Linda Ronstadt, once the highest paid woman in rock, is famous for a lot of things. Her high-fidelity voice earned her 11 Grammy Awards for songs like “You’re No Good” and “Blue Bayou.” She had a killer run on Broadway and put mariachi music on the charts. Both President Obama and Kermit the Frog had crushes on her.
One thing she is especially famous for among her family and friends is not cooking, even though one of her grandfathers invented the electric stove and the other was a master of meat and mesquite.
That particular hole in her skill set makes it even more curious that Ms. Ronstadt, 76, has written a cookbook. But “Feels Like Home: A Song for the Sonoran Borderlands,” published by California’s Heyday press on Oct. 4, is a way to explain why the arid land that starts in Arizona and stretches into Mexico’s west coast is her foothold in the world.
It’s a story she has told through music, and now wants to tell — as much as she can — through food. Except there is that troubling bit about cooking. She just never really learned how.
“I like being around it, but I’m not a good multitasker,” she explained one recent afternoon as we relaxed in her suite at the Arizona Inn, the historic hotel where she camps out on the increasingly rare trips she takes from her home in San Francisco to her hometown.
Besides, she said, “it’s hard to find a stove and pans in a hotel.”
Ms. Ronstadt had saved learning to cook as a retirement project.
“I didn’t know I was going to get this disease,” she said.
In 2013, Ms. Ronstadt announced that for years she had been struggling with a form of Parkinson’s. Her singing career was over. For a musician who Dolly Parton said was “a pain in the ass sometimes because she is such a perfectionist,” performing with a compromised voice wouldn’t do.
It turns out that Ms. Ronstadt’s exacting approach to musicianship extends to food. She believes broccoli should steam for precisely 3 minutes and vinaigrette should never be made with balsamic. She can go deep on the benefits of no-till farming and the cultural significance of the hit culinary series “The Bear.”
“Chefs are going to get laid a lot more now,” she said. “They’re like lead guitar players.”
On her birthday, Ms. Ronstadt always heads to the Hayes Street Grill in San Francisco for a hot fudge sundae with whipped cream, no nuts. She likes to host Sunday brunch at her Dutch colonial house near the Presidio. The table is set with antique silver she’s been collecting since her days on the road. It’s prepared by Jon Campbell, a former Chez Panisse cook, who says she is a tough but fair critic. “I don’t think she likes a lot of noise in her food,” he said.
It’s not that she has never cooked. She once had an electric frying pan that told her exactly which temperature to use for pancakes and fried chicken. She liked to bake fruit pies, practicing for a week if someone was coming to dinner.
Eating meals together at a proper table has always been important. She made sure her two children, whom she adopted as newborns when she was in her 40s, started the day at a table set with cloth napkins, even though someone else cooked breakfast.
Her daughter, Mary Clementine, who moved in to help as the disease progressed, said she and her brother laughed out loud when their mother told them she was working on a cookbook.
“It will have four pages: P. B. And. J.,” she said.
Peanut butter sandwiches with jelly or honey were such a mainstay when she was touring that Neil Young, whom she opened for in the 1970s, still teases her about it by sending texts that just say “peanut butter.”
Of course, Ms. Ronstadt is specific about how to make one: Begin by spreading soft, whole wheat bread with butter and use only crunchy Laura Scudder’s peanut butter.
Her favorite style of cuisine is something she calls “hippy health food,” but lately she has been thinking a lot about the Sonoran style of Mexican food she grew up on. She included some of her favorites in the book, like caldo de queso, with its clear broth and glistening cubes of cheese, and Sonoran enchiladas built from thick, fried corn tortillas.
The book has recipes for ancient desert food, like long-simmered tepary beans, and some only-in-Tucson dishes, like cheese crisp, the late-night snack she used to get at El Minuto, a restaurant across the street from the building where her brother once worked as the chief of police.
She came from a family that loved to eat, so the book includes some Ronstadt family favorites, including albóndigas, the spiced meatballs poached in water, and a quirky, modern concoction called tunapeños — essentially jalapeño peppers halved and stuffed with tuna salad.
The book devotes four pages to tortillas de agua: a Sonoran staple made with wheat flour, water, salt and a touch of lard or shortening spun into a flaky, nearly translucent tortilla larger than a steering wheel.
“They mean home,” she said.
