To M.F.K. and Back
Robin Dellabough - September 2013
Fortified by reading the vast picnic spread of M.F.K. Fisher’s oeuvre, Robin Dellabough dived into the deep end of the literary life. And then she met the great writer who inspired her—an encounter rich with five sensations of taste. Just as M.F.K. would have it.
What we remember and what we forget is like a topographic map of our past, the contour lines of high points spaced close together while the broad, flat plains fan out toward the sea. Using our memories to piece together what happened—how we arrived at today—is tempting. But, for me, it can be confusing and unexpected. I often realize I’ve imagined a very different landscape than the one I actually inhabited at the time.
I first came across M.F.K. Fisher in a Bon Appétit article circa 1979. I was 27, living alone in a very small Bay Area flat, and unhappy with my work as a stage manager. I think I knew my true calling already but was not yet prepared to pursue it. Instead, I spent hours reading cookbooks and food magazines, shopping the Berkeley gourmet ghetto, then in its halcyon days, and preparing elaborate meals for guys who inhaled without tasting. So, intrigued by stumbling upon a writer I had never heard of, despite my obsession with food, my English degree, and W.H. Auden’s famous quote “I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose,” I read Fisher’s first five books as if my life depended on them.
I had found a soul mate. The Art of Eating turned out to be The Art of Living, and though I never cooked a recipe from any of the books she wrote, what stuck in my mind’s eye were brief moments that evoked a vivid sense of well-being: rushing fresh picked peas from her Swiss garden into the pot where they’d be barely splashed with hot water, or setting orange segments on a radiator in Lyon, so that the skin would dry into a crackled cover, releasing the sweet juice when she bit into them. To this day, I love eating such oranges and imagining I am in France. Her worldview was fine and elegant and elegiac. She was my kindred spirit in every way, from her love of all things French to how she washed dishes, from her attention to taste to her appreciation for the subtle human heart. She articulated a life I was trying, clumsily, blindly, to emulate, and I felt if I could just ask her the questions her books had not answered, I would know what I needed to do next and again after that. Who was Chexbres and what happened to him? Why did she leave A.? Was she actually a good cook? How did she eat without gluttony? What was the story behind her relationship with her children? How did she manage to support herself?
I wrote her a letter, in care of her publisher, explaining how much I had enjoyed her work and hoping that perhaps someday we could meet. A few weeks later, I received a thin envelope, almost airmail weight, with a return address of Sonoma Highway, Glen Ellen, California. I don’t remember if I had known she lived so closely nearby, but I know I was stunned that she had replied. Not only that, she invited me to have lunch with her “if I was ever in her neck of the woods.” I could not imagine, then, why she would bother with a young stranger. I only knew I now had a sense of purpose, that I would apply to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and write Fisher’s biography. I would be able to fill in all those enticing, maddening gaps in her story.
I drove up to Sonoma on a June day, the California poppies punctuating the still brown earth. M.F.K.—I had not yet begun to think of her as Mary Frances—came out of the big wooden door of Last House, her Spanish-style stucco cottage, to greet me with three kisses on the cheek. She spoke in a high, girlish voice, almost a whisper. Her pinkish grey hair was pulled back in a chignon, and she wore green eye shadow, which matched green checked slacks. Her belly, the only part of her that seemed out of proportion, spilled slightly over the waistband.
As we moved from the dusty driveway into the dim, cool interior, I noticed she walked quite carefully, taking small, painful steps. I remember being captivated by her house, with its garlic hanging from a chandelier, plants in olive oil cans, paintings on every inch of the walls. She had a deep red bathroom the size of a bedroom, with a freestanding bathtub, Chinese scrolls, and an upholstered chair. I wondered who sat in that chair as M.F.K. bathed. Surely her love affairs had ended?
We sank together on a couch in a great room, with our back to blinding windows with views of a giant live oak and meandering cows. She offered warm pecans and a local Sauvignon Blanc, and I remember being naively shocked at drinking wine in the middle of the daytime. I considered whether she was an alcoholic, even though she only took a few dainty sips.
She would have been 70 then. When the subject of age came up, I said she was the same age as Simone de Beauvoir. M.F.K. sniffed, “Beauvoir suffers from logorrhea. She simply talks too much. The French won’t read her, you know. They call her ‘de Vouloir.’ ” I mentioned another writer friend of hers. M.F.K. harrumphed: “Her book was 200 pages too long.” When I asked if she had told the friend, she replied, “Of course.”
For lunch we sat at a round table and ate surprisingly unspecial shrimp and mushrooms in green earthenware. Or at least I ate. And although I ate slowly, it felt as if I wolfed it down in comparison to M.F.K., who scarcely touched her meal. I asked her about gluttony, a subject that obsessed me, and she replied she was “blessed with a small tummy. I simply won’t eat anything that isn’t good. I’d rather starve to death.”
