Contextual Keys to the Romantic Refuge
“People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do?,” Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher writes in the foreword to her 1943 book, The Gastronomical Me, “They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft,” (353).
Fisher is the author of over 20 books published between 1937 and 1992 and is usually characterized as one of America’s greatest food writers. The author herself disliked this categorical label of ‘food writer’ and she was right to sidestep it and create her own unique genre that reaches a higher plane. She wrote about the art of eating but also the art of living. She wrote about hunger, people who are hungry, and places where hunger is satisfied. She uses food as a cultural metaphor, she gives readers a sense of place so authentic that we can taste it and, most essentially, she instructs us on how to live well.
However an honor it was to be hailed as one of America’s greatest food writers, it still implied something light, trivial, entertaining and appropriately feminine to her contemporary critics and, as she herself lamented, it "caused serious writers and critics to dismiss me for many, many years. It was woman's stuff, a trifle," (qtd. in O’Neill par. 2). Her contemporary critics praised her for her charming words about food but they could not, or would not see past the food and the clever hostess persona to acknowledge the wise life philosophies of a sage soul. Of Consider the Oyster (1941) the New Yorker’s Clifton Fadiman observes in his review that, “M.F.K. Fisher has now in her small treatise done full justice to the mild and modest mollusk,” (Poet of the Appetites 138). And E. L. Tinker, for the New York Times, describes it simply as a, “gay, pleasant and instructive book,” (Poet of the Appetites 138). Critics called her next book, How to Cook a Wolf (1941), “lively, amusing, intelligent; and a real cook book too,” (Poet of the Appetites 146). And the aforementioned Fadiman wrote in the New Yorker, “M.F.K. Fisher writes about food as others do about love, only better,” (Poet of the Appetites 146).
But my main argument is that food was simply the medium, the vehicle, Fisher used to deliver her beliefs about human nature, needs, passions and her values. To develop and justify this claim, it is valuable to examine Fisher’s writing about a specific, significant place - the place where it may be proposed that she ate, drank, loved and felt more alive than any other. It is a place where her values about the art of living began to crystallize – a safe haven in a turbulent, mean world where she attained the self-actualization required to become aware of, mentally formulate and practice her version of good living. The place is the Swiss Riviera on the banks of Lake Leman and the time, for this too is important, is the few years preceding the Second World War in Europe.
Fisher’s writing about life on the Swiss Riviera needs to be examined by looking at the context of this place as Fisher found it when she first arrived and then by understanding Fisher’s experiences here, the recurrence of the place in her works, and how she plies these stories to teach readers about her values in regard to the art of living.
Fisher first made her acquaintance with the Swiss Riviera in early March 1936, at the tender age of 27, with her illicit lover Dillwyn Parrish and his elderly mother. She had just finished writing her first book, Serve it Forth, a journey through history from the most ancient cookbook still in existence to the nineteenth-century culinary scene. The trio stayed in Vevey, the palm fringed resort town of the Lavaux region of French Switzerland, set among the steeply terraced vineyards between Lausanne and Montreux.
Fisher was doubtless as fully aware of the region’s rich history as a writers’ and artists’ refuge as she was of the glittering lake and soaring Alps. She knew the Café de la Clef in Vevey where Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously took his tipples. She rode the steamboat to the Château de Chillon where Byron was inspired to write, The Prisoner of Chillon. She stayed at the Hotel de Trois Couronnes, the setting of Henry James’ novel Daisy Miller. The stunning natural scenery and liberal spirit of this region had already been the incubator of Mary Shelley’s (and Frankenstein’s) monster, Edward Gibbon’s monumental The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, T.S. Elliot’s The Waste Land and more. It was where Nabokov retired to hunt butterflies after writing Lolita and where many more literary notables, among them Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, James Fenimore Cooper, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Harriet Beecher Stowe and August Strindberg, either lived or wrote or wrote about. Fisher knew all this and she even planned to write a book about the time around the French Revolution when, “all the little villages around the lake swarmed with brilliant refugees from France. Mme. Récamier and Mme. de Staël had their salons, then, and Brillat-Savarin flitted around the edges…” (Dubious Honors 139). This was the romantic refuge that welcomed Fisher that spring.
