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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
What We Hunger For
Before devouring our Summer Reading issue next month, follow us back to Summer Reading 36, where author, Douglas Bauer, looks back on the life of food writer, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher. Bauer remembers the week he met Fisher as a young man, when she inspired in him a profound hunger.
I am, as often, tempted to start a personal book, mais a quoi bon? I think my present life is a strange, complicated, interesting one. But my deep distrust—or is it timidity, cowardice even?—of such self-revelations will, perhaps, always prevent me from thus relieving myself.
—M. F. K. Fisher, March 4, 1937
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher died fifteen years ago last summer, in the bedroom of her small, graceful, white stone house tucked in a hillocky pasture in the Sonoma Valley, and I suppose it’s that anniversary that has heightened my many memories of her. I’m thinking especially of the week when I first met her, and she showed me how to taste and savor life in ways I’d only started to sense I was hungry for; and also of the time, two decades later, when her life, as I saw it, was a vivid example of how to receive the meaner sustenance of age.
She was just twenty-eight years old when she wrote the entry in her journal I’ve quoted above. She’d left California the previous fall with her husband Al Fisher. The two planned to share a house in a vineyard above the Swiss village of Vevey with its owner, their friend, the painter Dillwyn Parrish, whom everyone called by his nickname, Timmy. And by the following early spring, when she made this entry, her marriage was ending and Al was returning to the States to teach at Smith. Mary Frances would return as well, but only briefly, to tell her parents she was divorcing Al Fisher and marrying Timmy Parrish and that the two of them would continue in Vevey. A strange, complicated, interesting life indeed.
Amid all the domestic turmoil, in 1937 she published her first book, Serve It Forth. Like the majority of Fisher’s writing—more than twenty books, most of them devoted to “the art of eating,” to borrow one of her titles—it speaks of cooking and dining and living, anecdotally reported within the context of her life at the time. And what makes the work unique—as her journal’s early self-reflection foreshadows—was the way in which she shared that life so obliquely, the people and places in her world depicted for her readers with a beguiling incompleteness.
As, for instance, in a piece she wrote for Holiday in 1956: “Eating any meal with this family was fun . . . It might be very simple . . . or it could be elaborate like the annual game dinner served on one occasion for three college presidents, a guru priest, a ship owner from the Islands and two movie belles.”
Leaving us to ask: Three college presidents? A guru? To whom? What Islands? And which movie belles? None of which she answers.
And: “On that night I watched him sitting at a wobbly card table in my new apartment amidst a mess caused by the arrival of most everything I own from Aix-en-Provence, where I had stayed a year.”
This just might be the prototypical Fisher sentence: its picture of her living modestly and making do with no apology, serving her guest at a wobbly card table, but also living an enviable, international, and—particularly to her readers in the forties and fifties and into the sixties—even fantastical life. And offering nothing further about her year in Aix, why Aix, why a year.
In the spring of 1971 I was working as a lowly editor at Playboy, when the executive editor, a thin, perennially agitated man, called me into his office. He sat behind his desk, wreathed as always in a cirrus of cigarette smoke, and excitedly announced that M. F. K. Fisher was going to write a piece for the magazine on New Orleans food and restaurants. I hadn’t heard of
M. F. K. Fisher and he saved me from saying “Who’s he?” by relaying her one demand. She’d explained that a woman dining anonymously and alone would always be given the worst table in the place. She needed a cohort, one who must be male. The editor laughed, adding, “She told me, ‘I don’t care what sex he is, as long as he wears pants.’ ”
I wore pants, and fairly expertly. And that was the sum and substance of my qualifications. I was a few months shy of twenty-six and I would bring to the task of dining partner no sophistication regarding food or anything else. Whenever I tell my story of meeting Mary Frances I inevitably cast myself as an extreme, a very extreme, example of how little of life any of us have lived at that age. And then I pause to think that I was then but two years younger than she was in 1937, when the first of her many books was being published and she was living her supremely complex life in Switzerland.
Which is to say, among other things, that she would bring to New Orleans more than enough sophisticated knowledge of food, and of the world, for both of us.