She talked a lot about her family. Her father was “wise and good,” her sisters “ethically very different.” Her eldest daughter was “unresponsible, not irresponsible” and prone to dramatic midnight phone calls. The mother of a married man who was having an affair with her daughter accused M.F.K. of being “a habitual drunkard who doesn’t know the meaning of love.” She responded, “I’m obviously not a habitual drunkard, I am a habitual writer.” Fascinated as I was by such gossip, I took this cue to ask about her writing routine. She claimed she held to no regular hours, she simply “writes when I need to, out of necessity, like a bowel movement.” Maybe she was trying to shock me, but, looking back, I think it was more that she wanted to demystify the process and diffuse my awe of her art. It was sensitivity to a young writer that I did not recognize at the time. Speaking as if she were quoting herself, she said, “Oh, of course, if you have some deathless prose that must be written and six people coming to dinner, why, the deathless prose will wait.”
We talked of men, motherhood, time, and love until she asked if I’d like to lie down before driving back—she had an interviewer arriving shortly. I asked if she still enjoyed giving interviews, and she said, “I hate them, they all ask the same questions. This is going to be my last one.” Of course, it was far from her last one. As we walked to my VW bug, she said, “You must let me know what happens to you. I don’t want to be snoopy, but I am interested.”
Over the next 10 years, we wrote each other every few months, our signatures evolving from just names to “Best” to “Love” to “Much love.” In that time I did get a master’s degree from Berkeley, supporting myself by working at Chez Panisse as a waitress—and peeling garlic cloves and cleaning lettuce during slow periods; it was like a small family there. Alice Waters hired me solely on the basis of my knowing M.F.K. But I never tried to write her biography. The story I told myself was that it would be a betrayal to use our friendship for my own ambition, now that I had gotten to know her. I believed I had satisfied my curiosity and felt no passion or need. More significantly, I had realized I loved the person in her written expression, including her letters to me, more than the in-person Mary Frances, who could be bored, irritable, tired, and a bit catty. I just couldn’t admit it for quite a while.
Still, I would send her my work, both nonfiction and poetry. She was smart and witty and astringent and always asked me to send her more. When I did, she was gracious and generous, direct yet diplomatic in her feedback. Writing about an article, she noted: “I like it. It is very straightforward. It reads smoothly and is informative. Perforce it is ‘journalistic’ but exactly right for its publication.” She clearly thought I was better at poetry:
Thank you especially, though, for letting me see the poems. They are good. I don’t know which I prefer, perhaps “First Sun Rise.” And perhaps this is because I really don’t like African violets any more than you do. I now have a plant growing and growing very well indeed and about to produce its third crop of really very beautiful blazing flowers, deep purple. But always I think of them on the window sills of dying old poor women in France. They look sad and as nearly dead as the people who take care of them. Ho hum.
About the second poem, she was even more pointed, commenting:
I myself am fed up with the “significant” and “pregnant” mentions of a blue glazed dish and bumblebee and a mosquito and all that. It makes me yawn to be reminded of how hypersensitive we all are. It also reminds me almost irritably of people like Katherine Mansfield and those ladies…I think you simply have to go through all this.
I sent my review of a group of cookbooks, in which I quoted her, and asked her to come to an event the publication was holding. But the few times I invited her to the Bay Area, she always declined, even for my wedding. She wrote that she no longer went to weddings, although she believed “marriage survival is worth everything the partners can bring to it so that they can be together when they most need each other—not only now but then. I shall always wish that I could spend all my days with Timmy [Chexbres], who died when I was about 32…I know it would have worked out.” Her wedding gift was a pale yellow-green porcelain box in the shape of an apple and possibly used. I didn’t care because it was Limoges, and it was from her.
I had lunch with Mary Frances in Glen Ellen four or five more times. Once, I brought my husband and three year old son. Looking back, I’m not sure whether I was showing them off to her, or showing her off to them. She made us omelets for lunch, served a so-so Glen Ellen wine, and seemed nervous around a small child. My husband took him for a walk in the vineyards so Mary Frances and I could chat, but I don’t remember what we talked about. Yet afterwards, she thanked me, writing how much she appreciated our visit and my good taste in men.
By then, the insatiable hunger of my 20s was satisfied, as I was married, had children, and wrote. Now the struggle was to find the time. Mary Frances again encouraged me in her matchless way:
I do hope you will keep right on writing whatever seems to want to be written, whether or not you yourself want to or feel like it or even have a pencil nearby. It all takes an extra spurt of energy, which by now you know damn well will come as soon as you force yourself to find a pencil and put the words down. Thus spake Old Lady Fisher, like unto Zarathustra according to Nietzsche.
