How bad dorm food led to an unlikely nine-year culinary correspondence with a legendary food writer
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHELLE MAGDALENA AND PAUL FUSCO
The caretaker answered the door and led my best friend and me into a large semi-darkened bedroom where M.F.K. Fisher was resting, one light blanket covering her frail form.
“How was your trip?” she asked, her whisper amplified by a voice box—a result of the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease. “So glad to finally meet you after such a long correspondence,” she continued.
My friend and I sat in stillness as we tried to make out her words. She was fiercely attentive to our presence, even though she stared straight ahead and did not move.
It was 1989 and we were in the Sonoma County village of Glen Ellen (or as Fisher liked to call it, The Valley of the Moon, the name given to it by indigenous tribes who settled there long ago) at her “last house,” built on a 535-acre ranch.
Now 80 years old, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher—this high priestess of the pleasures of the table, this doyenne of great food writing and this woman I had been corresponding with for nine years—had invited me and a friend to lunch.
“Please help yourself to what’s in the fridge. ere is some very good cheese, bread, and you must try the peaches picked just today. My caregiver left early, so you gals are on your own,” she whispered. I walked into the living room. The yellow-painted walls were lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and no door separated it from the entrance to her kitchen, as if books and food were always meant to be close at hand. Wide windows above the kitchen sink let my gaze wander outside to the large wooden rocking chairs on the porch and to sagebrush, oaks, lupine, poppies and orange trees spreading out in every direction.
When I first started writing to Fisher, I had just returned from a nine-month sojourn in Paris. I went there after high school to study cooking, French and mime in no particular order, promising that when I returned, I would start my college education.
Then as a freshman at UC Santa Barbara I liked dance, writing, nutrition and cooking. I couldn’t decide on a major, but I knew one thing for sure: I wanted to write to my favorite food writer and express my disgust for dorm food. Also, maybe subconsciously, I needed someone to help shape my interests towards this big looming thing called “The Career.”
The cafeteria served tomatoes with no tomato flavor, meat that was stringy and overcooked anything. I lived mostly on peanut butter and crackers, baked potatoes and iceberg lettuce. For some this would be fine, but for me just back from Paris—well frankly I’ll admit it, I was in shock.
I had no hopes of Fisher writing me back, but I was sure she would understand my misery.
Her voice and writings had stayed with me ever since I stumbled upon her book, How To Cook a Wolf, among my mom’s cookbooks. It was published in 1942 and at first glance I assumed it was some old-fashioned butchery book, until I opened it and read the chapter headings: How to Rise Up Like New Bread; How to Make a Pigeon Cry; How to Be Cheerful Through Starving; and my absolute favorite, How to Boil Water.
For instance, here she is describing how much she detests the soup vichyssoise: “A bland unctuous broth with frigid smoothness. It is too bad this piece of gastronomical voodoo is so expensive to make and then 1/16 of a teaspoonful of ground mace to be added at just the right moment?”
Photo of M.F.K. Fisher by Paul Fusco; others by Michelle Magdalena
She says about starches used to thicken soups:”You can pretend when using pastes like tapioca that you are back in a second-rate Swiss Pension watching three Englishwomen of advanced spinsterhood measure out their digestive tonic and trying not to listen to the Austrian honeymooners one table behind you. Even nostalgia is a doubtful pleasure when evoked by limp globules of starch in the bouillon.”
Her writing was so clear, so fresh and so unapologetic of her strong opinions. She was the first food writer I read who would call things as she saw them. She was saying: Let’s wake up the palate, folks. And more importantly, she made me understand that when one writes about food, one is also writing about comfort, companionship and communion— in short, the fundamentals of living.
Fisher was 68 when she received my first letter in 1976. She had already written more than 25 books, including what are considered her best known works—Serve It Forth, Consider the Oyster, How To Cook a Wolf and An Alphabet for Gourmets—all written between 1936 and 1949. She had been the Time-Life series editor for The Cooking of Provincial France, had traveled and lived in France, Switzerland and Italy, and was now single after having survived three marriages.
I got my first letter back in five months. It was typed on Eaton’s Corrasable Bond, 25% cotton fiber paper, and she always signed off in ballpoint pen.
She wrote: “I am very glad that you are interested in what you rightly call the art of cooking and I would like to help you write your own cookbook sometime.”
In another paragraph she advised: “Good food largely depends on the quality of the food being used.”
