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M.F.K. Fisher’s Legacy — the Napa Valley and beyond

M.F.K. Fisher’s Legacy — the Napa Valley and beyond

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Although M.F.K. Fisher died in 1992, her books and essays on food and wine remain a powerful testament to a woman who built a literary genre that transformed culinary writing from simple lists of ingredients into evocative literature that explored everything from the psychology of taste to food as a cultural metaphor.

Fisher’s writing career spanned nearly 70 years, during which she published dozens of books, hundreds of stories for The New Yorker, an English translation of Brillat-Savarin’s book “The Physiology of Taste,” scores of travelogues, a novel, a screenplay and even a book for children.

The English-American poet W.H. Auden called her “America’s greatest writer.” Her colleague and good friend Chef James Beard said she was “a goddess, Juno maybe, who descends to earth now and then.”

Another close friend and fellow author, Julia Child, characterized her as a “sensuous writer.”

Fisher’s writing often revealed a meal’s more passionate side, prompting Clifton Fadiman — an American intellectual, author, editor, radio and television personality who was popular in the 1940s and ‘50s — to say, “She writes about food as others do about love, but rather better.”

Perhaps Chef Jeremiah Tower summed up Fisher’s coquettishness toward food and wine most succinctly: “Reading M.F.K. is like making love. When I read her, it makes me want to go straight to some little restaurant in France and spend five hours at lunch with friends.”

Many know of Fisher’s reputation for her appreciation of nearly everything French, but few realize the influential role the Napa Valley played in her life. After three husbands and the death of her mother and father, Fisher and her two daughters — Mary (“Kennedy”) and Anne — sought the “peace and quiet” of St. Helena from 1953 through 1970.

During her time in the Napa Valley, between bouts of an unnamed illness and trips to Provence, she helped launch the Napa Valley Wine Library, taught numerous wine and food classes, and published “The Art of Eating” (1954), “A Cordiall Water” (1961), “Wine in California” (1962), “Map of Another Town” (1964), “The Cooking of Provincial France” (1968), and “With Bold Knife and Fork” (1969).

“Almost half of my heart was there [in St. Helena], sharing honors with Aix-en-Provence,” she’d write in 1985 for the San Francisco Examiner about her time in the Napa Valley.

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher

M.F.K. Fisher was born in Albion, Michigan, on July 3, 1908. The first child of Rex Kennedy, a small-town newspaper owner, and his wife, Edith, Fisher eventually had a brother David, who died in 1942, and two younger sisters, Anne, who died in 1965, and Norah (died in 2014, never believing that her family read or cared about her writing). The two sisters (Norah and Mary Frances) remained close and often travelled together on culinary trips later in life.

Before she reached school age, her father purchased The Whittier News, a newspaper in Whittier, which was at the time a Quaker community that was leery of outsiders. “[She was] on the outside looking in,” reported the New York Times, “an Episcopalian, [and] never invited to the home of a Quaker.” Fisher wrote about her experience growing up in “Among Friends” (1970).

From early childhood Fisher was drawn to food. Her maternal grandmother, however, was a strong believer in bland food that didn’t stir up the passions. After the grandmother’s death in 1920 the family eagerly expanded their culinary proclivities and began eating “… a voluptuous riot of things like marshmallows in hot chocolate, thin pastry under the Tuesday hash, rare roast beef on Sunday instead of boiled hen. Mother ate all she wanted and of cream [and of] fresh mushroom soup; Father served a local wine, red-ink he called it, with the steak; we ate grilled sweetbreads and skewered kidneys with a daring dash of sherry on them,” she’d write later in “To Begin Again.”

Growing up as a young child during World War I and then coming of age during the Great Depression and World War II had an influence on Fisher’s life view. She, like many at the time, was greatly influenced by writers such as Hemingway, artists such as Picasso and a growing romanticism with all things from Western Europe. She also grew up surrounded by four generations of Scottish and Irish newspaper professionals so that being a writer was taken for granted. She told California Magazine in 1986 that she had “published five books before anyone at home even noticed.”