But she wore her sophistication lightly and offered it easily. As we greeted one another in the hotel lobby I instantly felt that lightness and ease and, with them, the invitation to be myself. She smiled and extended her hand and spoke in her breathy, girlish voice of the grand adventure ahead. She was a tall woman and, at sixty-two, somewhat stout. Pictures of her through the years show her gaining and losing weight, but the changing fullness of her beautiful face always conveys an open, welcoming curiosity. The moment we met I saw and sensed that welcoming.
Surely over the course of those seven days I learned something about food and wine and dining. How could I have failed to? For with every dish of every meal, Mary Frances would look across the table and ask, her mood entirely professional, “What do you think? Tell me how it tastes.” What an enormous act of charity that was, suggesting she actually valued my assessment. So I concentrated on what I was eating as I never had, chewing with the care of a Fletcherite and trying to identify flavors as she furtively slipped her notebook out of her purse to jot things down.
Of course we did more that week than simply fulfill the splendid terms of our assignment. We walked, a lot, ambling among the tourists and past their debris on the narrow sidewalks of the French Quarter. Wherever we walked, whether to Preservation Hall to hear the geriatric jazz band or to the Café du Monde to eat its famous beignets, I got used to her coming to a dead stop when something caught her attention. She said she’d always been an unapologetic gawker. Often she stood for quite a long time, not ready to move on until she’d understood completely what she was looking at.
One night on Bourbon she came to a stop at the sight of a woman’s legs swinging out into the night through a high open window of a strip club, then back inside again. Mary Frances watched the stripper on her swing for several seconds before saying, “How beautiful,” her tone purely appreciative of those lovely white legs appearing and retreating in the night-lit sky.
She took in everything that way, all week long, ready simply to receive the sense of the experience, and I saw that the way to be curious about the life of a place is to wander and watch and to look with no apology for as long as it takes to get what you’re seeing.
The morning she was leaving, we walked through the waking Quarter to Felix’s and the Acme, the city’s celebrated oyster bars. We hadn’t visited either one and she felt for the sake of her piece we should. When I told her I’d never eaten raw oysters she declared, “Then we must.”
We stood at the counter of one of the bars—I don’t remember which we tried first—and she instructed me to let the oyster slide down my gullet so that I would taste the sea. I did as I was told, savoring the briny freshness of flesh too ethereal to be called flesh. After a dozen at each place, we turned to leave. Just then Moran’s, the restaurant directly across the street, was opening its doors for lunch. Whichever of us suggested a last Ramos gin fizz, the other quickly agreed. It was a drink she’d introduced me to at our hotel bar and we’d been sampling them all over town, searching in vain for the perfect one. Sometimes the citrus taste was too strong. Sometimes the concoction was shaken too vigorously for too long, resulting in a sweetish froth of cream and egg white and powdered sugar that hid the gin entirely.
We entered, ordered, watched the bartender’s technique, sipped, and wordlessly assessed. Need I say we decided we tasted perfection at Moran’s? The ingredients working in balanced harmony, the juniper of the gin like a breeze on the tongue. (And part of me knew even then that its excellence had mostly to do with the drama of when we drank it—just before she had to leave. We’d found gin-fizz perfection in the nick of time.)
We walked, triumphant, back out into a wet May heat. I waved down a cab and we hugged. A last slow stroll through the Quarter; my first raw oysters; the perfect Ramos gin fizz; and all before noon. It deserved a term of commemoration, I told her. What should we call it?
She smiled—I remember both affection and mischief in it—and said, “Breakfast, dear Doug. You should call it breakfast.”
Of her gifts to me that week, this suggestion of permission—that life, if we let it, allows us to discover what we’re hungry for and when we’re hungry for it—is one of the two that stay most vivid. The other was a kind of validation that I still find remarkable. For again and again over the course of the days, I felt she was asking me, about life, what do you think? And, about mine, how does it taste? So prompted, I spoke at least as often about my untraveled life as she did about her incredibly eventful one. And when she did refer to a specific time, or someone vital to it, she did so with only a graceful allusion. In other words, she offered her life to me just as she did to her readers. And only much later did I see that week as my living in an M. F. K. Fisher essay, with its deftly placed ellipses, where food is the axis around which matters of deeper life revolve.
I am sincere when I say this book is not for anybody. It is perhaps for myself—to read in ten or twenty years and wonder about.