She stayed for three weeks, visiting Parrish’s property Le Pâquis for the first time, dining in his favorite restaurants, visiting the market in Vevey and going to afternoon tea dances. She wrote to her husband Al, left at home in California, about her experiences with the wonderful foods and the exquisite wines of the Lavaux, “I have shifted my loyalty to them from the wines of Alsace. Here they are pale topaz in color, very thin, not at all sweet, rather lemony, very delightful and refreshing and not at all sleepy...” (Poet of the Appetites 90). She wrestled with another kind of loyalty as well, knowing she was in love with Parrish but still “profoundly attached to Al. Even while I hurried to New York for such an odd jaunt, with Al’s apparently hearty approval, I was making plans for the next year with him [Parrish], the rest of my life with him,” (The Gastronomical Me 463).
She also recalls how this trip had also exposed her to real evil for the first time in her life, describing her experiences on their transatlantic crossing with Germans who raised the first drink of every meal to a portrait of Hitler, “There was indeed too much ugliness on that pretty little ship. It was all a part of what is happening now in the world, and has always happened and always will happen while men stunt their souls,” (The Gastronomical Me 464). On the boat home after this first trip to Le Pâquis Fisher knew that life and the world as she knew it had changed and she reflected, “The world I had thought to go back to was gone. I knew it, and I wondered how I could make Al know it too, and help build a new one,” (The Gastronomical Me 468).
The new world solution was an unusual one. Parrish invited the Fishers to join him in Switzerland and they went in the fall of 1936, to help Parrish build and inaugurate the little vigneron cottage and meadow at Le Pâquis into a haven for literary and artistic friends. The threesome leased a car and an apartment together but all the while they planned and built at Le Pâquis, their own situation crumbled. Fisher naively believed that their unusual arrangement might work and one early summer evening at Le Pâquis, before Al finally left them and with her parents visiting, she even discovered one of her own recipes for heaven: to gather your loved ones around you and feed them from your own garden. In the aftermath of Fisher’s own emotional crises and under the shadow of growing political unrest in Europe, she gathered up more of her own lessons for living a good life: to be stimulating, to listen to your hunger, to find your place in this world. In the following essay I will focus on the passages from Fisher’s works that she sets in the Lavaux and that teach us about the art of living.
To feed loved ones from your garden
In the chapter titled P is for Peas in An Alphabet for Gourmets (1949), Fisher paints a portrait of a special dinner, one early summer evening, when one of her life philosophies crystallizes through the discovery of her own personal recipe for heaven on earth: to gather your loved ones around you and feed them from your own garden. She writes of how she gathered her loved ones in the garden of Le Pâquis with its full view of the lake, vineyards and “ancient apple tree heavily laden with button-sized green fruit, plums coloring on the branches at the far end near the little meadow that gave Le Pâquis its name,” (664). Fisher had planted peas in the dark, healthy soil of their terraced garden and now Parrish, Al and Fisher’s father Rex, picked the first ripe peas of the season, Fisher’s mother Edith shelled them and Fisher herself was the liaison between them who, “dashed up and down the steep terraces with the baskets,” (664).
She was finely attentive to her gathered loved ones, “my mother would groan and then hum happily when another [basket] appeared, and below I could hear my father and our friends cursing just as happily at their wry backs and their aching thighs, while the peas came off their stems and into the baskets with a small sound audible in that still high air…” (664). But she does not mention the tensions that must have tainted the still high air that night, with the younger three plainly knowing that Al would soon go and Fisher would stay on as Parrish’s mistress and that the secret lovers’ relationship would soon be allowed to come into full bloom in that beautiful place.
