M.F.K. Fisher’s Avocado

By L. John Harris

Portrait of M.F.K. Fisher, courtesy of The Napa Valley Register

Thirty years ago, I was troubled by an advertisement for a new book, M.F.K. Fisher and Me, by the food writer Jeannette Ferrary.  The title seemed immodest and self-serving, so I refused to read it.  I still haven’t, though by all accounts it is a fine book.  At this point, I can forgive that somewhat presumptuous wording. I understand much better, some three decades after M.F.K. Fisher’s death, how important she was to me, and to a whole generation of culinary professionals, and why she still is today.   

We met in 1984 when I went to Last House, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher’s home on the Bouverie Ranch near Glen Ellen.  This was a pilgrimage made by many food pros as California cuisine began to make its mark.   I’d just published a series of literary cookbooks at Aris Books, and Mary Frances had sent me a glowing appreciation of our offerings, among them Ginger East to West by Bruce Cost and The Feast of the Olive by Maggie Klein. I had written back to thank her and express my deep respect for her work. This led to an invitation for lunch.

At Last House, there was a bookshelf virtually inside the kitchen, perpendicular to the south wall where the stove, sink and fridge lined up.  This was an early expression of the open “live-in kitchen” design trend that would sweep the country after Frank Lloyd Wright’s homes and Julia Child’s TV show democratized fine cooking for the middle class.

When the discussion moved to notable out-of-print cookbooks that could be reissued, Mary Frances pulled Catherine Plagemann’s Fine Preserving from the shelf. As I leafed through this well-used volume, I noticed that the margins were full of Mary Frances’ handwritten notes. There were suggested recipe changes, exclamations of approval, some rather harsh assessments, and a few simple, dismissive “tut-tuts.”  One comment I recall from that first viewing was about Plagemann’s Apple Mint Jelly. It was short but not sweet. “Cinnamon apple jelly! Crabapple jelly! …But apple-mint jelly? No!”

I think it was the fabulous Pickled Grapes she served that day—one of her favorite preparations from the book—that sealed the deal.  But when I shared my crazy idea to publish her comments, even the harsh ones, she felt that would be “impudent or even imprudent” of her.  Eventually, she warmed to the idea and suggested to the designer, Patricia Curtan, that we print her annotations in red. We called the reprint, Fine Preserving: M.F.K. Fisher’s Annotated Edition of Catherine Plagemann’s Cookbook (Aris Books, 1986).

Mary Frances’ biographer, Joan Reardon, notes in Poet of the Appetites: The Lives and Loves of M.F.K. Fisher that the “tut-tuts” were removed by Mary Frances just before we went to press, though I don’t recall her having second thoughts.

This is precisely how gastronomy works, each generation passing down new ideas about food and nutrition, developments in kitchen technology, and, of course, revising recipes to reflect changing tastes.  I loved the idea of showing Mary Frances’ spirited and instructive annotations in the margins of a forgotten cookbook.  Edgy, wordy, “armchair” cookbooks were Aris’ bread and butter; books one could enjoy without ever venturing into the kitchen. To me, Mary Frances’ marginalia in Fine Preserving was the equivalent of Antonio Stradivari restoring and improving a very good but not-quite-perfect violin made by a forgotten luthier.  

Last year, I was invited to appear in a documentary on Mary Frances, “The Art of Eating,” featuring such culinary luminaries as Alice Waters and Ruth Reichl.  I wondered, what could I say about the great M.F.K. Fisher that was heartfelt, true, and, most importantly, interesting? I didn’t want to repeat the usual mantras about her beautiful prose, praised by W.H. Auden; her intricate weaving of life, love, and food; her breakthrough into the man’s world of gastronomy; her straight talk and lack of pretense. No, I wanted to offer something more personal and, perhaps, original.

I’m not sure I was successful.  Yet the on-camera interview got me thinking more deeply about my relationship with Mary Frances, one that had been sidelined by her failing health in the late ‘80s just as we were getting close. Her death in 1992—the year after Ferrary’s memoir—marked the end of a chapter in my culinary and literary life, as I sold the Aris imprint to another publisher.

In 2011, I became a correspondent for the online food journal, Zester Daily, during my summer séjours in Paris and Provence. When I went to Aix-en-Provence to give a talk about my just-published cartoon memoir, Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History, I started to research  Mary Frances’ life in this quaint Provençal town, in the 1950s.

In her memoir, Map of Another Town (1964), Mary Frances said she felt like an “outlander” in Aix.  No one there (and few in all of France) could accept the idea that a woman—an American at that—could be a knowledgeable writer about food and wine, let alone a gastronome at the level of a Brillat-Savarin. (Mary Frances had translated his gastronomic masterpiece, The Physiology of Taste in 1949.) Her rejection by the Aixoisie in that era is not hard to understand.  Julia Child’s  breakthrough as The French Chef on American TV would not occur for another decade. 