In all, there are just 20 recipes. The rest of the book is a braid of stories about her family and the history, politics and music of the bicultural borderland that she loves.
“Think of it as a road trip with Linda Ronstadt through the part of the world where she is from and loves the most,” said Lawrence Downes, the journalist who co-wrote the book with her and who Ms. Ronstadt says did the heavy lifting.
Although she is an avid reader and analytical thinker, “I’ve never researched anything professionally in my life,” she said. Ms. Ronstadt and Mr. Downes first met when he was researching traditional Mexican music. They spoke again when he wanted her perspective on immigration, an issue she is passionate about. In 2013, the pair took a road trip from Tucson to Banámichi, the Sonoran town where her paternal grandfather lived as a boy before he immigrated to Tucson and built the family hardware business. It became a travel story for The New York Times, where Mr. Downes was employed as an editor and editorial writer.
The cookbook was an idea from her friend CC Goldwater, whose grandfather Barry Goldwater, the Republican U.S. Senator from Arizona and presidential nominee, happened to have a famous chili recipe. Ms. Goldwater imagined the book as a fund-raiser for Parkinson’s research based on recipes from three Arizona families: the Ronstadts, the Goldwaters and Bill and Athena Steen, old friends who have made a name teaching people how to build houses from adobe and straw bales at their rural compound near Canelo, a shadow of a town about 10 miles from the Mexican border.
Group cookbook projects can become unwieldy. In the end, Ms. Ronstadt’s life became the focus and Mr. Steen contributed the photographs.
Because Ms. Ronstadt can’t type anymore and mobility is difficult, it fell to Mr. Downes to channel her voice based on dozens of conversations and to test the recipes — no easy feat, given that Ms. Ronstadt, by her own admission, is hard to please.
Take the bread recipe they wanted to include. To pass time during long, tedious recording sessions, she would bake bread in the studio kitchen based on a recipe she studied in the Fannie Farmer cookbook.
“I’d mix it up and let the sponge rise while they adjusted the mics or whatever needed to happen then go sing some vocals,” she said.
Mr. Downes tried eight different times to get the loaf just right, using molasses, honey and whole wheat flour as she suggested. It was impossible.
“She remembered it as more seven grainy so we just said, ‘Ah, screw it,’” he said.
Mr. Downes joined us for a night in Tucson, where Katya Peterson had invited us to dinner. She is a childhood friend, and the first person Ms. Ronstadt calls when she is in town. Ms. Peterson, an enthusiastic and civic-minded woman who lived for many years in New York, coordinated a meal from food harvested at Mission Garden, a plot of land whose crops represent more than 4,000 years of continuous cultivation in the Tucson Basin. A fig tree stewarded by the Ronstadt family grows there, as well as cactus samples collected from the land where Ms. Ronstadt’s grandfather was born.
Dinner parties are not easy. “I’m finding it harder and harder as I get older and deafer to hold conversations,” she said. Her once reliable appetite has faded and the edges of flavors seem filed down.
At the table, Ms. Ronstadt asked for extra salsa and sprinkled a bit of the intense, indigenous chiltepin pepper on a stew made with 60-day corn and a squash called ha:l, both of which the Tohono O’odham people have grown for centuries. She was happy to see a big pitcher of agua de tamarindo on the table. Her grandfather loved the drink, and there’s a recipe for it in the book.
Ms. Ronstadt took a sip and told me it was too tart. While delivering a small tutorial on all the things that can be made with the agave plant, she sweetened her drink with syrup made from agave grown at Mission Garden and squeezed in some lime, then instructed me to do the same.
“When it’s right, it’s so thirst quenching,” she said. “You feel it on the back of your throat. I can drink gallons of this.”
The next morning, we climbed into a van with her daughter, her longtime assistant and a bunch of young Ronstadt relatives to visit the Steens at their compound in tiny Canelo, where her talented niece and nephew sang some old family Mexican songs and a few Ms. Ronstadt had made hits.
Mr. Steen had invited Lupita Madero Ramirez, a friend’s daughter from Mexico, to cook carne con chile and the wild greens called quelites. She taught us how to pat and spin tortillas de agua until they stretched from the wrist to the shoulder. Someone handed Ms. Ronstadt one hot off the comal, slathered in butter.
Did it taste like home? It did, she said.
But then she couldn’t help herself.
“They’re better with less butter.”