With the peas shelled, the fire hot and the water boiling, Fisher, “tossed in the peas, a good six quarts or more, and slapped on the heavy lid as if a devil might get out. The minute the steam showed I shook the whole like mad. Someone brought me a curl of thin pink ham and a glass of cold wine from the fountain. Revivified, if that were any more possible, I shook the pot again,” (665).
While the sweet butter, embossed with a portrait of local hero William Tell, melts into the peas, Fisher regards her gathered loved ones and learns her important life lesson:
‘Time, gentleman, time,’ my mother called in an unrehearsed and astonishing imitation of a Cornish barmaid. […] I looked up at the terrace, a shambles of sawed beams, cement mixers, and empty sardine tins left from the workmen’s lunches. There sat most of the people in the world I loved, in a thin light that was pink with Alpen glow, blue with a veil of pine smoke from the hearth. Their voices sang with a certain remoteness into the clear air, and suddenly from across the curve of the Lower Corniche a cow in Monsiuer Rogivue’s orchard moved her head among the flowers and shook her bell in a slow melodious rhythm, a kind of hymn. My father lifted up his face at the sweet sound and, his fists all stained with green-pea juice, said passionately, ‘God, but I feel good!’ I felt near to tears. (666)
Why is this particular story the one that persisted in my thoughts the first time I read this book? Not only does Fisher paint with the rich colors of nostalgia, with immediacy and sharpness, but she also intentionally and completely leaves out any mention of her emotional crises coming to a head or the growing political tensions in Europe. It is a beautiful, frozen moment with an essence and essential message to readers that would be lost in messy context if Fisher were not to isolate it and serve it thus up as a stand-alone dish.
This scene illustrates in particular how Fisher, who never let a table nor a story be set by chance, leaves what she considers less important unsaid and makes us know that this pivotal moment in her life is about something entirely different. She shelters us from the irrelevant and teaches us a crucial lesson by sharing how she discovered her own recipe for heaven and complete happiness: “and again I recalled Sidney Smith, who once said that his idea of Heaven (and he was a cleric!) was pâte de foie gras to the sound of trumpets. Mine, that night and this night too, is fresh green garden peas, picked and shelled by my friends, to the sound of a cowbell,” (667).
We must all find our own recipe for our personal idea of heaven and Fisher suggests we start by gathering our loved ones around us and feeding them from our own gardens. However thorny, strained or complicated our relationships with each other may be, love is simplified and fortified by working side-by-side and breaking bread together. And the act of planting seeds, tending them and caring for them with the ultimate aim of giving nourishment and a wonderful taste sensation to your loved ones, may be one of the truest ways to show love, just as the stomach, proverbially, is the quickest way to the heart. The garden motif, and the way Fisher censors the conflicts from her version of the story, also carries my thoughts to another famous Lake Leman literary luminary, François-Marie Arouet, more famously known by his pen name Voltaire. In the conclusion of his satirical novel Candide the main character finally decides that rather than spend our lives wondering about good and evil or right and wrong, our most important task in life is to cultivate our own gardens, literally to feed ourselves and our families, and figuratively to remember our roots and to cultivate our relationships.
This first life lesson is also deeply relevant in our modern, mechanized, mass-production society where many have become out of touch with the origins of the foods we eat and the care and time involved in preparing traditional slow-cooked meals. Reading this chapter reminds me that the consequences of this impersonal relationship to food unequivocally affect our relationships as well as our quality of life. It makes me more determined than ever to cultivate my own garden and support the current trend for organic and fair-trade foods, the slow food movement, local farmer’s markets and seasonal cuisine. Showing respect for food means that we respect our own health, we respect our family and friends, and we respect the earth and all the living things that share it. Finally, the garden might also be a biblical reference to the heavenly Eden which Fisher feared would disappear forever as the spell of the still high air and fresh peas broke. It may also be a reminder to readers to savor beautiful moments and appreciate your friends and family while you have them with you.
