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M.F.K. Fisher at Last House
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She Spoke in Paragraphs

September 13th, 2013

Vivid recollections of M.F.K. Fisher's influential books and peerless personality abound among culinary cognoscenti.

Betty Fussell
Food historian and cookbook author Betty Fussell won the Silver Spoon award in June 2002.

"When I think of M.F.K., I see glamour. The artfully penciled brows, the cupid-bow lips. Hollywood 1942. When I first met her in her Last House in Northern California in 1978, she was 70. But the image she presented was in a time warp, as familiar to me as all those movie heroines on the big screen of the '30s and '40s that shaped my life forever. Like early Myrna Loy. Sophisticated, cool, hair coifed, eyes targeting the camera. And to think that in the couple of years M.F.K. actually spent in Hollywood, she wrote gags for Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s Road to... pictures. Naturally, in real life she also had a transient Hollywood romance.

"Now that I’ve returned to our shared roots in Southern California, to live in my Last House, in the very place where Julia Child returned, I see ever more clearly M.F.K. as an artful dodger who escaped time’s changes, not of course, as a screen image, but in a mask of words. Although she wrote a number of overtly fictional romances, her real romance was with the readers of her essays, where she wore the mask of “nonfiction.” But she wrote in a first-person voice so intimate, inviting, seductive, and seemingly personal that we are magnetized. Through words alone, she grabs and holds us in her scenes, takes us with her wherever she wants to go—whether swallowing an oyster or smelling a ball of asafetida. She seems so 'real.' Far more real than people we know only in the flesh. Real like a really good movie, which time cannot touch because it’s forever 'now.'"

Antonia Allegra
Antonia (Toni) Allegra has been the director of the Symposium for Professional Food Writers for the past 24 years, and is the founder of The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood Napa Valley.

"Over the years, her stories had been a constant fascination for millions of readers and writers held by the thrill of food, including me. And, although I was only personally friendly with Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher during her last five years, some constant reminders of her hold me:

"Tangible memories: Mary Frances’ Victorian home on Oak Street in St. Helena, California, was not her beloved Last House; however, she and her daughters thrived in that gabled home from the 1950s to the early '70s. That brilliant storyteller would walk the neighborhood to PTA meetings, the market, the Carnegie Building, and to other everyday stops, as her extraordinary mind took in then-sleepy wine country life. Her chosen place to write was in the root cellar of that house; it was hushed, cool in the summer, and separated from intrusions.

"I have lived in this town since ’87, and it’s easy to attest that there is still word-of-mouth about her. Residents quickly recall Mary Frances, who was active with the St. Helena Library, the Wine Library, and with local food and wine professionals. She reigned in myriad ways, and her mark yet presides.

"Other items I can hold and view: A walking cane, handed to me by Maggie Waldron, just following M.F.K.’s death: It had been used through her time in Switzerland. Also at hand, here in my “treehouse,” rest numerous books by other food writers…books that M.F.K. searched her bedroom bookshelf cubbies and offered to me to keep for my enjoyment.

"Intangible memories: Mary Frances thought, spoke, and wrote in paragraphs, particularly while she was writing one her many books. Those works continue to be recurring models for food writers. I recall easily the many simple meals she served at her table—the local cheeses, salads, and birds of various size in her turmeric/coriander-laced marinade, with delicious local wines—until Parkinson’s stopped her. In that final quintet of her years, the Glen Ellen living room porch or kitchen table served as a true culinary crossroad for friends, journalists, family, gardeners, and others, some arriving from great distances.

"And what about that red-walled bathroom, splashed with paintings and memorabilia from Mary Frances’ former lives? Stage-door style mirrors transformed the room to a memoir kaleidoscope! More quiet, but memorable was her bedroom. A Persian rug with a paisley design led to that hushed place where her typewriter—usually with paper in the paten, ready-for-inspiration—etched a major memory.

"Then, too, a more physical pull during those latter days: she and I exchanged my rubbing her bony feet during visits in place for formerly familiar chatter. I think often of the irony of that conversational silence with Mary Frances: that she, one of the great contemporary food communicators, lived without a voice over her final few years."

Joyce Goldstein
Chef, prolific cookbook and book author (including her most recent, Inside the California Food Revolution, published this month), and Silver Spoon award winner in September 2010.

“I once had to interview her for a short film sponsored by the Walnut Marketing board. She was alternately charming and ornery. When I asked her to talk about taste memory, she smiled sweetly, batted her eyes, and claimed she did not know what that was. Yet, of course, it was the essence of what she was writing about.

“She did the annotations to a reissue of Catherine Plagemann’s book on preserves (Fine Preserving, published by Aris books in 1986), and even there her dual nature showed. I still use this book and chuckle at her comments every time I make one of those recipes.

“Al Fisher, her first husband, was an English professor at Smith College when I was there. They were long divorced, but even in his later years he was a babe magnet, and I could see why she married him. That is why I like rereading The Gastronomical Me. It was a bit like eavesdropping on their lives.”

Joan Nathan
Author of 10 cookbooks and a Silver Spoon award winner in June 2005.

