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For Writer M.F.K. Fisher, Dining Properly for the Holidays Is an Art : Christmas: She resists the temptation to be overly sentimental about family get-togethers. Instead, happy and sad memories coexist at this time of year.

November 24, 1989|CHRISTINE VANDEVELDE | VanDeVelde is a free-lance writer in Menlo Park

"It is possible, indeed almost too easy, to be eloquently sentimental about large groups of assorted relatives who gather for Christmas, for Thanksgiving or some such festival, and eat and drink and gossip and laugh together," M.F.K. Fisher wrote in her 1954 classic, "The Art of Eating."

"The cold truth is that family dinners are more often than not an ordeal of nervous indigestion, preceded by hidden resentment and ennui and accompanied by psychosomatic jitters."

Indeed. Who better to understand the primitive, nostalgic and ambivalent feelings evoked by the hearty tradition of Christmas than Fisher, who for 50 years has been penning lush, vivid prose and poems to food. Now 81, she has authored 16 books, all of which are still in print, beginning with the publication of "Serve It Forth" in 1937.

But Fisher is more than a food writer. She's a philosopher of food, a candid chronicler of life, interested in who and what graces a table, engaged by what precedes and follows as well as what occurs during a meal. As Clifton Fadiman wrote in his introduction to her "The Art Of Eating," "Food is her paramount but not her obsessive concern. It is the release-catch that sets her mind working. It is the mirror in which she may reflect the show of existence."

Still beautiful, her long silver hair twisted and held back with tortoise-shell combs, Fisher lives in Sonoma Valley in the California wine country, where she is visited by a constant stream of "hungry and thirsty strays." On this day, her guests are offered cold white wine and served tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and speckled with basil, tender salmon, pickled cucumbers, brown bread and biscotti. Following Fisher's direction, the food is prepared and served by an assistant, as she regales her guest with stories about Christmas entertaining.

Adjusting her black-and-white silk caftan and picking up her 1-2-3, a drink she invented by combining one part Campari, two parts gin and three parts dry vermouth, Fisher says: "I love Christmas. I really do. I think it is very special. I took a vow long ago that I would never write another nostalgic thing about Christmas. But if I were 189, I would still get a special kick out of it."

The "cottage," as Fisher calls her home, is somewhat eccentric, with only two large rooms, a bath and a porch. The domed redwood roof soars over a kitchen-living room and a bedroom-office. The large, Pompeiian-red bathroom serves as a gallery in which Fisher rotates displays of Picasso oils or paintings by her late husband, Dillwyn Parrish. Books line the walls of every room. Tabletops are littered with mementos and vases of fresh flowers, a cat sleeps in a doorway and a basket of beribboned preserves sits cockeyed on a chair cushion. Navajo rugs in dusky hues of ocher and moss green are thrown over daybeds. And at the back of the house, a large porch with a fan-back rattan chair faces a field in which cattle graze. It's clear that here lives a woman who understands home and hearth and celebration.

Fisher, who is "working on four or five secret projects," speaks as she writes, punctuating the air with her long, elegant hands and waving her arms to signify exclamation. Ask her a question and she answers with a five-minute story. Like her writing, her views on the subject of Christmas are clear-eyed and unsentimental.

"I can't talk about creating those feelings everybody wishes they had at Christmas. If the feeling isn't there, you know, it isn't there.

"I remember one Christmas when we didn't have any children, except one little misbegotten grandson. And Christmas should definitely be a time for children, the child in people. We felt terribly old and bored, and that was the only Christmas we ever drank too much. All the sadness crept up on us, and there was this one little boy and we were all being terribly, terribly gay for him.

"Nobody even got drunk. We just drank steadily, quietly, too much. And every now and then, we would try to revive and be happier. So we would have another little drink, just a wee one. And this little boy didn't give one small damn, because he didn't know. Maybe he had a wonderful time, maybe he forgot all about it, I don't know. . . . We kind of used him as an excuse to even have Christmas."

Fisher has written thousands of words on the subject of Christmas. In "Among Friends," her memoir of growing up in the Quaker community of Whittier, she recounts her childhood holiday parties in the parish house and Elks Club as the first great debauches in her life, where the "hot cocoa, with cookies brought by the guild's prize cooks, tasted exactly like Christmas itself."

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