As a footnote, my time in Aix was also one of alienation. Four people showed up for my reading at an English language bookshop and one copy of Foodoodles was sold to a woman who was overheard telling the cashier that she felt sorry for me. (I was as invisible in Aix as Mary Frances, and I had the feeling that this town was still hard to crack for any foreigner writing about food. )

Still, Mary Frances made the best of things during her sojourn there. “All this was good for me,” she wrote in Map. “It made me accustom myself to acceptance of my slow evolution as an invisible thing, a ghost.”   

She may have been infuriated that her work had so little impact—yet she got used to trusting her own instincts.  “The art of silent anger strengthened me,” she wrote, “and as it changed to tolerance, I felt even stronger.”

The bell tower of the Cathedrale St. Jean de Malte, in Aix, near MFK Fisher's home in Provence. Photo by Bjs, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73480010

Ten years later, I find myself rereading Mary Frances, trying to find a clue to her magical prose. Her room at 17, Rue Cardinale, was at the top of a beautiful 18th century building, just steps away from a Gothic church, St. Jean de Malte, the first cathedral in Aix. In With Bold Knife and Fork (1968), Mary Frances tells us how her prose developed while living there, describing her “semantic—or, at least phonetic—education.”

The church bells of St. Jean would ring in the morning—Matins—and sound to her like the word avocado:

…I still transfer common sounds into real or imaginary languages, even subconsciously. Once, in a repaired attic room in Aix-en-Provence, I awoke to the Matins from St. Jean-de-Malte, which rang a few dozen feet from me, and I was saying aloud, “Avocado…ah-vo-caa-doh.” It was beautiful. I was making progress. It lasts, so that now deep bells sound very softly when I see the fruit or taste it.

This passage hinted at the source of the magic.  Did M.F.K. Fisher possess the neurological condition of synesthesia? In this case, hearing bells when seeing or tasting an avocado. Synesthesia is the mysterious crossover (“crosstalk” in the scientific jargon) from one sense to another that many artists, from Vincent van Gogh and Franz Liszt to Arthur Rimbaud and Vladimir Nabokov, have described.

M.F.K. Fisher heard bells whenever she encountered avocados. Still life by Nsaum75 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10568386

When Mary Frances described eating a tangerine after “cooking” it on a radiator and cooling it on a frozen windowsill (Serve It Forth, 1937), she added a sensory dimension that brings the story to life:

The sections of tangerine are gone, and I cannot tell you why they are so magical. Perhaps it is that little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl, that crackles so tinily, so ultimately under your teeth. Or the rush of cold pulp just after it. Or the perfume. I cannot tell.

The skins of the tangerine pieces have become the thin enamel shells of Chinese porcelain bowls and they crackle between her teeth.  Here, three senses are triggered at once—sound, touch, and taste. Mary Frances “cannot tell why they are so magical” but she shares the magic of her tangerines through her magical prose—prose that I would label synesthetic.

I recently tested this theory with M.F.K. Fisher scholar and biographer Anne Zimmerman, (An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher) and Sonoma-based food journalist Michele Anna Jordan, who knew Fisher well.  They were unable to shed any light on my hypothesis, and Ms. Zimmerman was especially dubious. But this response is understandable. Synesthesia had not been seriously studied until the decades after Mary Frances’ death. Were people “neurotic” before Freud and Jung popularized that diagnosis?

When I approached Mary Frances’ daughter, Kennedy Golden, about this idea her response was agnostic. She couldn’t recall the issue ever having been raised by her mother but wrote, “I think the theory is sound.” She then followed up with a more cautious note, “Having completed graduate work in psychology, I am particularly attentive not to ‘diagnose’ or label people.”

Zimmerman thinks these sensory juxtapositions have to do with Fisher’s literary style. “I personally think that it is more likely MFKF was trying to be inventive with language,” Zimmerman told me, “in the way the modernist writers and artists that she admired were, especially Gertrude Stein.”

In one of Mary Frances’ most quoted passages from The Art of Eating (1954), she observes, “The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight…”  Again, she conflates smell and sound in a way that leans more toward literary metaphor than synesthesia. Yet both approaches share the same quality—the identification of one sensory experience in terms of another.

I don’t know if Mary Frances was someone we would clinically classify as a synesthete, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. But this is how I’ve come to view her—as a wildly imaginative gastronomer and literary synesthete who painted with words. She understood the human hunger for love and loaves, art and avocados, sex and soup, and saw them all as one.

L. John Harris is a Berkeley-based writer, illustrator, filmmaker and publisher. He is curator of the Harris Guitar Collection at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and author of The Book of Garlic,  Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History and Café French: A Flâneur’s Guide to the Language, Lore and Food of the Paris Café.  

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