“In 1985, when M.F.K. Fisher was mostly bedridden, I interviewed her for a Q-and-A article for the Washington Post. As I was told that she liked men, my husband, Allan, came with me, along with my infant son David, whom I was nursing at the time. On the way to Glen Ellen, we decided that Allan would make an omelet for her (the only thing he knew, then and now, how to cook to perfection).

“While Allan prepared lunch for us, M.F.K. and I talked about so much during the interview: France, The Settlement Cookbook. Jewish cooking, a little gossip, and her food memory—all of which I have found such an inspiration for me in my writing.

“What I remember most, though, were her pronouncements about McDonald’s, especially the French fries, which she loved straight out of the bag. (But five minutes later, just like all fast food, the taste was terrible, not worth the bother.) As for our simple lunch of a cheese omelet and salad, she ate it slowly and loved tasting every single morsel. From then on, we had a great correspondence, which meant so much to me.”

Jan Longone
Owner of The Wine and Food Library (a treasured resource for antiquarian books), Silver Spoon award winner in June 2000, and adjunct curator of American Culinary History, Hatcher Library, University of Michigan.

"I think she will always be iconic. On my shelf right now I have 10 books that she wrote—many more than you would think. She was definitely a ‘literature' person, with many experiences in her life. People who are really serious know who she is."

Kathy Brennan
Former Food Arts intern and author of Keepers: Two Home Cooks Share Their Tried-and-True Weeknight Recipes and the Secrets to Happiness in the Kitchen, published earlier this year.

“I probably first heard about and read M.F.K. Fisher when I was in culinary school in the early 1990s, but it wasn't until I worked at Gourmet a few years later that I started to really read her books. And it didn't take long to realize that every American food writer, whether he or she knows it, owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Fisher—she paved the way for all of us.

“In Keepers, we emphasize two big points: the cooking process should be pleasurable, and one can eat well even on a tight budget. But these ideas didn’t originate with us: they were themes that Fisher sounded 60 years ago in her book How to Cook a Wolf, which was published during World War II and in the immediate aftermath of the Great Depression. They are timeless themes, and they speak to the timelessness of Fisher’s work.”

Rose Levy Beranbaum
Food scientist, recipe tester and developer, and cookbook author.

I was in my late twenties, working as a secretary at NYU Medical Center and studying at NYU at night for my B.A. and M.A. in food. My mentor, Cecily Brownstone, who was the food editor for the Associated Press, had promised me that if I went back to school, she would launch me in my career as an aspiring food writer. And then I came down with a bad case of the flu. Bedridden for weeks, my neighbor loaned me The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher, and it transported me to another universe.

When I returned to class, I was given an assignment to compare two food-related books. I chose The Joy of Cooking and The Art of Eating. And it was quoting the Essay on “How to Unseduce a Man” that earned me an A on the paper. I sent a letter and copy of this paper to both authors: Marion Rombauer Becker and M.F.K. To my amazement, Miss Becker sent back a lovely note saying how encouraging it was to read my paper, as she was in the midst of revising Joy. But not a word from M.F.K.

In food writing, my last class at NYU, taught by dean Henrietta Fleck, each student was asked to tell about what her dream job would be. Most of the students were nutrition majors and aspired to be heads of nutrition at major medical centers, so when it was my turn I hesitated to report my dream job, saying, “There’s no point in sharing it as there’s no hope I will ever get to do it.” Encouraged by Dr. Fleck, who said, “Rose, tell us your dream job. Someone has to do it, so why shouldn’t it be you?”

I said: “I want to travel around the world writing about food the way MFK Fisher did.” There was a stunned silence. Was it too grandiose? Or too self-serving? Or was it too hedonistic compared to the noble desire to guide people to better nutrition? I never knew. But seven years later, I sent my first article for the New York Times “Eating Dessert in Tokyo,” to Dr. Fleck with a note thanking her for encouraging me in my M.F.K.-inspired dream.

When my former teacher Anna Moffoletto and Carole Brock were forming Les Dames d’Escoffier Society and wanted to name a woman in food as an honoree, Anna called me, saying that they couldn’t decide who that should be and asked for my advice. Unhesitatingly I named M.F.K. Fisher and she became the first Grande Dame.

I never expected to contact M.F.K. again, but when Bert Greene, the illustrious food writer and personality, told me that he and M.F.K. were good friends, I told him about my disappointing experience with her and he insisted that I write a second time. He told me that he would alert her to my note and promised I would hear from her this time. So I wrote another letter BUT still no response.

Some years later, I attended an event in San Francisco to honor Craig Claiborne. When I heard that M.F.K. was attending as well, I asked a mutual friend, Rosemary Mannel (Julia Child’s art director and collaborator) to introduce us. She ushered me over to M.F.K., who was holding court from her wheelchair, and introduced me. Once again I launched into how much I appreciated her writing. To my amazement, she just stared at me entirely without expression and said nothing.

Finally I realized that my feedback and desire to honor M.F.K. were little more than an unnecessary annoyance to her. I knew I would never get anything more in person than her silence. But her written words were more than enough.