To be stimulating
One of Fisher’s strongest convictions, in her writing, at table and in life, was to shock and surprise. She seemed to feel that not only was it her duty as a hostess, but also as a writer, to give food for thought – to provoke and challenge the souls of her dinner guests and readers alike. She relished every chance she had to stimulate the minds and souls of her readers, her dinner guests, and everyone else she had occasion to meet, with her completely personal way of approaching the world. This contrarian nature is a distinguishing facet of Fisher’s personality and is one of the essential features that makes her writing so refreshing and unique. Lewis Gannett described this trait in her writing as a, “faintly Gothic perversity,” (qtd. in O’Neill par. 17). Fisher proclaims that surprising and shocking her audience, whatever the situation, is a personal mission, observing, "I spent hours in my kitchen cooking for people, trying to blast their safe, tidy little lives with a tureen of hot borscht and some garlic-toast and salad, instead of the fruit cocktail, fish, meat, vegetable, salad, dessert and coffee they tuck daintily away seven times a week," (qtd. in O’Neill par. 13).
She also prepares small literary surprises for her readers that she hopes will startle enough to make sure that we are paying attention, such as this passage in How to Cook a Wolf: The recipe comes from an American woman who, for various reasons both sociological and esthetic, lived in Switzerland before this war. Although she was almost a stranger to me, I admired her house and many of the meals she served there, high above the lake with the vineyards pressing as close as their Swiss discretion dared against the terrace and the kitchen and the wide windows. She was I … and her recipe was good. (345)
Later in the same chapter she recommends serving this recipe, which incidentally is for eggs with anchovies, with young Dézaley wine, strong coffee and “a marc du Valais, rather yellow and well able to jar your guests slightly where they sit,” (346). Giving her guests a jolt serves to make the moment more memorable so that they will forever have what happens next burned clearly into their long-term memory: “The summer fireworks would start across the lake at Evian, and the baker boy who worked at night in Vevey would come hurtling down the road on his bicycle, yelling like a hilarious banshee as he took the curves of the Corniche,” (346).
Fisher is alluding to how the memories of her own stimulating life at Le Pâquis gave her much to reflect on and savor during the difficult times that were to come, for her and Parrish as well as for Europe, when she foreshadows, “The marc would make a warmth in you that might well last for several colder years,” (346).
In The Gastronomical Me, Fisher recalls with delight how their plans for Le Pâquis, “disturbed and shocked the architect and all the contractors for floor and plumbing and such, because it was designed so that we, the owners of the place, could be its cooks and servants,” (487). With this passage she clearly reveals how much she enjoyed being the foreigner that the locals marvel at and she further reveals her passion for shock value when she goes on to describe her proudest moments at Le Pâquis as the hostess of meals that left their Swiss friends, “baffled and titillated,” (487). She remembers one dinner especially, for a odd mix of expatriates and friends from Montreux, who, “knew us only in restaurants and as dancing partners and such until then […] and they were frankly curious about the house and the way we lived, so different from anything they knew,” (487-88). Fisher merrily recounts how she, in all her craftiness, prepared all the food in advance, stowed it away out of sight and then set the stage with, “conventional canapés…for the conventional people we knew our guests to be, so that they would not be alarmed at the start …” (488). After the conventional canapés and some polite conversation, Fisher lets their very polite, conventional guests squirm a little and she enjoys every moment of it: And when [the guests] wandered up the stair into what they could only guess to be a kind of stage-kitchen, they saw no signs and smelled no smells of supper, their faces were long and dismal under all the politeness. Chexbres and I let them suffer until we thought the alcoholic intake was fairly well adjusted to their twelve or fifteen rather jaded bodies. Then, with the smug skill of two magicians, we flicked away the empty glasses and the tired canapés, and slid the salad and the rolls into place on the old dresser. He gave the ragoût a few odorous stirs … and the puzzled hungry people, almost tittering with relief and excitement, flocked like children into the kitchen for their suppers. They ate and ate, and talked as they had not dared talk for too many years, and laughed a great deal. (488-89)
