The first guest post ever on Gherkins & Tomatoes! The following story comes from Leo Racicot, a talented poet and writer and friend of the famous author, M. F. K. Fisher. Ms. Fisher wrote extraordinary prose about food and life and everything in between. She pretty much started all the hullabaloo about food writing and wrote some of the best work on food ever printed to this day.
This story takes on a particularly poignant and timely note, because Fisher’s Last House and other California wine country legends faced destruction during the recent wildfires plaguing the region.
by Leo Racicot
It might seem odd that, in honor of the 20th anniversary of Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher (M. F.)’s passing, I am writing about her bathroom. You would be expecting me, maybe, to write about the fields outside her home, floating with wildflowers, dizzy as the bees trampoline-ing there as you made the climb up the bumpy, unpaved driveway to Last House, where she lived and did her writing, made her food and ate it, draped her past joys and sorrows around her like the Arabian tunics she wore. Or, that I might focus on the eucalyptus trees in which her bungalow hid, their leaves baking an anesthesia, cooking up a wonder inside your happy nostrils and mind. Then again, you might think (and who could blame you?) the kitchen was the heart of this culinary sorceress’s home. A kind light made its way there, even at night. It had a bear’s cave quality to it, a feeling of both safety and danger—safety because it was the kitchen of that familiar animal, friendship; danger because you knew just two rooms away, the marvelous mind of M. F. K. Fisher percolated.
For, no matter how kind Mary Frances was, how warm and welcoming and down-to-earth, this was no ordinary pal; her demeanor, her habits, her very being told you that. Decked out in all that she was and loved and had collected over a lifetime of culinary and literary and amorous explorations, her dwelling place, its walls and corners and shadows, spoke to you as clearly and hypnotically as the stories Scheherazade or Homer used to spin. It was a true House of the World and hosted a League of All Nations; among its visitors, on any given day, you were likely to find yourself in the same room with the Arabs, the English, the Asians, the fellow cooks and book writers, or Isaac Stern, Raymond Burr, or over the phone find that you had Vincent Price or Julia Child on the line. People less-known but no less fetching sat on her couches and kitchen chairs: Paco and Romilda Peri-Gould, Charmoon Richardson, a crystaller and mushroom aficionado (who tooled Mary Frances around in her battered, yellow VW bug after a botched hip replacement operation made it risky for her to drive), her handsome, frisky grandson, Chris, an artist in his own right, pretty Rosemary Manell, she of the lovely countenance and crown of braids around her head, and often, M. F.’s sister, Norah who was equally at ease capturing your ear with good conversation as she was telling you off if she felt you needed telling off, a quality I liked.
And so, came they all – the motormouths and the meek, the members of the ‘Shut Up and Eat Your Popcorn Club’ (watching a movie alone with Mary Frances was more fun than anything!), the permanent tenant, Ursula von Ott, her gun-like face watching your every move, and the true friends and the sycophants, though very few of the latter made it inside and, if they did, they were ever so graciously made to feel their first visit would probably be their last; M. F. did not suffer fools gladly. She had a keen witch’s eye for the fakes and the frauds. Once, she confessed to me, “Life is too short to spend it in bad company.” I agreed, and worried that she might be counting me among that lot, but by that time I already knew that my place in her affection was secure, if undeserved. And if you didn’t care for the company at hand, or if a sudden case of nerves caused you to skulk away from some pompous, old windbag, a sure menagerie of animals made parade, and you could find shelter stroking or tossing a ball of yarn with M. F.’s beloved cat, Charlie, or in later years, with Zazie and Neepa, or Lucy Butler, caregiver Connie’s dusty sheepdog or, reluctantly, with the unavoidable scorpions and rattlers that insisted on paying a call even though that had never been issued an RSVP. One time, when I asked Mary Frances if she minded if I took a walk on the grounds, she said, “Sure, dear but mind the rattlers.” Her eyes smiled.
