Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher
MFK Fisher grilling at Bareacres

MFK Fisher

MFK Fisher in the kitchen at Bareacres

MFK Fisher

 
 
 
 

Her Friends Remember - Page 3

"This first article appeared in Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Winter 2002 issue, © Regents of the University of California. It is reprinted here with permission of the publisher, University of California Press.

 

For more information on Gastronomica, please visit http://www.gastronomica.org"

Commentary by Joan Reardon

 




On Being Married to M.F.K. Fisher

Text by Donald Friede .1

 

I very much doubt if my mother will ever believe that we lived on anything except tenderly poached pheasantís breasts garnished with truffles, and followed by a mousse of chestnuts, flavored with Kirsch and topped with whipped cream. I am sure that she visualizes perfectly chilled Rhine wines and Champagnes, varied with an occasional bottle of very superior Burgundy, as the accompaniment to our every meal. And the icebox, in her mindís eye, is always stocked with luscious roast chickens and cold roast beef and p‚tés and delicately trembling aspics. As a matter of fact I am convinced that her view is shared by all of my friends who have not actually stayed with us or visited us. And I suppose that I must have had the same general picture of what our gastronomical world is like.

 

It is perfectly true that when we manage to make the necessary arrangements about sitters and such, and do go down to Hollywood for a day or two, we luxuriate in the Haute Cuisine of Romanoffís or Periniís. And our favorite dinner of Oysters and Sauvignon Blanc, Squab Vert Pré and Pinot Noir - with an extra order of watercress - and the best available cheese and bread and coffee and a really good Biscuit Débouchet, is not exactly Spartan fare. But that is as occasion meal, and treated as such, and looked forward to and remembered with mouth-watering pleasure. Between times we live more simply. There may not be haunches of venison available for midnight suppers, but somehow they are not missed. For one thing midnight snacks are not part of a life which includes two young children and a never-ending series of deadlines. And for another - but it might be simpler to tell just what we do eat.

 

Our one point of difference gastronomically is breakfast. To me that first meal of the day is an almost obligatory sequence of fruit-eggs-toast-coffee - with the only desirable variations being the actual elements themselves. MF (Mary Frances) feels that breakfast is not so much a meal as a preamble to the day ahead. On this very sound theory she may drink a glass of vermouth and eat a toasted muffin, or she may decide that what she wants is a plate of hot buttered zucchini. I have seen her start the day with a cold leg of Mallard duck, carefully set aside the previous evening for that particular purpose, and a glass of wine. But usually she will drink a cup of tea or a tall glass of hot café-au-lait. And once she paid me the compliment of accepting one of my poached eggs. But on the principle that each man chooses his own poison we go our own ways at breakfast. The unpredictability of MFís first meal of the day is only matched by the complete predictability of mine.

 

But from this point on there is complete agreement on the joys of simple meals using the fresh ingredients which we can buy in our local store and limited usually to one main dish. And why shouldnít there be? You are not very likely to argue if you know that you will sit down to a lunch of lentil soup, with savory traces of onion and tomatoes and bay-leaves and bits of smoked sausage and toasted sour dough bread both flavored by and flavoring the soup served piping hot. Or it may be a salad of crisp romaine or tender lettuce, with anchovies to add to the pleasures of the dressing, and with the grains of fresh ground pepper adding their own inimitable touch. And the wicker breadbasket with its napkin hiding the contents will as likely as not prove to be filled with fluffy biscuits baked with Parmesan cheese. Again it may be a freshly tossed bowl of chopped chicory with bits of crisp bacon in the olive oil-vinegar-garlic salt and ground pepper dressing. Or an equally tempting vegetable salad, or cucumbers and sour cream, or cold roast leg of lamb with a tart salad of beets and onions. And always beautiful cold fruit and grapes, or a big slab of cheese and toasted bread and crackers. We work in the afternoons, and so rarely drink anything before sundown. But we may have a glass or vermouth, or of chilled Gray Riesling, or even a glass of our favorite Red Tipo. And sometimes, when it is cold and rainy, we will have hot aromatic tea, cup after delicious cup of it.