This scene gives us a clue to Fisher’s motive in her mission to surprise and provoke people. She was a nonconformist in true form and, rather than settle at that, she also desired to shake other people awake to their senses and their hungers so they can learn to enjoy themselves more and know themselves better. She hopes to set others free from conformity and on the path to self-actualization. In Serve it Forth she writes explicitly about her belief in food’s particular ability to awaken us to, “our own powers of enjoyment,” (59) and she compares the way she has learned to eat in France and French Switzerland with the American eating habits: … there is a gusto, a frank sensuous realization of food, that is pitifully unsuspected in, say, the college boarding-house or corner cafe of an American town. In America we eat, collectively, with a glum urge for food to fill us. We are ignorant of flavor. We are as a nation taste-blind. . . . Ten million men rush every noontime for their ham-on-white and cherry Coke. Those ten million men may die taste-blind as well as stomach-ulcered, unless they are shocked into recognition of their own powers of enjoyment. It might be good if you could go to them, quietly, and say, "Please, sir, stop a minute and listen to me. . . ." Some of those ten million men would listen. Some of them would eat with their minds for the first time. You would be a missionary, bringing flavour and light to the taste-blind. And that is a destiny not too despicable. (58-59)
Fisher felt it her duty to shock the ‘taste-blind’ whenever she got the chance and this special mission of hers is closely linked with the next of Fisher’s values I will examine – the value of listening to your hunger.
To listen to your hunger
Fisher believed unequivocally that when we learn to listen to and understand our hunger for food and learn to eat and enjoy food with our minds, we also learn to listen to, understand and satisfy our needs for security and love. We thus restore our souls because, as she teaches us, the basic needs of food, security and love are one hunger. In the foreword to The Gastronomical Me (1943), we find her answer to the ever recurrent question of why she writes about food and eating instead of, “the struggle for power and security and about love,” (353). Her answer is, simply, that she is in fact writing about security and love even though we may not notice it. This brief passage sums up her life philosophy: Like most humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it … and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied … and it is all one. (353)
The year she wrote these words, 1943, is significant for a few reasons. She was back in the United States after being forced to leave her dear Le Pâquis home as Europe became consumed by war. She had lost her garden of Eden and then lost the love of her life. Parrish battled the rare, excruciating Beurger’s disease but finally took his own life in 1941. The United States, just risen from the throes of the Great Depression that had marked her native country for all of her adult life, was now also embroiled in the midst of the second great world war and Fisher was alone.
Interestingly, 1943 was the same year that American psychologist Abraham Maslow published his hierarchy of needs theory which echoed (or perhaps influenced) her philosophy. According to his ranking of basic needs, humans cannot feel love or security until they have satisfied their physical hunger. Fisher could certainly have been a subject for his biographical analysis of self-actualizers who are characterized by their non-conformism, strong values, social interest in solving problems, great capacity for enjoying life’s pleasures both great and small, and the ability to transcend commonly rigid dichotomies, such as the opposition of the physical and spiritual. Fisher touches on this with her conviction that feeding our physical hunger for food is the stepping stone to being able to feed our greater hungers for security, love and to reaching self-actualization and observes that, “there is food in the bowl … and there is nourishment in the heart to feed wilder, more insistent hungers,” and that “there is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk,” (353).