—June 27, 1934
Here, in the journal she always called “this book,” was where she wrote of life’s hungers directly, and not metaphorically through the art of eating. Here her writing made no graceful allusions for the reader to guess about. She was her reader, writing to and for herself, and so the motive of her prose was not to gloss intriguingly some social episode, but to make transparent sense of much harder stuff.
In Vevey, she and Parrish had nearly a year of idyllic life. He painted. She wrote. They ambitiously gardened. They entertained their rustic neighbors and loved doing so. It was a life that Mary Frances, just then turning thirty, embraced as one that helped to justify and verify her, well, her appetites. “My whole existence,” she writes in the journal in February 1938, “has become more completely physical than ever before . . . I am completely absorbed in myself—but myself as seen through Timmy.” (The ellipses, as one must especially note when quoting her, are mine.)
Then, the next summer, Parrish got sick with what proved to be Buerger’s disease, a rare illness of the veins and arteries in the arms and legs. He was in great pain. A first operation made it greater, and a second, to amputate his left leg, left him suffering even more.
Their life became his pain and the efforts to solve it: clinics visited and medicines tried, punctuated by those rare hours when he could sleep and Mary Frances, who held him and bathed him and gave him his injections and listened to his primal moaning, could not. He had excited her passion as no one ever had, but now she was an invalid’s lover. Their bodies’ intimacy was the nurse’s ministrations to her patient. What to do with those feelings of being completely physically absorbed in him? “Since I can remember,” she writes in February 1939, “I’ve been very clean, but now I spend long serious minutes, after my bath, drying each toe nail; I wash my navel or my ears as if they were Belleek china teacups; a tiny hangnail sends me hurrying for scissors, oil, all the minutiae of a complete manicure.”
It seems to me a ritual both of generous alliance and of necessary self-reward.
The following year they moved back to California, to a crumbling house they named “Bareacres,” on several acres of the Mojave Desert. The journal speaks of the barren beauty of the place and of plans for expanding the house. But still: “Behind all my pleasure and well-being about Bareacres is the miserable reality of his pain.”
And then, scattered among descriptions of somehow enjoyable, mundane life, entries such as these begin to appear, incremental in their power, compelling in their eerie tranquility:
May 7, 1940: I know that I could never blame T. for whatever he might feel that he must do to settle this problem that no one else seems able to settle for him. I am deadened by the very thought of it. And yet I must think of it with the same routine thoughtfulness that it takes to recognize hunger or peeing.
May 30, 1940: Last night T. asked me to hide the .22 bullets. I do not mention this from any martyr complex
. . . Pity me, oh pity me . . . but because I think I had better . . . Now I find that I have been living with the constant thought of suicide in my mind ever since September 1, 1938.
June 18, 1940: Last night was a hard one for T. and he said once that he wanted to know where I had hidden the bullets. I told him I would tell him this morning. Finally he went to sleep.
This morning we both woke rather early to a beautiful hot bright morning . . . Finally, he said, “I . . . would like to see Mother, so I think when the next check comes we’d better get an Oldsmobile and drive east and maybe show you the Grand Canyon . . . and then come back and finish it up, after a really good time.”
Suddenly, talking so positively about killing himself in the morning, not during the night, made me sick.
It’s like the surrender of France or T.’s having his leg cut off. I know these things have happened, but I don’t realize it. This morning, for just a minute, I realized T.’s possible escape from this business.
And they did make that trip, though by train, not in a new Oldsmobile, across the country to Parrish’s family home in Delaware. They traveled elsewhere that year too, including a visit to the Mayo Clinic for tests that offered no more encouragement than they’d gotten elsewhere.
But the explicit subject of suicide fades from prominence in the journal, replaced in part by family letters reporting on their travels. Until September 3, 1941:
I drink a too-hot, too-strong toddy in bed, and if my luck holds I get to sleep after some dutiful trash reading (Mystery of the Police, Death Holds the Cup, et al.), and then in a while (I have no watch) I wake cold and sober and my unwilling minds leaps like a starved dog at the poisonous meaty thoughts . . . Then, about one morning out of three or four, I sleep heavily until 8:00 or so without hearing the shot. I try to live (even asleep?) with what dignity I can muster, but I wonder if there is much in this abject procedure.