 

We do all right for dinner too. Occasionally we may start with soup, a rich stock aromatic with pureed tomato and spices and into which we put heaping spoonfuls of sour cream. Or it may be flavored with clam juice or oyster sauce or minced clams. But usually we do not have any soup at all. We find that is detracts from the enjoyment of the rest of the meal. Often our dinners will consist of Tartar Steaks, pink and exciting, made from round steak from which the last vestige of fat has been carefully removed before it is run once only through the grinder. The raw egg-yolk lies unbroken in the depression in the center of the meat, and there is a platter of crisp watercress or of slivers of tomato and onion, without any dressing whatsoever, on the table. And toasted sour dough bread, and no sauces or capers or fancy condiments, only a saltshaker and a pepper mill.

 

Or it may be a ragout of beef, which has been simmering in the soup pot for a day or so, filling the house with a gentle and exciting aroma. Or lamb chops, moist and succulent, prepared in a heavy iron pan on top of the stove so that the juices will all be there waiting for the addition of butter which will blend them into a rich natural gravy. Or a curry, each grain of the brown rice separate and delicious, and the tang of spices inextricably interwoven in the meat and the sauce. Or a steak, thick and aged, marinated in soy sauce for hours, broiled over charcoal embers on a barbecue in the patio, and basted with chopped herbs and onions which have been added to gently simmering butter to which, in turn, has been added red wine. Watercress, tomatoes and onions, parsley - these are all we serve with the steak. And afterwards a ripe Liederkranz or Camembert. And Coffee - black, strong, and preferably bitter with chicory.

 

Often we do not have any meat at all. There will be a casserole of spinach flavored with mushrooms and cream, or zucchini with the grated cheese crisp and brown on top, or cauliflower Polonaise with the bread crumbs brown in the hot butter, or blini with melted butter and sour cream, or spaghetti al dente, with a bowl of grated Parmesan, and butter sauce, and crisp leaves of romaine to munch on. Or a Risotto, zesty with saffron and dried mushrooms, and garlic bread and a bowl of poached peaches or apricots.

 

And always there are nameless dishes, made of leftover peas or carrots or steak or rice or baked potatoes which come to the table twice as delicious, if that were possible, as they were in their original form. They are more tasted into being than cooked. To my mind they are the perfect example of the triumph of an imaginative palate over the precise pages of a cookbook. It is an old family joke that MFís father once warned her sister not to leave any remnants of a certain dish exposed to view. "MF will make something of it if you do," he said. He might well have added that whatever she made would be delicious.

 

As for the rare old vintages with which we wash down our meals - they too simply do not exist. There is a carafe of red wine on our table, filled with a simple discreet wine which we buy by the gallon in the local liquor store. Occasionally there may be a bottle of chilled dry white wine. And always there is a quart bottle of good beer in the icebox.

 

And yet, maybe mother is right after all.

 



Commentary by Joan Reardon

After Donald Friedeís death in 1965, his widow, Eleanor Kask Friede, found an item among his papers that she thought his former wife M.F.K. Fisher would like to have. Written about twenty years earlier, "On Being Married to M.F.K. Fisher" may well have been a pitch for an article destined for Esquire, or the beginning of a much longer piece that was never written, or simply an answer to a question that might have been posed by Friedeís widowed mother.


Donald Friede, M.F.K. Fisher, Anne and Kennedy, 1947

Although its destination was unknown, the typescript, found in a private collection of Fisher manuscripts, has added further definition to a writer who had introduced readers to a mélange of "secret indulgences": to tangerines toasted on the radiator and then placed in the snow on a window sill to turn as brittle "as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl", .2 to a raw oyster at The Bishopís School in La Jolla, when with her first swallow she "felt light and attractive and daring, to know what I had done"; .3 to "one of the best meals we ever ate" when she, her younger sister, Anne, and her father stopped for water on the way from her auntís ranch in Valyermo to Whittier: "It was a big round peach pieÖwith lots of juices, and ripe peaches picked that noon." They spooned thick cream from an old-fashioned quart Mason jar over it, and "I saw food as something beautiful to be shared with people instead of as a thrice-daily necessity." .4

