In 1865, a Frenchman named Édouard de Laboulaye proposed the idea of presenting a monumental gift from France to the United States. Among other things, the gift would represent the friendship shared between the two countries. Today, that statue, placed in the New York Harbor, is one of the most recognizable in the world: Lady Liberty. On her pedestal are these words:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Not far from where that Lady resides lives another woman, who, like hundreds of thousands before her, came to this city chasing a dream. As a college student, Tara Bench traveled from Utah to New York City to interview for a few-months-long internship with Martha Stewart. Now, 25 years later, she’s still in the city, having created a life in a place that was once foreign to her.
“I didn’t think I would stay in New York for very long,” Tara says. “I didn’t know how long, so I just took the leap and didn’t really think about what the next step would be.”
In the light of Lady Liberty’s lamp, the way forward did come step by step for Tara. Some of those steps, like living her dream as a magazine food editor for major brands like Martha Stewart Living and Ladies’ Home Journal, publishing her own cookbooks, appearing on national TV, and starting her own business, have been joyful and full of light. Other steps, like experiencing depression, starting over in business, and navigating shattered life expectations after a broken engagement, left her feeling tempest-tossed in the dark.
Through it all, Tara has found her footing through her passion for food and by serving inside and outside her Church community. And in the process, much like the Statue of Liberty, she has guided others to a place of safety and refuge. In short, New York has cemented its place in her life story.
“It was an adventure. That’s how I looked at it. And now, I look at it as home,” she says.
“Welcome to New York”
Tara says her parents probably still regret encouraging her to take the big leap in moving across the country from their home in Utah to New York—after all, what was supposed to be an 18-week stint has turned into nearly 25 years. But they were believers in seeking adventure, so they were supportive of their daughter’s big dreams—dreams that started in the kitchen cooking with her mother and grandmothers, and, like many ’80s and ’90s kids, were catalyzed by an Easy-Bake Oven.
“Bless my dad’s heart, he would eat all of those crusty little baked things from that little oven,” Tara recalls. “And even when I graduated to the stovetop and the real oven, I would imagine a lot of creations and meals and recipes that were not that great, but I got nothing but praise and motivation to keep doing what I was doing.”
Her love for cooking led her to pursue a culinary arts degree at Utah State University with hopes of finding a career in food publishing. She loved reading food magazines like Bon Appétit and wanted to create the food she saw pictured in them. She learned that food magazines have test kitchens where chefs experiment with and photograph recipes that will appear in their publications. So Tara called “every food magazine in the country” to inquire about an internship. The only “yes” she got came from one of the best—Martha Stewart Living’s test kitchen.
It was a dream come true, and Tara soon found herself catering poolside parties at Martha’s house in the Hamptons on Long Island or making meals for the weekend up at her mansion in Maine. Tara slept in the guest wing, and the billionaire businesswoman slept just down the hall.
Martha loved her New York City test kitchen and would often stop by to see what Tara and her coworkers were creating.
“She commands the attention of the room whenever she’s in the room,” Tara says. “She’s nice, she’s well-mannered, she’s polite, but she’s also forceful and demanding in everything she says and does.”
While Tara was sometimes intimidated in Martha’s presence, she says she cannot deny the many lessons she learned from the media mogul.
“I really admired how she was always curious, and she was always learning, and she was very talented. If you showed her something, she was immediately an expert,” Tara says. “She ran meetings well, she asked very smart questions of people, [and] she was a forward-thinker, so watching her in action was very interesting.”
“New York State of Mind”
As she was learning each day in the test kitchen at work, Tara was simultaneously falling in love with the city—a love affair that continues to this day. She became enamored with New York City’s energy, especially as it relates to the same thing that brings joy to every other aspect of her life: food.
“The food scene in New York is incredible,” she says. “It’s like nothing else, anywhere else in the world. There are hole-in-the-wall places where you’ll eat one of the best meals of your life to five-star restaurants where they come and brush the crumbs off your table before they serve your next course.”
“As a boss, I didn’t need to shine all the time. I just needed to produce a finished product,” she says. At Ladies’ Home Journal, Tara began to carve out an even bigger space in the food world and made friends that she remains in contact with to this day.
Tara’s friend and food photographer Ty Mecham, a fellow Latter-day Saint, has observed Tara navigate the New York food world as a member of the Church. He watches as she always politely passes on liquor, makes nonalcoholic versions of mixed drinks, refrains from swearing—and continues to be accepted by her peers. “Some people try to just not bring it up, [but] she’s very forward about what she believes, … and she’s not afraid of it,” Ty says.
He also recalls watching Tara interact with one of her food assistants who is Jewish and how they joked about the differences between their religions. Her Jewish friend pointed out that because Latter-day Saints don’t drink alcohol or take drugs, everyone’s “fix” is sugar. “Tara’s like, ‘Maybe that’s true, because I love a treat!’” Ty recalls with a laugh.