In March 1989, I went to Last House to say good-bye. We were moving to New York, and at 81, Mary Frances was not well. She had been suffering from Parkinson’s for years, though I hadn’t realized it when I first met her. I had offered to bring lunch—lemon chicken, asparagus, strawberries—and I remember hoping it would delight her.
After lunch, I drove a mile or two down the road, pulled over under a shady oak tree, and wrote in my journal:
I’m weeping, not sure about what—well—the sheer shock of her aging, her hospital bed and the wheelchairs everywhere, a special toilet contraption, her hair all wispy and her thin, thin bones, which she seems to have so little control over. Yet the eyes still shine directly at you in that penetrating way, and her mind is fine. She told me not to tiptoe when she decided to rest for a few minutes. Her sister Norah, who blessedly was there, is a wonderful, down-to-earth former social worker who doesn’t let Mary Frances get away with anything. She name dropped shamelessly, launching into an anecdote about Katherine Hepburn catching some amoeba from diving into the Venice canal while filming Summertime, then later, ‘Norah, by the way, Decca [Jessica Mitford] called to scold me for not coming down to the Rushdie reading.’ The three of us sat in her darkening bedroom talking about pregnancy, divorce, families. It’s remarkable how when subjects came up that one would expect her to relate to her own children, she’d refer instead to herself, her childhood. It must still be very much alive for her. She said her childhood was so happy that she wasn’t sad until high school.
She was her usual blunt self, telling me that to have a child just because I enjoyed pregnancy was “stupid.” Then she said she’d edited a macrobiotic cookbook “just for the money” and sniped at her goddaughter’s writing (“she’s now imitating me”). Meanwhile, it was so beautiful, looking out the window, yellow and white flowers everywhere, I longed to take a walk.
At the end, I asked Norah to take a picture of Mary Frances and me. I sat next to her on the bed, and she was so tiny and frail as I put my arm round her shoulder…
Looking at that photograph, which is in my kitchen, I realize how much I didn’t know then, how much memory can refract the truth. I remembered Mary Frances as self-involved, yet she made the effort to write letters, taking away time from her own work, always eager for more news. And there she is smiling up at me, leaning in, with an expression of pure affection. How could I have missed it? I had been disappointed in her, but she was, like all the people I’ve loved, like all of us, flawed and intricate.
Whenever young friends ask me for a reading recommendation, I hand them a copy of The Art of Eating, envious of their delicious discovery, hoping—knowing—her words will feed the rest of their lives, as they have mine:
“I ate, with a rapt voluptuous concentration, which had little to do with bodily hunger, but seemed to nourish some other part of me.” —The Art of Eating
Summit in Provence"Robin Dellabough"
In 1970, when M.F.K. Fisher was 62, she traveled to France with her sister, Norah Barr. There, worlds collided in a serendipitous gathering of culinary icons including Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, Richard Olney, and Judith Jones (Child’s editor at Alfred A. Knopf). They debated, collaborated, and ate their way through nothing less than the future of food: Would American cookery build on the traditions of classic French cuisine, or would it strive to pioneer new, fresh flavors? Would popular personalities such as Child and Beard prove more influential than rising chefs and critics? Over a series of meals, this small group rough-sketched the contours of the American food movement as we know it today. And now, thanks to the forthcoming publication of Provence, 1970, we can all be invisible guests at their once-in-a-lifetime party.
The author, Luke Barr—Norah’s grandson and Fisher’s grandnephew—discovered a trove of Fisher’s journals and letters in a California storage unit and knew he had to write about this pivotal moment in gastronomy. Like a biography of a time and place—December, 1970, Provence—the book reveals the personalities and peccadilloes, the gossip and gourmandise of these major figures. Delicious reading indeed.
Here’s a tidbit from Provence, 1970, which will be published by Clarkson Potter on February 4, 2014:
Again and again, M.F.’s thoughts returned to the lunches and dinners with the Childs, Beard, and Olney, and her friends Eda Lord and Sybille Bedford, whom she had been visiting at La Roquette: one feast after another, the wines, terrines, roasted chickens and jambon persillé, leek and potato soups, and apple tartes tatins. And the gossip, talk, and more talk, comings and goings, trips to town to mail letters and pick up baguettes and groceries, country excursions and impromptu lunches. In the background, all the while, had been a growing sense that they were all on the cusp of something new—a new decade, a new era. It was a moment of flux, of new ideas. But what that meant for each of them was less clear. For M.F., the very meaning of taste and sophistication was in question—as was the viability of the literary voice and persona she had cultivated for nearly four decades.
It was the arrival of Richard Olney, just before Christmas, that had crystallized the contradictions of the moment; he had spurred her sudden departure.
Now, in Arles, it seemed to M.F. almost comical, the sudden change in circumstances. From feast to famine, so to speak. And it had been entirely her own doing! There she had been, in the hills above Cannes, surrounded by warmth, friends, and sustenance, and here she was in Arles, cold and alone.
Why had she left?