And six days later, on September 9: “It is four weeks and three days now . . . Pretty soon I’ll write about T.’s death, because I think I should . . . There are too many things that I can’t write yet. They’re in my head, but I am afraid of writing them. It is as if they might make a little crack in me and let out some of all the howling, hideous, frightful grief.”
Her youngest sister, Norah, wrote of her, “Mary Frances, of course, had to live on, day by day, after the loss of her love. Although she always considered herself a ‘ghost’ after Timmy’s death, she was very much a person who continued to love and be loved during her long productive life.” This wise valedictory concludes the introduction to Stay Me, Oh Comfort Me: Journals and Stories, 1933–41, the first of two books—Last House: Reflections, Dreams, and Observations, 1943–91 was the other—published after her death.
In her last years she was increasingly crippled by arthritis and Parkinson’s disease, her energy greatly compromised but her mind vigorously intact. Forced to dictate her thoughts, and wanting, perhaps more than ever, to speak to readers, she spent hours sorting through letters and notes, through bulging files and unpublished manuscripts. And also rereading, or having someone read to her, the journals she’d kept over the years, including the one I’ve quoted throughout, which became Stay Me, Oh Comfort Me. Finally she was ready to offer the world a personal book, and it was the very book in whose pages she’d once written that she was too timid or too cowardly ever to write one. But she was twenty-eight when she wrote that, and though—as the beauty of the language in what was then a journal shows—she already possessed the sensibility and wisdom to convey the hardest matters with a clean, brave grace, she was many years away from outliving her timidity or cowardice or whatever else fed her reticence to write fully for readers other than herself.
For the strength of its candor alone, never mind the language, Stay Me, Oh Comfort Me is, I think, her finest book. Like Last House and Sister Age (the last book she published while she was alive, a powerful collection whose stories blur memoir and fiction), Stay Me confronts and embraces and, in the best sense, exploits M. F. K. Fisher’s true subject, which is another kind of hunger than that which she’s best known for. It’s the hunger to make meaning of one’s days when age and illness loom and then descend. This is the hunger that moved her prose to a deep, delving, unfussy sensuousness that it never quite conveys when she speaks of food in adjectives surprisingly uninspired: “good” bread, a “good” olive oil, a “light, clean” wine. But food, the art of eating, was finally, for her, a literary figure, while age and steadily gathering illness were visceral, her ever more vital sensual companions. And I have to think she was mindful, constantly, of living her long and slowly declining life for Timmy as well, he who endured three brief, and endless, pain-wracked years and went from life into death in the time it took the bullet.
The passage in Stay Me, Oh Comfort Me that most selfishly compels me was written as a letter to her mother from the New Monteleone Hotel, in New Orleans, on December 11, 1940, when she and Parrish were taking that last train journey across the country to Delaware:
The New Monteleone is a typical convention hotel, complete with hordes of supercilious clerks, fat drunks with cigars and buttons saying, “Call me Joe—or Butch—or Gus.” . . . However, the room is fairly quiet—and I doubt we could do better in “Nawlins,” which after some six hours reminds me of a mixture of salesmen’s conventions, the American Quarter in Paris in 1929 (full of shoddy bars and whiskey-voiced blond divorcees), and the brothel district of Colon.
We caused a minor revolution by refusing to go to Antoine’s our first night here, and went instead to a fine place recommended by our cabby . . . We’ll remedy our heresy by going to Antoine’s tomorrow night. We may even order oysters Rockefeller—but I’ll be damned if I’ll have crepes suzette, guidebooks or no guidebooks.
I’ve wondered so often whether, in the week I spent with her, she did make some oblique mention of this trip—the last they took that gave them any pleasure, the words of his surrender surely traveling with them. And just what she might have offered if I’d possessed her gawker’s confidence, if I had come to a dead stop in the flow of conversation to “look” at what she’d told me and asked her to say more.
“Now and then,” she wrote to me in April of 1972, “one meets a person who can last for two months or twenty years and suddenly be there and Time has done more good than harm. I think we are like that. I have a few friends like that in my life.”
We stayed in touch over the years through a fitful correspondence, exchanges of notes and letters back and forth for a year, two years, then long lapses, and I visited her a few times in Sonoma in the early seventies.