In what can only be described as an insiderís view, Fisherís third husband, Donald Friede, turns the tables on his celebrated wife and shares the pleasures of her table with us. Granted that his is an admiring voice: "Nine years ago I read and fell in love with a book, Serve It Forth, by M.F.K. Fisher," he wrote in a paragraph that he later discarded. "In the then gastronomic wilds of Hollywood it was a reminder of fine food enjoyed in almost every part of the world, and of what the pleasures of the table could be. I chose to believe that I alone had discovered the book, and I made sure of the fact that none of my friends missed reading it. Many years later I met and married M.F.K. Fisher and we came to live on a mountainside at the edge of the desert in California." And, probably more to the point, Donald Friedeís voice was also the voice of a man who proposed marriage, courted, and wed his fifth wife in less than two weeks. He was a sophisticated man of the world, a connoisseur of women, wine, and food as well as a publishing giant and aspiring writer.

 

Although American-born, Donald Friede was raised in Europe, where his father was the Ford agent for Russia. He spent his freshman year at Yale in 1919, and his sophomore year at Princeton, and then we went off to make his fortune in a succession of short-lived jobs before he found his niche in publishing. His first job was as a stockroom clerk at Knopf, and then, using some inherited money, he became First Vice-President of the publishing house of Boni & Liveright at the age of twenty-five. He also dabbled in the theater and promoted a production of Antheilís Ballet Mécanique. After that money-losing venture, he joined forces with ex-Chicago bookman Pat Covici.

 

The meteoric team of Covici-Friede published the Nobel Prize winners John Steinbeck and François Mauriac, as well as controversial novels like Radclyffe Hallís Well of Loneliness and Theodore Dreiserís An American Tragedy. As a prototypical New Yorker during the Roaring Twenties, Friede traveled, wined, dined, gambled, and played with the best of the reluctant-to-grow-up generation. When the Depression forced the closure of Covici-Friede, he became a story editor for the A. & S. Lyons Agency, lived for the most part in hotels, drifted from the Plaza to the Ritz, and then he met Fisher.

 

The year was 1945, the place New York City. It was early May, the trees were in bloom, and the city was vibrant with victory celebrations since Germanyís unconditional surrender on May 7. M.F.K. Fisher had just arrived in the city with her twenty-month-old daughter, Anne, and nanny to take up residence in Gloria Stuartís vacant apartment for an indefinite period of time, seeking refuge from the accumulated burdens of her second husbandís suicide in 1941, her brotherís death a year later, and a short-lived stint as a scriptwriter in Hollywood. The second night after her arrival, the author Kyle Crichton and his wife invited Fisher to a dinner party in the Village. Also a guest, Donald Friede, reintroduced himself to Fisher, claiming that he had met her earlier at a cocktail party in Hollywood.

 

On May 21, 1945, Fisher telegraphed her parents from Atlantic City: "AM  IN  A  DAZE OF  AMUSEMENT  EXCITEMENT  HAPPINESS  BECAUSE  I  ACCIDENTALLY  GOT MARRIED  SATURDAY  TO  DONALD  FRIEDE." Returning to New York, the Friedes sublet MacKinley Kantorís duplex in Greenwich Village for the months of June, July, and August. Donald Friede played flamboyance to Fisherís instinctive reserve, spendthrift to her financial caution. He broke her existing contracts, signed her on with his former partner Pat Covici, introduced her to her future agent Henry Volkening, and negotiated a contract for a book about feasting, a collection of excerpts from literature concerned with manís fundamental need to celebrate the high points of life by eating and drinking. By the end of the summer, Friede proposed that they return to Bareacres, the home that Fisher had shared with Dillwyn Parrish in Hemet, California, where Friede believed that they could both write without the distractions of the city.