“They’re common up here. Don’t chat them up. If you give them their space and show them respect, they won’t bother you.” Her eyes filled with mischief.
“Me? Disrespect a rattlesnake? Oh, never…”
No less charming was the garden party skunk story. Sunset was setting over the backyard, and M. F.’s bevy of guests, fat and happy from the good nosh and wine and talk, kicked off their shoes, some to dance, some to cool off their tired toes. Out of the evening blue a brave troupe of baby skunks crept and, after nosing around a bit, decided it would be fun to nuzzle inside the cozy high heels, Converses and well-worn loafers. Nobody dared, of course, reclaim their footwear. In the hungover dawn of morning, M. F. had forgotten it all and couldn’t understand why her ocean of lawn was bobbing with boats of ownerless shoes.
M. F. was as generous of purse as of mind (she often footed the bills to put me up at one or another of the region’s luxurious bed-and-breakfasts – Jack London Lodge, Gaige House Inn, The Beltane Ranch). She also didn’t think twice, or even blink, when I asked for a large loan when hard times hit Willie Manor, the family homestead. I promised faithfully to pay her back as soon as I could but she tsk-tsked me away saying, “I never loan money to friends. I just give it,” and sent out a check instantly. What a gal!
Oh, I haven’t told you about the bathroom!
It was a mini-museum of oils, etchings, and beautiful gouaches, a little fortress of red, red being the absence of fear, a brave color, maybe the bravest. Red made M. F. not be afraid, so that when the ravages of age and the injustices of Parkinson’s Disease hit, it – the red – armored her. She put up her dukes, fist-ready for battle. The bathroom, like the rest of the house, revealed the archaeological layers of her life, her childhood, her school years, the years with Al Fisher (in Dijon), her travels, her Dillwyn, her Donald, her daughters, her Chris, her cats, her boxes of recipes. And her books! She loved Zane Grey and B. Traven, the idea of hobo-ing the world as a steamer tramp – she loved that – and the whole series of those Alfred Hitchcock Presents, mystery stories and naturally Colette, her beloved Colette.
Her philosophy of having a bathroom be this entertaining was, if you have to do something essential – cooking, eating, going to the bathroom – you might as well bring as much pizazz to it as you can. Why should morning and evening ablutions be different or boring? Urinate and defecate and bathe and gargle and spit in luxury. Wash your face and apply your makeup in style. For if there was ever a room where you want beauty to surround you while you purified yourself, it was the lav, where usually, other than a few towels, a cake of soap and a mirror, you were left with staring at your own kisser and body for amusement, maybe a magazine or two while you waited for your bowels to move. Here, she provided a real feast for the senses, a bathroom to beat the band.
My mind keeps coming back to all that red, to the power of red surrounding you, the magic of red, the passion of red. In China, red signifies good luck and prosperity. Below, the red walls were offset by black, tortoise-humped floor tiles, giant black olives, tantalizing and shiny as brine or the backs of scarabs. You loved looking down at those, your only regret being that your mouth wasn’t wide enough to swallow them whole. And that wall, a chasuble of red thrown over the husk of her pretty, little casita, a flag flying against illness and age. Yes, red was Mary Frances’s religion. It, and her home, and that wacky bathroom, displayed the same playfulness she brought to her personality, her life, and to us who love her, love her stories, those perfect stories, love the world she made for herself. We love her still…
A city boy, I once almost jumped out of my pants when a great cow – head and eyes and all – suddenly and silently stuck its head in on the porch as close as it could without actually coming in. Yowza! M. F. got a kick out of that. She loved those cows. She loved that Valley. She loved that house…
On 22 June 1992, as Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher lay dying, let me tell you I know it is true that these same cows appeared at her window, ambled past, one by one, like mourners before a coffin, and made lowing sounds, half in joy, half in sorrow, and tower bells in the near-distance began to ring out in the big/little afternoon as if to say, “Off you go, dear Friend…”
With special thanks to Catherine Bence for her help & encouragement.