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I Once Met MFK Fisher

Blog | By Elisabeth Luard | Jul 06, 2020


The year is 1987 and I'm in happy receipt of an invitation to take tea with Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher.
Doyenne of America's scholar-cooks until she departed this life in 1992, she appears in the current Oldie owing to a timely reprint of her Paris wartime memoir, How to Cook a Wolf.
It's coming up for autumn and the grapes are ready for harvesting in the vineyards of Sonoma Valley in the hills north of San Francisco. I'm on the last lap of a seven-city publicity tour for the US edition of my first cookbook, European Peasant Cookery retitled The Old World Kitchen to appeal to a class-sensitive American market.
Mrs. Fisher had heard me on the radio that morning talking about Aix and the markets of Provence, her old stamping-grounds, source of raw material for the memoirs-with-food with which she made her name. The author of Two Towns in Provence, it seems, wants to revisit old haunts in spirit, if not in person. The book's US editor is delighted by this evidence of interest from on high. We've already done Julia Child in Boston and Alice Waters in just across the Golden Bridge. And a summons from Mary Frances, as she's known to close friends and distant admirers alike, is the icing on the cake.
The earth of the Sonoma valley is dry and red. The landscape is Old World Mediterranean - vineyards and olive groves - transplanted to Buffalo Creek. Mrs. Fisher lives rent-free in a whitewashed low-lying bungalow behind a wire fence at the edge of sprawling private estate belonging to a wealthy English architect, Philip Pleydell-Bouverie, who has the good sense to value her writing.
"All cookery-writers need a rich husband or a wealthy benefactor, doesn't matter which," says my editor thoughtfully as we wait for the automatic gates to let us in. This observation does not bode well for a first-time author married to a writer with a need for regular royalties.
The door to the bungalow, shaded by oleander and jacaranda, is opened by a middle-aged woman with an English accent, clearly not MFK. Mary Frances, the greeter informs us, is just back from hospital after a fall and hopes we don't mind if she receives us in bed. The bedroom leads directly from an open-plan kitchen-cum-living room comfortably furnished with hand-woven rugs, battered armchairs, chintz-covered sofas and tables piled with books. A flowery scent, hard to identify at first sniff, rises from a pot on the stove.
"Come right in and tell me all about it!"
The figure propped up on pillows at the far end of a double bed is bony as a baby bird, but the eyes are bright and the voice steady. Scattered over the patchwork counterpane are papers, glasses, books, heaps of documents covered in red ink. Just above Mrs. Fisher's head is a window recess in which is perched a white cat with black and russet markings.
"She's what they call a calico. A beauty, and she knows it."
Mary Frances was a legendary beauty in her time.
On go the specs.
Guiltily, I tuck away my pocket sketchbook - paper, pencil and a little box of eyeshadow is all I have to record a moment I know I'll never forget.
"Come closer..." Patting the bed. "Trouble with the eyesight. Such a bore. Means I can't write. So the university has sent me an enormous machine to see if it works." A wave of the hand indicates what looks like a pygmy battleship. "It's supposed to write down everything I say. Mostly gobbledegook. Don't know if it's me or them."

"Happens to us all," I say. "Gobbledegook, I mean." Later I re-read my own battered copy of the first UK edition of The Art of Eating with its laudatory and (in my view) unnecessary introduction by W.H. Auden. Mostly it's about the love of people and the romance of places - recipes scarcely get a look-in.
Mrs. F, I have it on good authority (no, I don't have the reference to hand), can be held responsible, at least in part, for reminding her fellow citizens what would be lost if Europe fell into the hands of Herr Hitler. Closing time in the gardens of the west would be the least of it.
But right now Mrs. Fisher wants to know whether the violet-seller who makes the rounds of customers taking their mid-morning cafe-au-lait with tartines - split, toasted bread-rolls with butter and jam - at the Deux Garçons in Aix, is still squirting his little bunches with violet perfume in secret behind the plane-tree.
Still there, I tell her. Still squirting. Or maybe it's his grandson.
"I'm glad." And the boy with the blue bucket in the corner of the Saturday marketplace who opens a prickly sea-urchin and offers passers-by a taste?
Still there. No longer a boy.
"All you eat is the roes. Aphrodisiac, as I'm sure you know."
"Most things are."
"Which reminds me, before you go, you must taste my peach marmalade." All at once I recognise the perfume.
The marmalade, spread warm on a tartine with fresh butter, is not quite as it seems. Soft and sweet and peachy but a sudden sharpness of lemon and an edge of bitterness from the right number of kernels, crushed. Complex, subtle and balanced, as is only to be expected of Mary Frances.
One last thing, a gift from my hostess, a new edition of Catherine Plagemann's "Fine Preserving" annotated by M.F.K Fisher, dedicated and dated in the annotator's spidery handwriting, including the recipe for Peach Marmalade.
Peach season is almost upon us. Time to get back in the kitchen.