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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Flowers for the Living: Me and MFK

She was a knockout all right --Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, who wrote, at the beginning of her autobiography The Gastronomical Me, "The first thing I can remember tasting and wanting to taste again is the grayish-pink fuzz my grandmother skimmed from a spitting kettle of strawberry jam. I suppose I was about four." One of the first books I can remember reading, and wanting to read again, was the classic collection of her works known as The Art of Eating, made up of five volumes: Serve it Forth, Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, The Gastronomical Me, and An Alphabet for Gourmets. She was born in Albion, Michigan, on July 3rd, 1908 (with, according to her natal chart, rather an interesting cluster of planets in Cancer, her Sun sign, which would account for a great deal, if you any store by such things. I don't as a rule, despite having dabbled in astrology as an entertainment several decades ago --how I love to be able to say "several decades ago;" the ability to be condescendingly avuncular is almost worth the indignities of approaching middle age) and I was born later in the century, ten days after the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis, so not only was I rather too young for her, we were geographically, demographically, and indeed in every other respect not only unlikely to meet but in fact destined to never encounter each other at all.

I knew, however, and still know, her work like the back of my good right hand. I would like to be able to say I was delving into her enthusiastically at an impressively precocious age, but the fact is that the publication history of The Art of Eating makes this unlikely; the version I spent countless hours reading was probably the one published by Macmillan in 1971. (Was it though? I can't remember it never being in the kitchen, even in my early memories . . . and it never seemed new.) Certainly I remember the deft and spare line illustrations (by Leo Manso) and I remember the feel and look of the book as if it were still in my hands --the dark cloth cover, which even in my earliest recollection of it is already stained with kitchen grease.

The book belonged to my mother, who'd emigrated from Manila in 1952 and met my father at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Drama in New York, and she liked to remind me occasionally that she had not only studied drama with the great Sanford Meisner (which at the time made about as much of an impression on me as if she'd boasted of being able to brush her own teeth) but also dance with Martha Graham (whose choreography, when I saw it first on PBS on our little black and white set in the kitchen, struck me as both twee and incomprehensible.) She was also, however, of that generation of Americans who were discovering cooking, and especially French cooking, thanks to people like James Beard and Julia Child, and moreover, being Filipino, she cooked as naturally as breathing, and the thing I remember the most clearly about her during what was undoubtedly a turbulent divorce and several years of extreme personal difficulty was that at no time, and under no circumstances, did she ever show an indifference towards or disrespect for food and for what gathering at the table to share it meant.

And so, naturally, I was disposed to fall hard for Mary Francis. She was, and I mean this with absolute seriousness, my first love, and naturally it was an epistolary one, although of course not in a literal sense. But her work probably sustained me more than anything else I read during my late childhood and early adolescence, as bizarre as that may seem, and I formed a lot of my first notions of what relations between men and women ought to be like, as well as many of my initial impressions of women in general, from reading what she thought and how she felt, about men, and women, and food. If there was no actual exchange of letters, I still read her work like someone getting missives from someplace exotic and remote --for a boy growing up in suburban Pennsylvania in the 1970s, places like Dijon, where she lived with her first husband Al Fisher, or the little village of Chexbres outside Montreux where she lived for too few years with Dillwyn Parrish, the painter (who left his wife Gigi, whom he'd married when the latter was a girl of sixteen and he thirty-three, for MFK) might as well have been on the dark side of the Moon. She was an intimate writer, the sort who makes you feel as if you are alone together in small room in a big house somewhere very remote, having a private conversation, and the feeling was amplified by her strange combination --something I noticed even then, and perhaps the first time I remember noticing a writer making choices --of extreme self-disclosure and extreme circumspection.

Dillwyn Parrish's identity was a case in point. The facts, I was to find out later (literally decades later) were straightforward --she had fallen in love with him, left her husband Al for him (both she and Al Fisher, and Dillwyn and Gigi Parrish, met for the first time in California but both couples were apparently already having strained relations) and she married Parrish in 1938. Their marriage was characterized by two things: deep love, and horrifying brevity. Parrish was diagnosed with Buerger's Disease, an inflammatory condition of the blood vessels which is both agonizingly painful and progressively destructive, in 1939, and after they fled Switzerland at the onset of the war for a cabin they shared in San Jacinto, he lived only until 1941, when his failing health and untreatable pain drove him to take his own life. But in her autobiography, she never calls him by name, she never names the ailment that drove him to take his life, and indeed she never mentions the cause of his death at all.

Fisher did write about all that, naturally, but she wrote about it in the same way a benevolent witch might lead you safely through a haunted forest; by walking carefully around the places where the shadows are darkest. Nonetheless, I don't think too many people have ever written better about despair, or grief, and the chapter in The Gastronomical Me entitled, "The Flaw," is probably one of the best things ever written about one of the worst things you can endure: watching someone you love die and not being able to do anything about it. She wrote very well, too, about the privilege of having someone to talk to --that One other, as she put it --and about the cruelty of silence.