One year later, she addressed my complaints about institutional food: “It is impossible to cook 500 portions of anything and have them be more than palatable. Now and then I send a copy of Mrs. Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking to convicts or undergraduates and all of them report that after eating the food they are offered they find real enjoyment in lying on their cots and reading the recipes for an imaginary meal.”
What a concept. If you cannot eat good food, know how to dream about it!
In later letters, I mentioned that I had started dancing and had to watch calories and had started working in a Mexican restaurant, while taking a break from college for a semester.
“It is good that you are deciding on some sort of work to help with your expenses,” she wrote. “Of course it is wise to watch calories, but I don’t see why you need to shun providing them for other people. Most professional chefs I have known have been very thin.”
She was always pushing me to think about the future and a good direction to take. In her 1983 letter she wrote: “What about your readings on nutrition? It is such a valuable science. Do you know about all the work that is going on quietly to develop new sources of protein in the world? This of course will involve ocean bottom farming and so on.”
When I was deciding about choosing a dance major, she wrote to me: “Why can you not become an ‘interpreter of music’ especially with your appreciation of music? It sounds like something you should concentrate on.” We had begun to plan to meet, but she had to keep calling it off due to illness or a travel assignment or because many times she was busy hosting guests. I was also out of commission when I got a diagnosis of mononucleosis that took me away from college for a year or so. In 1984, I was still finding it difficult to get back to school after my illness and she was finding her work going much slower.
She wrote: “It is always difficult to return to what is called normal living, after even a short vacation. A week in hospital, especially after sedation, can throw some people into real panic about accepting the responsibilities of ‘outside’ life again. I hope you are not finding all this readjustment too painful. Please write to me about it if you care to.
“Here, I continue to work hard. Although I am slower than I used to be…and much less interested in taking on any new commitments. There will be another collection of old and new stories out later this spring from Knopf. It is called Sister Age and I think you will like some of it.”
The last letter I received was in 1984. She never mentioned how much harder life was getting from Parkinson’s, but she did say she was not traveling anymore and wrote: “This morning I watched the partial eclipse of the sun and found it strangely mysterious and moving, as I often have in the past. I am told that this is the last one in this century, so I don’t seem to need to worry anymore about putting a pinhole in one piece of cardboard and focusing it on another piece!! One less thing to do!!!!”
In Fisher’s home, my friend and I munched on some terrific cheese and Fisher insisted that we try the wine that someone left her. She told us to check out the lovely taqueria down the road if we had time and mentioned she still thought corn tortillas were the only tortillas one should eat.
At one point she looked straight at me with those piercing blue eyes and said: “I dare say we have all too many gastronomic journals already, but I do think you could write some kind of cookbook for the elderly, since it is ghastly what they have to eat in those places they call nursing homes.” I told her I had started my course work towards a physical therapy degree and loved working with the elderly population. I noticed many of them were alone and living on frozen food. I will have to change that, I thought.
When we were close to leaving, she said: “By the way, on your way out, be sure to look at my bathroom. You will love the red kimono I have hanging on the wall and the sunken bathtub.
Three years later Fisher passed away in her home on the great ranch. She was 83. I have been working as a physical therapist for the past 15 years, mostly making home visits to the elderly. I think of myself as someone who helps them “wake up their joints and muscles” in the same way that Fisher called on us all to “wake up our palates.” On almost every visit, I ask, “Did you eat today? Do you have enough food in the house?” I also start questioning their bread preferences, as I have fallen hopelessly in love with making sourdough.
The long slow buildup of yeasts by letting flour and water ferment over time fascinates me. I love using grains like spelt, emmer, einkorn and amaranth, and tasting ancient wheat again! I know Fisher would be happy to know I found a way to break bread together with others, share stories and give comfort in these uncertain times, as she says in her inimitable style in The Gastronomical Me:
“It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it. And then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied…and it is all one.”
Anina Marcus is just now starting to understand how to make good bread after five years of scraping dried flour out from under her fingernails. She currently has 30 subscribers to her “bread-of-the-month club” and has a waiting list for those interested in joining as soon as there is an opening. “Gluten/shmuten,” she says, “just eat real good bread.” She lives in the Carmel Highlands and can be reached at email@example.com.
… she made me understand that
when one writes about food, one
is also writing about comfort,
communion—in short, the
fundamentals of living.