Tara remained at Ladies’ Home Journal until 2014, when, in an effort to adapt to an ever-evolving industry, her career took another turn and she began sharing recipes on her blog, TaraTeaspoon.com, full time. Her background as a trained chef and media-savvy food editor helped her website take off.
These days, Tara also shares her recipes on her Instagram account, which has more than 30,000 followers. She has published two cookbooks—Live Life Deliciously and Delicious Gatherings—and has developed an estimated 5,760 recipes in her career so far.
Still, despite the satisfaction she’s found in her success, Tara has struggled with a feeling of dissonance in her personal life, which doesn’t at all look like what she imagined for herself 25 years ago.
“Once Upon a Time in New York City”
When Tara set out chasing a dream as a new college grad, she imagined just what her life would look like—and being single at age 45 wasn’t part of that picture. Amid all of her success, she always dreamed of having a husband and kids, and a few years ago it seemed her dream was within reach: after five years of dating someone off and on, she had a ring on her finger. But when plans were finally in place, Tara realized that she had to call off her wedding. Ty recalls that difficult time for his friend.
“I took Tara’s engagement pictures when she was going to be married, and she was so excited … and it didn’t work out,” Ty says. “It was devastating.”
Tara says that, in short, the decision she had previously prayed about and felt was right no longer felt right.
“I learned that answers to prayers can change. … Because there were two people in that relationship, he also had the opportunity to make choices and take steps, and when he was choosing different things, the answer to my prayers changed,” she says. “It had a lot to do with learning about agency, both mine and the other person’s.”
It was not a choice Tara took lightly, and she is still dealing with its repercussions.
“I’m still learning a lot about pain, and I live with a lot of pain knowing I made a decision that changed my life. It was a life that I wanted—and now I don’t have that life,” she says. “I’m learning that inevitable pain doesn’t just go away. I get to choose to hold that in different ways and not let it fester … but just learn to live with it and surrender it to God and say, ‘Oh, I’m feeling this again. Can you just come and hang out with me while I feel pain?’ Because it’s not His to take away. It was my decision.”
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Her experiences have put her in a unique position to connect and empathize with others—and not just because of the disappointment she’s faced. In her early 20s, Tara struggled with a bout of depression, which she got through with help from family as well as medication. Years after that battle, she was called as her ward’s Relief Society president and found that the pain she’d felt due to depression helped her have empathy for others in similar situations.
“One by one, I had women come to me who were suffering in a very similar way that I had those years before, and I immediately understood and could talk to them in ways I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t physically experienced it,” she says.
And yet, she has also found that we can extend empathy for another’s pain without having gone through the same experiences ourselves. “I know pain, and pain doesn’t always have to be so specific,” she explains. “I am not a mother, I may never have children, but I can talk to other women and other parents who are going through things with their children, and I can still ask—I can even ask in prayer . . . to have [enough] understanding to help this person.”
Tara’s friend Leah Moses says she’s seen firsthand how Tara is able to walk in someone else’s shoes and feel their pain. Six years ago, Leah moved to New York City, escaping her abusive husband and seeking a new start by enrolling in school at Columbia University. She arrived in the city with nothing but a suitcase and a laptop, while her two children remained in Salt Lake City. After several weeks of attending multiple wards each Sunday in hopes of finding housing, she happened to run into Tara, whom she’d first met years earlier. Tara invited her over to her apartment that day. As they sat on Tara’s rooftop terrace, Leah recalls Tara saying, “I’m really moving forward and launching my own business, and I’d love to have a roommate. Do you want to live here?”
The offer was an answer to Leah’s prayer. Her experience living with Tara, she says, can only be described as “an absolute dream come true,” as her kids joined her in the city while she obtained her degree. Now remarried and living with her husband and children in Utah, Leah reflects on how Tara was “an amazing caregiver” for her during that time; Tara constantly cooked amazing meals for Leah and her kids, and they became the truest of friends.
“We would not have made it without her,” Leah says definitively. And she knows she is not the only one whom Tara has so selflessly served.
“I’ve run into people who she helped years ago, and they still can recount in detail how she was supportive of them, how she helped them, [and] how she was so attentive to individual needs,” she says.
“I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City”
As her life progressed in ways she didn’t anticipate, Tara also developed a deep appreciation for the unique nature of her church community in New York.
“Members of the Church that live in the city are used to ‘different,’” she says. “We are used to uniqueness, to difference of thought, difference of behavior, difference of everything—the way you dress, the way you worship, the way you work, the way you live. It’s just part of who we all are as New Yorkers.”
For example, in 2005, Tara served in a Young Women presidency with women who were all working professionals and had no children in Young Women. One of those women, Whitney Klomp, was single and recently divorced. She recalls what she and Tara were able to offer their girls at that time.
“It was important to [Tara] to share a real-life snapshot with [the girls], and I think she and I both felt . . . that we were uniquely positioned to share what single life looked like and to be open about that and to not hide that part of our discussion,” Whitney says. “Tara was great at saying, ‘This is what my life looks like. This is what I work hard for.’”