More than anything else, though, she wrote about the strangeness of hunger. Mostly she did so by writing about food, but there are other hungers and other ways to feed them. In every book of hers there are chapters and passages that give you the same feeling you'd get if you happened to find, in a house you know well, a door you'd somehow never noticed before, and opened it. Her skill both as a writer and an observer was to never let her eye become clouded by the world in which she participated, and that unyielding ability to observe could sometimes be incomprehensible to those around her, as it was, once, to a Frenchman who became infatuated with her in 1938 during an Atlantic crossing (she was already married, then, to Parrish) and tried unsuccessfully to find some crack in her reserve of self sufficiency, and who finally said to her, at the end of their last meeting in a station restaurant,

"'Go on eating. Go on sitting there with your food and your wine. I saw you first that way, alone, so god-damned sure of yourself. This is right. I'll leave now. Do this last thing and stay as you are, here at the table with the wine in your hand.'"

Of course, he misread her, a bit; she goes on:

"I must get home, I thought. I feel awful, like crying or being sick. I must get back to Chexbres. I drove as fast as I could. I didn't know what I would do when I got there, but I must get home. I never wanted to be alone again, in a restaurant or anywhere. . ."

Aside from leaving me with a problematic preference for women with a certain reserved hauteur, reading Mary Francis also left me (of course!) with a irrepressible desire to eat, exotically, for better or worse, whenever the opportunity presented itself. When I ate snails for the first time, at a long-vanished little French restaurant in an undistinguished stretch of 33rd Street in the mid 1970s, I didn't wonder whether or not I would like them --I knew I would like them, thanks to MFK. And for many, many years, she's been a constant presence both on my bookshelf and in my head, and I still go to her for clarity and comfort.

The thing that makes me the saddest, though, is that I never wrote to her. I don't know what she would have thought of a letter from an obscure fan in a small town in Pennsylvania, but I remember wanting to write to her when I was probably around ten, and for various reasons --none of them especially good --never getting around to it. When she died, in 1992, I felt a tremendous frustration, and a sadness which absurd as it may sound has stayed with me even today, because her voice --clever, wise, observant, cultured, and above all full of the strange music of her own heart --was a sustaining one for me over many years when I needed one, and I should have found, even for my own soul's sake, a way of saying so. It probably would have amounted to very little, and the silence at the end would have been the same --or no, it would not have. I loved her voice, which I always imagined having a thin, pleasant, no-nonsense quality to it, like another one of my favorite self-sufficient heroines (Charlotte A. Cavatica, who as I recall her also did not suffer fools gladly, though she had a soft spot for a good heart) and I would have liked to at least once heard it directed, even in one of those kind impersonal letters one often gets from admired authors, to me.

Still though, what remains is the memory of having found out, when it was most important for me to do so, that it is possible to know that life is equal parts beauty and suffering, and that you can't have one without the other. Though the observation is banal, there is a particular joy in discovering someone who writes about it so well just at the time in life when you are discovering it yourself. That she wrote what I think one of her most beautiful books, Consider the Oyster, the year her beloved Chexbres died, is a case in point. (I was pleased in a way I could explain to no one else there when, on a recent press trip to Montreux, our train passed stopped briefly at a station for Chexbres.) There are so many beautiful passages in her work that say this, in so many beautiful ways, but for some reason that I can't explain, one that seems to stay with me with all the intensity of an unexpected afternoon dream is a passage from the chapter "How to Make a Pigeon Cry," in How to Cook A Wolf.

The chapter itself could not be, in some ways, more mundane, being a collection of recipes for handling poultry (and rabbit, which in her quietly defiant way she classes as poultry without explanation or apology) but it begins with a quote whose gastronomic bonhomie has behind it the shadow of timor mortis conturbat me that any carnivore must feel --an epigraph from Swift: "Here's a pigeon so finely roasted, it cries, Come, eat me!"

That hunger is desire and desire demands sacrifice is a point held in abeyance throughout the rest of the chapter, but there is another passage, at the end, which strikes at the complacency into which one has been lulled by her blandly soothing account of delectable procedures for rendering fowl edible with all the necessary pity, terror, and inevitability of the knife that descended on Iphegenia at Aulis. I have not been able to find any record of the text from which the quote is taken, and Fisher mentions only that it is from a book called Secrets of Nature, by Wesker, which was published in 1660, and probably no chapter on how to cook poultry has ever been bookended by such precisely chosen sabotage of the comforts it spreads.

Take the goose, pull off the feathers, make a fire about her, not too close for smoke to choke her, or burn her too soon; not too far off that so she may escape. Put small cups of water with salt and honey . . . also dishes of apple sauce. Baste goose with butter. She will drink water to relieve thirst, eat apples to cleanse and empty her of dung. Keep her head and heart wet with a sponge. When she gets giddy from running and begins to stumble, she is roasted enough. Take her up, set her before the guests: she will cry as you cut off any part and will be almost eaten before she is dead. . . it is mighty pleasant to behold."