Beyond her immediate family, literature and art were consistent themes. Her first husband, Al Fisher, wrote and taught English at various colleges. Dillwyn (Timmy) Parrish, her second husband — a painter, novelist and restaurateur — was rumored to have volunteered with his Harvard classmates e.e. cummings and John Dos Passos as ambulance drivers in France during World War I. Her third husband, Donald Friede, published and often acted as the literary agent for many of the young literati “Lost Generation” of the day.

The Lost Generation

The moniker “Lost Generation” was inspired by Gertrude Stein and used in an epigraph in Hemingway’s novel, “The Sun Also Rises” (1926).

“You are all a lost generation,” he wrote, highlighting the disillusionment felt by those growing up during the war, witnessing firsthand pointless deaths on a large scale, and for many losing faith in traditional values such as courage, patriotism and masculinity.

Some of these turned to material wealth, unable to believe in abstract ideals any longer, while others became aimless, hedonistic or reckless.

Fisher was thrust directly into the middle of those times and societal changes when she married in 1929 and moved to France. Surrounded by artists and writers, she also found the food astonishing. Often she’d spend the day searching the local markets to create gastronomical wonders: “My meals shake them from their routines, not one of meat-potatoes-gravy, but of thoughts, of behaviors.” (“A Measure of My Power”).

Her intent was to use the power of food toward not only strangers but even family and friends, such as Lawrence Clark Powell, who came to eat often at the Fishers’s home in Dijon.

“There in Dijon, the cauliflowers were very small and succulent, grown in that ancient soil,” she wrote in “The Gastronomical Me” (1943). “I separated the flowerets and dropped them in boiling water for just a few minutes. Then I drained them and put them in a wide shallow casserole, and covered them with heavy cream, and a thick sprinkling of freshly grated Gruyere, the nice rubbery kind that didn’t come from Switzerland at all, but from the Jura. It was called rape in the market, and was grated while you watched, in a soft cloudy pile, onto your piece of paper.

“…The cream and cheese had come together into a perfect sauce, and the little flowers were tender and fresh. We cleaned our plates and Al and Lawrence planned to write books about Aristotle and Robinson Jeffers and probably themselves, and I planned a few things, too.”

M.F.K. Fisher and Dillwyn Parrish

For three years, Fisher cooked and observed in France, taking notes as she studied to become an artist at Beaux Arts in Dijon. After the couple ran out of funds, they returned to the United States and lived in Laguna Beach. In 1932, the young couple met and became fast friends with Dillwyn Parrish and his wife, Gigi, an actress known for “Kiss and Make-Up,” “A Girl of the Limberlost” and “Girl O’ My Dreams,” all movies released in 1934.

According to Joan Reardon’s biography of Fisher, “Poet of the Appetites,” it was Parrish who first encouraged Fisher to write. She penned short essays that she would read aloud at dinner parties, and then they would talk about them later, first as writers and then as lovers.

By 1934, Fisher had published her first paid piece about Laguna Beach. According to a 1986 article in California Magazine, she’d received $10 for the article and $25 for the sketch she’d included. Three years later, Mary Frances and Parrish divorced their spouses, married and moved to Switzerland.

In a sad twist of fate, by 1939 Parrish had become ill, possibly linked to his time in the muddy trenches in World War I, where he had breathed mustard gas and fended off starvation. His limbs turned gangrenous from Buerger’s disease, and his leg had to be amputated.

Even under such duress, the couple co-author a novel called “Touch and Go” under the name Victoria Berne. Today the book is rare, with only a few remaining copies. The Kirkus Review on May 9, 1939, wrote: “A pleasant tale, with likeable characters, a moral around the edges.” The book cover proclaims, “A novel of gay good humor.”