In her church service, Tara has never refrained from finding ways to utilize her cooking abilities. For example, when the young women needed to raise money for girls camp, Tara organized a special cookie fundraiser, including getting permission for the group to use her work kitchen.
“Tara’s cookies are the best, so she helped develop the recipes, and basically it was like a little bake shop all day. We had three different cookie flavors, and those girls baked all day,” Whitney recalls.
Tara’s friend Ty also experienced Tara’s humble willingness to share her cooking talent with others in the New York single adult community.
“We would have like 20 people in this huge house on a lake up in New Hampshire, … and she’s like, ‘I’m going to make food for everyone!’” Ty says. “Her show personality, or the person she puts on Instagram, or her blogging personality—that really is who she is.”
Tara says she doesn’t know how much longer she’ll be in New York City, but she tries not to get too far ahead of herself. Instead, she’s focused on the present and the truths she knows.
“I think the gospel is for everyone: old, young, single, married, rich, poor. And yes, family is important in the gospel—that’s the truth. Marriage is important to our eternal progression—that’s the truth. Church culture often tells us there’s a timeline . . . or steps that we must take at certain times. There’s no timeline—that’s the truth. There’s no right or wrong way to … move through our progression as members of the Church,” she says.
So Tara continues to show up in her discipleship because she wants to continue her relationship with God; she wants to worship with her community, and she wants to learn from others. And while her faith has been shaken at times, her friends say it has always been a steadying force for them.
“I have not seen her—not once, ever—waver in her deeper understanding of the gospel, which is really phenomenal for this demographic, I think,” Leah says. “We both have mutual friends who have been in and out of New York City; some have stayed in the Church, some have left. And Tara remains friends with everyone.”
Whitney says it’s Tara’s testimony, combined with her natural capacity to nurture, that makes her a blessing to others in times of need.
“My conversations with Tara have been some of the most pivotal of my life, because she was a supportive friend. I went through something horrendous, and she literally took me in and gave me a safe place to live and fed me, which is her love language,” Whitney says, sharing a story that is remarkably similar to the one that Leah described. “And in those moments, she was able to bear her testimony and not just say, ‘Hey, it’ll be OK and there’s a gospel plan for you. You’re not forgotten,’ but to really say, ‘You’re loved, and the Atonement of Jesus Christ is available to you.’
“Her ministering to me was daily at that point, … and [she] always reminded me that I was loved and known, that I was resilient, and that everything I was going through was not just happenstance but for a reason,” Whitney continues.
This is something that Tara believes deeply—that, as Elder Orson F. Whitney once said, “No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is wasted.” In fact, she believes it so deeply that the quote hangs on the wall of her New York City apartment. And there is another quote, by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, that Tara keeps in her home as a reminder of the heavenly help we receive in times of need. It reads, “When disappointment and discouragement strike—and they will—you must remember and never forget that if our eyes could be opened, we would see horses and chariots of fire as far as the eye can see riding at reckless speed to come to our protection.”
Over the past quarter of a century, Tara has known disappointments, some big and some small. She has experienced discouragement—both her own and that of her friends. Sometimes there have been triumphs. But through those highs and lows, Tara has made a home in America’s biggest city; and in the process, she has made New York feel like home for so many others who have found refuge in her friendship.
Like the Lady who stands in the harbor, she has in essence said, “Give me your tired.” And with her help, they have found rest.
The NYC food scene is ever-changing, and choosing a place to enjoy some one-of-a-kind food depends on your budget, your time, and sometimes your adventurous nature! Here are some of my recommendations:
- A stop at standbys like Los Tacos #1, Jacob’s Pickles, or Motorino for pizza (or, if you’re up that way, a slice at Patsy’s Pizzeria on First Ave.).
- I love Dhaba or Sapphire for Indian (if you’re at Dhaba, make sure to stroll through Kalustyan’s market nearby).
- Try Sala Thai, Shukette, Coppelia, Jing Fong (Chinatown location), and Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao (for their soup dumplings) for some of my favorite global eats.
- For a splurge foodie meal I always suggest Gramercy Tavern, ABC Kitchen, The Modern, and Manhatta (for the view) as top choices.
- Don’t forget the bakeries, and of course my favorite: doughnuts! Try all the flavors at the Doughnut Project, stop for a merveilleux at Marvelous by Fred, and don’t miss a life-changing cardamom bun at Fabrique Bakery. The black and white cookies at William Greenberg are the best; Sullivan Street Bakery is great for everything, and Dominique Ansel is famous for its Dominique’s Kouign Amann (DKA) pastries.
About the Book
From Sunday suppers and weeknight family meals to elaborate buffets for bigger crowds and holiday celebrations, Tara’s recipes include delicious showstoppers and unique takes on comforting classics.
Available in Deseret Book stores and at deseretbook.com.