Then, in the late eighties and early nineties, my wife and I began to cheat the end of the New England winter, renting places for a month or two in Northern California, and briefly, on a handful of occasions, I got to be in Mary Frances’s life again.
On a warm September day, in 1988, I sat at her large round dining table with six or seven others, members of a television crew who’d come up from San Francisco to interview and film her for a documentary. Though she’d long been admired by an audience of readers, she became in her last years a kind of cult figure as well, both in the world of food and among a generation of women who saw her life as a model of courageous independence. Especially in California, the devotion of the foodies and the middle-aged feminists merged and it made her an icon. It was a status, I should say, that she was happy to accept.
We’d talked that morning and she’d invited me to lunch (“Don’t bring any wine. I’ve got buckets of it”) and now I sat in her huge sun-filled room with the television crew, sipping wine and joining the chatter and watching Mary Frances assemble a large tray of cheese and cold cuts. With the stiffness of her arthritis and her Parkinson’s tremors, she was very slowly rolling the ham and the salami into tubes and fanning out the slices of cheese onto the platter. She was by then very thin and small, so much smaller than the tall, stout woman I’d met in New Orleans, and the penciled-in eyebrows she’d drawn with her unsteady hand rose like profit lines on a corporate graph almost to her temples.
She was mostly listening to the table talk. She’d been talking a lot for the interview and she needed to save what voice she had left. Her Parkinson’s greatly weakened it and she often couldn’t speak at all after early afternoon. But she was obviously monitoring the conversation keenly, smiling at a private thought sparked by something she’d overheard.
And then she slightly raised her index finger, as though signaling very subtly for a waiter’s attention. Everyone paused.
“I want,” she whispered hoarsely, “to talk about addictions.” Who knew why, perhaps something one of us had said, though the subject seemed to me to have come purely from within her, whatever she’d been thinking or remembering or yearning for, and not from anything in the air. “Let’s go around the table,” she said, “and say what we’re addicted to.”
The mood among us had been chatty and relaxed, and whatever addictions were confessed to came from that same easy attitude.
I was sitting directly across from her. When it was my turn, I admitted that I really couldn’t claim to have any interesting addictions.
“No,” Mary Frances said. “I think that’s right. I don’t think you do.”
“Routine, I guess,” I said lamely. “I’m addicted to routine.”
She smiled at that, and gave the slightest nod. Someone else confessed something safe—M&M’s or junk TV—and someone else did too.
Until it came back around to her. She waited a moment, an exactly effective beat, her raconteur’s timing as perfect as ever, and whispered, “I used to be addicted to sex.” Another perfectly long beat. “Now,” she added, smiling, “I’m addicted to breathing.”
She was lying in her bedroom in the hospital bed that had been brought in for her. The nearness of death had made her incredibly tiny. What I remember noticing, as I sat down beside her, was her long, lovely nose in profile, still strong and now disproportionate on her small and withered face. That and her eyes, milky and searching, which seemed to be trying, as in New Orleans, to see and understand and hold in her memory whatever she was looking at.
She had only the faint breath of a voice left. I took her hand and told her not to try to talk, an instruction she didn’t need or want, and weakly waved away. I remembered with her our last New Orleans breakfast. I suppose it’s what one does, a sentimental instinct, summon the most memorable occasion. If so, she seemed happy to have it and lie with it a while. I watched her reach for a plastic glass, a kind of sippy cup, of pineapple juice and labor mightily to get some through a bent plastic straw. A perverse irony of her final days: she whose finest charm was conversation, whose livelihood was made by tasting food, lost not just her voice, but the ability to swallow.
Then she said, a slight exhale of infant sound, “We ate oysters, didn’t we.”
A short while later I could see that she was fighting sleep, and I got up and bent down to kiss her forehead.
At the door I stopped and looked back and I saw her hungrily, ravenously, breathing. In my mind’s eye, there was something combative, carnal, something lustful, in her effort.
Douglas Bauer is the author of three novels, Dexterity,The Very Air, Book of Famous Iowans, and two non-fiction books, Prairie City, Iowa, The Stuff of Fiction. His stories and essays have appeared through the years in The Atlantic, Harper’s, Esquire, Tin House, The New York Times Magazine and other publications. He has taught at several colleges and universities, including Harvard, Smith, The University of New Mexico, Rice, and since 2005 at Bennington College.