Eventually, after numerous attempts at treatment, growing levels of pain — analgeticum was unavailable in the United States and pain-blocking injections with Novocaine proved ineffective — and the possibility of more amputations, Parrish shot himself on Aug. 6, 1941.

Distraught and adrift, Fisher moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, and lived there with her sister, Norah, and their brother David and his pregnant wife. Almost unimaginably, David also took his own life later that year, one day after being inducted into the Army.

Throughout it all, Fisher held fast to the idea that food and wine can provide spiritual healing, transforming grief into something meaningful. The result was that she poured herself into writing, her work becoming even more evocative and tender than before.

She completed “How to Cook a Wolf” in 1942. She dictated the book to Norah because she was unable to sit and type for long due to grief and an undiagnosed, life-long respiratory ailment. The book is both melancholy and ebullient at the same time but also defiant: “… when the wolf is at the door, one should invite him in and have him for dinner.”

By 1943, she had published “The Gastronomical Me,” a collection of essays that stretch from her childhood to her living in France, World War II, the end of her first marriage, her marriage to Parrish and his death. This single book is often considered Fisher’s emergence as one of the great voices of our time.

M.F.K. Fisher and the Napa Valley

In 1943, Anne was born, and by 1945 she’d married Donald Friede. A year later, Kennedy was born. During this time, Fisher wrote for magazines that included The New Yorker, created screenplays for Paramount in Hollywood and in 1949 published her translation of Jean Anselme Brillat-Savarin’s “Physiology of Taste.” This single book solidified Fisher’s reputation both as one of the world’s pre-eminent food writers and also as a true connoisseur, baiting her readers with highlighted sentences such as “Animals feed themselves; men eat; but only wise men know the art of eating.”

By 1949, Fisher’s third marriage was in trouble. She moved back to Whittier with her two daughters after her mother died of heart disease and found that her father was ailing, too, and unable to keep up with the day-to-day running of the newspaper. Fisher jumped in, writing stories and providing assistance to her father while she also found time to speak to the Wine and Food Society of San Francisco.

“It was at the Bohemian Club and I was the first woman who had ever spoken there,” she said during a 1981 interview with The Napa Valley Wine Library Association (NVWLA). “I had to be taken [in through] the servants’ entrance…because they didn’t want me coming in the front door.”

The next day, a contingent from the Wine Institute took her by car to the Napa Valley.

“I knew, the first time I ever smelled the pure sweet air as I drove from Napa to St. Helena, that I’d live there,” she said in “A Welcoming Life.”

“…so when I went home…I told my Father that when he died that was where I was going. He was taken aback, not about my mentioning his dying but he wanted me to stay on in Whittier and run the News [but] I didn’t want my girls in Southern California with that terrible air,” said in the NVWLA interview.

After her father’s death in 1953, Fisher sold the paper. And per her father’s wishes, donated the land and family home to the City of Whittier. The house was demolished to make room for a wading pool for children. The park still exists today — Kennedy Park — located on South Painter Avenue. From there, Fisher moved with her girls to St. Helena, initially renting a small place on Sulfur Springs Avenue.

“I imagine that the Valley reminded her of her happy life in Switzerland with her second husband Dillwyn Parrish,” Kennedy Friede Golden wrote in an email. “At first we lived in what we called the ‘Red Cottage.’ Our aunt and cousins lived for a bit across the vineyards to the west in what we called the ‘White Cottage.’ Both homes were still there when I last drove by. We went to the St. Helena public schools and spent lots of time with [local] children… Those were good times.”

Not convinced that St. Helena should be their permanent home, Fisher packed up her young family and moved them all to France. It wouldn’t be the last time.

“We left for the first time to go to live in Aix-en-Provence, France,” Golden said. “We lived for a time above the carriage house at on old chateau. It was rustic, to say the least, but I have fond memories of delivery trucks of fruits and vegetables, meats and also a truck that brought us household items like brushes, cleansers and other such items.”