 

By September the Friedes were in residence in a remote house on a barren hillside overlooking the desert valley. Once an old cement porch facing Mount San Jacinto, Fisherís remodeled kitchen was enclosed with ample windows and a floor covered with patterned linoleum. Clean and minimal, its furnishings included a white porcelain sink, stove, icebox, and a few counters, shelves, and bins. A Dutch door opened onto a patio of flat stones, an ideal place for outdoor dining and entertaining. In due time a second daughter, Kennedy, was born prematurely on March 12, 1946, and she occupied the high chair that Anne had vacated. There were daily rounds of chopped green beans, poached pears, whole-wheat crackers spread with sweet butter, and milk for the children. From her kitchen, "Fisher ruled" and loved the feeling. But after a day of cooking and writing she changed into a kimono and enjoyed a glass or two of Sherry with her husband - "one of the pleasantest minutes in all the 1440" - before the simple meal they shared. Or was it simple?

 

The lessons that Fisher had learned in her first kitchen in Dijon in 1930, namely that she wanted her guests to forget "home" and all it stood for during the few hours when they were at her house, had become a basis for her cuisine personnelle. She made it a priority to cook meals that would shake diners from their routines, not only of meat-potatoes-gravy, but also of thought and behavior. She devised entrees consisting of a potato or cauliflower casserole, a grilled steak or fresh mushrooms baked in heavy cream. Then she served a fresh salad or marinated green beans, peppers, and endive. These early menus translated into an American idiom in subsequent kitchens in Laguna Beach and Eagle Park and into her short-lived period of cosmopolitan entertaining with Dillwyn Parrish, at Le Paquis in Vevey. In spring she served guests the first crop of peas, shelled, quickly blanched, and dressed with only a bit of fresh butter; in summer she thickened fresh fruit in its own syrup; and in autumn she prepared stews of vegetables. And when she and Parrish returned to the States and settled at Bareacres, her simple but distinctive culinary style distinguished their dining and entertaining.

 

A period of living alone in a one-room studio apartment in Hollywood and the constraints of caring for her daughter and often cooking a solitary meal for herself, however, added an element of eclecticism to Fisherís cooking style. And this is what Donald Friede soon discovered and described. Fisherís "nameless dishes" concocted from leftovers appeared at the table in a more delicious state than the one in which they were originally served. They were a tribute to her educated palate and ingenuity, as was the first meal of the day. While Donald Friede never departed from his fruit-eggs-toast-coffee routine established during his years of hotel, restaurant, and business breakfasts, Fisher viewed the first meal of the day as a "preamble." A glass of vermouth, a heel-tap of last eveningís wine, a lamb chop carefully set aside or a plate of hot, buttered, grated zucchini were often as fanciful as the essay on dining alone or seducing a lover that she might write before lunch.

 

While the outlines of M.F.K. Fisherís life are well-known from her first book (Serve It Forth, published in 1937) to her last (Last House, published posthumously in 1995), her three husbands have been relegated to either romantic shadows or vaguely realized mistakes. This despite the fact that all of them had the insight and ability to write volumes about the woman who has drawn readers into a magical circle of unforgettable family members, and into a cosmopolitan world of French landladies and winemakers, restaurateurs and waiters, academic friends, and scary street people. Fisherís first husband, the poet and professor Alfred Young Fisher, only obliquely referred to his separation from his wife in a sonnet: "Those who once loved have, by mutation come/ to find themselves unrecognizable."5

 

Dillwyn Parrish, Fisherís second husband and an artist, painted the back of her shoulders and head but never attempted a portrait of her face. And her third husband, Donald Friede, left this short, but no less perceptive, appreciation. "On Being Married to M.F.K. Fisher" adds another insight. Although Fisherís marriage to Donald Fried ended in a divorce that he didnít want but she felt was necessary, their brief life together with a memorable feast.

 

Notes

 

  1. Ms in private collection. Reprinted with permission from Kennedy Friede Golden.
  2. M.F.K. Fisher, "Borderland," in Serve It Forth (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989), 32
  3. M.F.K. Fisher, "The First Oyster," in The Gastronomical Me (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989), 27
  4. M.F.K. Fisher, "A thing Shared," in The Gastronomical Me (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989, 7
  5. Alfred Young Fisher, from Northampton Sequence: 1937 [unpublished ms.], Smith College Archives.

 

Fascinated? More Friends Remember on Page: 1  2  3

 

If you have a favorite quote or story about M.F.K. Fisher email us at: and if appropriate, we will include it on this page.


 
Copyright Les Dames d' Escoffier International