Based on her own personal experiences from her last year in Switzerland, of blackouts, rations and psychological terror during the onset of war in Europe, Fisher wrote How To Cook A Wolf (1942) for readers dealing with the hysteria of blackouts, searchlights, air raid drills, shortages and rations that engulfed California in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Every chapter of the book was a practical “how to” on how to survive the physical and psychological hardships of war in which she argued for the basic premise that, “since we must eat to live, we might as well do it with both grace and gusto,” (350). This becomes a strategy for sustaining the will to live, for hope, for comfort and for continuing to find small pleasures in life, even in times of horror, conflict, turmoil and when all hope seems lost. Later in her life, she went back to this book and added a new conclusion where she articulates this purpose more distinctly: I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war’s fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy, and ever-increasing enjoyment. And with our gastronomical growth will come, inevitably, knowledge and perception of a hundred other things, but mainly of ourselves. Then Fate, even tangled as it is with cold wars as well as hot, cannot harm us. (350)
Today, when I write the word - hunger - I think of the approximately 800 million people who suffer from chronic hunger worldwide, those stomachs and souls who are hungry from the day they are born until the often premature death that quietly takes some 20,000 lives every day. And suddenly, when we think of these hungry souls from Fisher’s perspective the tragedy is terribly magnified. But Fisher is strangely silent on the topic of the world hunger epidemic and one can only wonder about how she could have applied her wisdom to help solve this global tragedy. Instead, she focused her attentions on the spiritual hunger of the developed world and how to remedy this. She served forth lessons that she believed can make us better and happier individuals. She pointedly rejected the other common solutions for how to be good and achieve serenity of mind and body, such as any religion that advocates stifling our animal passions and natural sensuality with puritanical self-discipline. Fisher prescribes us instead to nurture, reflect on and savor our sensuality and our hungers: I cannot count the good people I know who, to my mind, would be even better if they bent their spirits to the study of their own hungers. There are too many of us, otherwise in proper focus, who feel an impatience for the demands of our bodies, and who try throughout our whole lives, none too successfully, to deafen ourselves to voices of our various hungers. Some stuff the wax of religious solace in our ears. Others practice a Spartan if somewhat pretentious disinterest in the pleasures of the flesh, or pretend that if we do not admit our sensual delight in a ripe nectarine we are not guilty … of even that tiny lust! (350)
The result of being honest with ourselves, kinder to ourselves and accepting of our own private sensual hungers as Fisher teaches us, may be that we also learn to be more kind and accepting of our fellow humans for who they are as individuals. Self-actualization sets us free from prejudice and makes us more compassionate, more generous and more human.
To find your place in this world
Fisher seems to believe in the Socratic philosophy that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and almost all of her writing is rich with examinations of and reflections on her life. One work stands out especially in this. The Gastronomical Me (1943) is a true chronicle of Fisher’s life, spanning the events from 1912 to 1941, including her happy years at Le Pâquis and the tragedy of Parrish’s illness and death. The book opens with this quote by George Santayana, “to be happy you must have taken the measure of your powers, tasted the fruits of your passion, and learned your place in the world,” (351).
It is clear from this book that Fisher felt that she had found her place in this world, in her writing, in love, and in the physical world, and it was with Parrish or through Parrish that she found all three of these. He is the man who encouraged her to write and the audience she wrote for. He remains the love of her life and he gave her life at Le Pâquis. In her writing it almost seems as if she does not distinguish between the place and the man – they are one. Further evidence of Fisher’s intense feel for place value is found in that she used the name Chexbres as a ‘code’ name for Parrish in many of her books. In reality, Chexbres is the name of the small village located closest to their dear Le Pâquis. When she writes in The Gastronomical Me about her longing to be back at Le Pâquis as she endures yet another slow Atlantic crossing alone, it is ambiguous whether she feels most longing for the man or for the place when she pines, “my whole reason for being lay ahead of me, on the lake near Vevey in the Canton of Vaud, and I was hurrying there as irrevocably as a lemming hurries to the sea cliff, through poisoned fields and fire and flood to what he longs for,” (519). One suspects that in her heart the man, the place and her experience there are one entity. Fisher writes with the greatest tenderness and real, fierce ardor about her place in the world: Un pâquis, the French dictionary says, is a grazing ground or pasture. But when we bought our home in Switzerland, and found that it had been called Le Pâquis for several centuries by all the country people near it, we knew that it meant much more than pasture to them….One reason our Pâquis had this special meaning was that it was almost the only piece of land in all the abrupt terraced steeps of the wine coast … that did not have grapes on it. Instead it was a sloping green meadow … the ancient soil was covered with a dazzling coat always … there was a fountain, too, … and people walking up the long pull from lake level knew it as well as they knew their mothers, and stopped always to drink … And all those things…fresh spouting water, the little brook under the willows, the old rich bending trees, the grass so full of life there on the terraced wine-slopes laced by a thousand tiny vineyards…they were why when the peasants said Le Pâquis they meant The Dear Little Meadow, or The Sweet Cool Resting Place, or something like that but more so. (483-84)
This passage, as well as the rest of the chapters in The Gastronomical Me about her idyllic time at in Switzerland, is a declaration of real love for a place. Le Pâquis influenced and let her live out many of her most important life philosophies: it was set surprisingly there among the steep vineyards, so different from all that surrounded it, it let her relish being the charming foreigner with intriguingly different ideas, it was a place to stop, rest and reflect, to quench one’s thirst and restore one’s soul, it gave her magically rich soil in which to grow food and feed her loved ones and rich ground for cultivating her relationships, her writing talent and her life values. If it were not for the war, would she have ever left?