Life with a famous mother

“[When in Europe]…we often ate most meals at local small restaurants, as we did not have kitchens,” Golden wrote. “We lived in pensions or shared time together away from our studies, so gathered at good small restaurants that we frequented often enough to allow us to become friends with both servers and patrons. We ate simply, but always well. Many of these experiences are chronicled in her books, especially in ‘Boss Dog’ (a story of our experiences at the Glacier Restaurant in Aix) and also ‘Map of Another Town,’ chronicling our time in Aix.”

Their move back to the Napa Valley was followed by more extended stays in France and Switzerland. In 1956, Fisher purchased a Victorian house at 1467 Oak Ave. in St. Helena.

“Once we moved into town we lived simply but well,” Golden said. “My sister and I each had a bedroom on the main floor of the house, and our mother slept in what we called the attic. She loved being up there, as there were nice windows by her bed and she was, I believe, at peace.”

“She ordered groceries from a grocery store on Main Street, and they were delivered to the house, and I have fond recollections of the fish truck coming up the street on either Thursday or Friday with its assortment for our good Catholic town. We had a milk delivery once a week, and putting out the bottles and the information about what we wanted was a weekly highlight. We could walk to the movie theater on Main Street for matinees, and we spent many hours in our basement playing card games and board games with friends.”

But peace can be fleeting, and as Fisher’s reputation had grown so had the number of people who wanted her time.

“I was probably running one of the best bar-restaurant-motels north [of San Francisco],” Fisher told the NVWLA. “Because there were nine beds … people would come up for lunch and stay three days and so I was doing nothing but cook, market, cook, wash dishes. It was a lot of fun but I wasn’t getting any work done.”

Unlike the preceding decade, the 1950s saw fewer magazine articles and only one Fisher book publication — “The Art of Eating” (1954).

“I used to hide,” Fisher said. “I’d stay in the Valley Hotel…in a back bedroom that they used as a sewing room. There was gossip that I had a friend in there, but I thought, ‘My goodness, what a strong fellow he must have been’… because I’d go there as soon as the girls went to school…[and leave] at 3:00 or 4:00,” she told the NVWLA.

Busy as she was, those within Fisher’s orbit witnessed her dedication and focus.

“It is clear to me now,” Golden wrote, “that the only way my mother was able to write without constant interruption was to get away from her home on Oak Avenue. As a gathering place, the telephone was not her sole interruption. In fact, many good friends and others stopped by the house when they were ‘in town.’ Although my mother often began writing in the wee hours of the morning — I know because when we slept in the basement her typewriter was about 10 feet from my head — I had no problem tuning it out and continuing my slumber. Many mornings she would rise very early, go upstairs to tidy up the kitchen and prepare for the day, often listening to Fats Waller or Jelly Roll Morton on the record player, and then return to the basement to begin her work. Clearly, in hindsight, I can see how she might have needed to flee the house in order to have uninterrupted time. So, her room in the hotel, above Vasconi’s Pharmacy, provided that work space. No doubt her friends understood. Perhaps only the teens with whom I was in school thought it at all strange.”

Those fortunate enough to enjoy Fisher’s hospitality always got a bit more than they expected.

“Most of our meals were eaten at the large table in the kitchen on the main floor,” Golden wrote. “We ate simply and well. My mother enjoyed preparing simple, but good, meals: salads, lots of fresh vegetables and protein of some kind. Mealtime was sacred, whether we had guests or not. We gathered at the table, talked freely about our days, what we were involved in and our hopes.”

One of Golden’s favorite memories is of the picnics they’d hold in the patio behind the house when the weather was good.

“My mother would always have some good fruit punch to drink and often she would cover a platter with leaves from our fig tree and lay out fresh fruit, some good cheese and a meat of some kind: salami, ham, prosciutto or even cold beef tongue. Whatever it was, it was always beautiful to look at and delicious to savor. She had a real talent for presentation: simple, elegant, but always pleasing to the eye and the palate. There was also always a basket of good bread with some fresh butter… Oh, this is making my mouth water!”

