into the environment. In the midst of this nonprofit work, Nell had an epiphany. “While I was in favor of reintroducing endangered birds,” she says, “I kept wondering why we were putting them back into an environment filled with pesticides.” She also decided she no longer wanted to raise money to help the environment; she wanted, instead, to develop a career that would allow her to give money away for the same cause. The leap from bird protector to food manufacturer followed a logical path. Growing food in a pesticide-free environment was not only healthier for humans, but for birds, too.
Pass the Pretzels
The idea of an organic food division of Newman’s Own had been tumbling around in Nell’s head for several years, but convincing her dad took more than just words. “He didn’t exactly know what organic meant,” she says. So she decided to show rather than tell. “I flew home for Thanksgiving with a suitcase of organic produce,” Nell says, and then she created a dinner of range-fed turkey, organic mashed Yellow Finn potatoes, organic mixed green salad, and organic pumpkin pie. When her father sat back, full and satisfied, she said, “So, how’d you like your organic Thanksgiving dinner?” He smiled, and she knew she had a convert.
In 1994, after much research, Nell and her partner Peter Meehan opened Newman’s Own Organics by introducing their own brand of organic pretzels. Why pretzels? Because in the early 1990s, pretzels were booming in the snack market. Also, pretzels are made from only a few ingredients, all available organically. Most important, pretzels are Paul Newman’s favorite snack.
Today, Newman’s Own Organics Pretzels are the number one pretzel in the natural foods market. And Newman’s Own Organics has branched out to include chocolate bars, Champion Chip Cookies, Fig Newmans, and tortilla chips—an unusual line-up of foods, to be sure. “We make what we want to eat,” Nell says. “Why do you think my dad started his line with pasta sauce, popcorn, and salad dressing?” To drive her point home, she recalls her sister saying that Nell’s company motto should be: “We like what we make because we only make what we like.” (In fact, the company slogan is “Great tasting products that just happen to be organic.”)
Inspired to her line of work by charitable reasons, Nell has never strayed far from that calling. She and her partner have donated $400,000 in after-tax dollars to charities that range from Habitat for Humanity to the Organic Farming Research Foundation. Even employees participate in giving. The bakers and food packagers get to give away from $500–1,000 of the company’s money to a charity of their choice.
Nell at Home
Successful as she is, Nell is still the girl who grew up in rural Connecticut, the one who loves nature and nature’s bounty. Her idea of the great life is going to the farmer’s market and buying the freshest produce. “It’s my Saturday morning ritual,” she says. Then she returns home to make her favorite meal—a salad of fresh corn, sliced tomatoes, and peaches from her tree, dressed with her own handmade version of Newman’s Own balsamic vinaigrette.
And she lives as simply and as purely as she cooks. In fact, six years ago, she forfeited a large deposit on a brand new rental house because she discovered a toxicity level that sickened her. “The house originally attracted me because of its big backyard. I love to garden,” she explains. But before moving in, she specifically asked the builder to leave the backyard untouched so she could plan the garden the way she wanted.
To her horror, the day she brought her belongings over, she found that every square inch of the backyard, except for a plot four feet square, had not only been landscaped but treated with a herbicide. “I thought that was bad,” she says, “but then I walked in the house and the fumes from the new carpet and paint were overwhelming. There’s no way my bird and I were going to live there.” At that moment she decided to forfeit her deposit and find a less toxic house.
Today, she lives in a 1,050-square-foot house that was built in 1947. Conscientiously cared for by its former owner, the house’s interior was vintage 1940s. The only areas that needed tweaking were the wall colors—the bathroom walls were turquoise; the tile colors—the tiles against the turquoise walls were blue and pink; and the hardwood floors, which were in need of refinishing. Nell’s choice of materials: only non-toxic paint and water-based wood floor lacquer.
Because Nell did not want to violate the home’s integrity, she painted the bathroom walls white and retiled with black-and-white tile laid on the diagonal. Redoing the tiny kitchen was a bit thornier. It was dominated by a blue Wedgewood stove and vintage robin’s-egg-blue sink, nearly irreplaceable artifacts that Nell had no intention of disturbing. “I love the stove,” she says, “and it works beautifully. I could never find anything as cool to replace it.” Finding blue tiles to match was not easy, so Nell settled on slate blue and white tiles—again on a diagonal—and yellow walls. It’s a sunny, happy place that Nell loves.
Fruit trees adorn the “badminton-court-size” backyard, which also hosts four raised beds where Nell grows vegetables. Though the backyard does require a certain amount of water to thrive, the front yard is filled with plants and grasses that are drought tolerant. “I tried to balance my water needs,” she says, “so that I don’t use too much.” Naturally she composts her garden, using scraps and grass clippings to produce rich soil.
There is a real radiance about Nell Newman, and it comes from contentment—from living and working according to her beliefs, always in harmony with nature. NH
Sally Stich is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in Women’s Day, Country Accents, Ladies Home Journal, and Sunset.