The Napa Valley Wine Library and Fisher’s prolific decade — the 1960s

Hosting all of the guests and taking care of her girls resulted in fewer publications through the 1950s. But by the 1960s Fisher had regained her prolific pace, publishing numerous books and articles.

During that time, beyond her expanding influence as a writer, she also found time to co-found the NVWLA, taught wine and food appreciation courses, and held some of the first wine tastings with local Napa Valley luminaries such as Lee Stewart, Andre Tchelistcheff, Joe Heitz and Louis Martini, who poured their wines, hoping patrons would donate their own wine-related books or provide donations to build the fledgling library.

“I can remember the first wine tasting we had down at the old hardware store,” Fisher said. “… It was very amateurish. Joe started out quite keen about us … but we hurt him very much because there was a tasting up at Spottswood…[we brought French Champagne]… and opened it! It peeved Joe Heitz so he withdrew completely. He felt we were supposed to be serving Valley wines. Well, we had a hard time getting 150 people to come to that first tasting in a lumber yard. We bribed our uncles and children,” she told the NVWLA.

According to Fisher’s account, Maynard Amerine, a pioneering researcher in the cultivation, fermentation, and sensory evaluation of wine at UC Davis, procured the first 100 books for the library. Today, the collection — housed in St. Helena’s public library — contains thousands of books, as well as periodicals, newsletters and oral histories from three decades starting in the 1960s that cover what is widely believed as Napa’s golden era.

Departing St. Helena

“[The house] is now quite fancy but was then quite run down,” Golden wrote of the St. Helena house. “A beautiful Victorian house with no curtains but with amazing bamboo obscuring the windows on the main floor. [My mother] reinforced the underpinnings of the house, creating a wonderful cool place for us to spend long, hot nights, and she put 12x12 alternating black-and-white vinyl squares on the floor of the entire main floor. She also had a wonderful old map of Paris wallpapered to the wall in the living room.”

Fisher recalled the St. Helena house with her eloquent and evocative style, referring to it as the “Dear Old Lady.”

“…the house was airy…filled with clear colors and the lacy flicker of light through bamboo leaves,” she wrote. “[but] I found myself more and more in the basement, so that finally everything I was pondering on was there, almost beside the bed I grew to prefer it to all the other [rooms]…” (speech transcript, “One Verse of Song”).

Eventually, Fisher’s daughters went away to school, and by 1970 she decided to depart St. Helena, finding the three-storied home and yard difficult to maintain.

A longtime friend of Fisher’s, David Bouverie — a London architect who came to New York in 1933 and later migrated west, buying land in the Sonoma Valley — offered to design and build her a forever home on his 535-acre estate, now known as Bouverie Preserve, in Glen Ellen. She gratefully accepted and playfully called her new home “Last House,” which is now run by the Audubon Canyon Ranch and is opened for select small events that “promote Fisher’s vision of a community focused on food, wine, literature and nature.”

Select belongings and artwork have been returned to Last House, including her typewriter, which sits in the corner where she once worked. But it was St. Helena and her time there that made their own special and lasting impression.

“Other people now take care of the Dear Old Lady, as a lot of us call her, and they have made her look tidier than we ever did, certainly,” she wrote. “And as long as I possibly can, I’ll sing my own songs of love and thanksgiving for the lives she helped us lead.”

Note: Special thanks to Kennedy Friede Golden and to Luke Barr, former features editor at Travel + Leisure magazine and a grandnephew of M.F.K. Fisher who grew up in the Bay Area and Switzerland. His first book was the New York Times bestseller “Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste.” Also to Diana H. Stockton, editor of the Napa Valley Wine Library Report and Lynne Albrecht, head of Reference and Technical Services at the St. Helena Public Library.

Editor’s Note: Unless otherwise indicated, permission was given for use of photos in possession of Literary Trust by Kennedy Friede Golden as Trustee of the Literary Trust u/w/o M.F.K. Fisher.

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