Longing for Le Pâquis
In June of 1939, the situation in Europe and the mounting war forced them to sell Le Pâquis and plan their return to the United States. In recalling these last days much later in her life in As They Were (1982) Fisher describes feeling stunned, drugged and disbelieving as they undertook the work to pack up their home at Le Pâquis and lock it up tight for the last time:
…we could not believe our friends were right to make us do it. All of Europe stretched and sang under a warm sun; the crops were good; people walked about and ate and drank and smiled dreamily, like drugged cancer sufferers. Everyone was kind to us, not consciously thinking that we might never meet again, but actually knowing that it was so. (49)
Back in the United States, Fisher’s life was increasingly troubled. Parrish, and later Fisher’s younger brother committed suicide, the war grew to involve the United States, her mother died after a long illness and Fisher experienced economic troubles, failed love affairs, and struggled to write. The births of her two daughters was a break in the downward spiral and Fisher took them to spend several years of their childhood living abroad in a now peaceful Europe. She even tried to rent Le Pâquis for them but, to her heartbreak, it had been sold and sold again and was not available for hire. Instead she arranged prolonged stays in Lugano, another Swiss lakeside paradise with great cultural and literary attraction, and a country chateau outside Aix-en-Provence that reminded her vividly of her Le Pâquis and the charmed life she led there with Parrish, with a fairytale view of a verdant meadow filled with flowers. In a letter to her sister about their last experience together at Le Pâquis she reminisces, “there are at least ten different kinds in the posy the children picked yesterday for me … pink and purple vetches and dark blue lupines … it gives me a strange feeling to have my children bring in what I last saw there with all of us,” (qtd. in Reardon 248). It is clear that the idyll she found at Le Pâquis never left her thoughts and that she was frustrated and tired with the world she found after she left.
In 1966, with her children grown, her writing career picking up again, and growing ever more conscious of the whispers of age, she entered into a long affair with Arnold Gingrich, the man who bought Le Pâquis from her and Parrish so many years before. Then in 1969 she started hatching plans to sell her very large, long-time home in town in St. Helena, in California’s Napa Valley and build a small cottage among the vineyards in Glen Ellen, just an hour away in the Sonoma Valley. She christened it Last House and moved in during the spring of 1971. It is her last and most successful attempt at recreating the haven she found at Le Pâquis and the house holds many parallels to Le Pâquis. It was, “situated on a knoll overlooking a meadow,“ (Reardon 382). She decorated it with Parrish’s paintings and went back to a, “simpler personal life … and this is the way I’ll live until I’m no longer able to,” (qtd. in Reardon 385). She was again able to prepare surprising meals for a close menagerie of friends and serve them with local wines from the vines that grew around her house. But mostly she secluded herself in the protection of those walls, enjoyed being self-sufficient, keeping pots of herbs and flowers, cooking as it pleased her and being the eccentric, admired writer-in-residence in clear parallel to the eccentric, charming foreign hostess she was at Le Pâquis.
Though she never returned to Le Pâquis, the place recurs in her writing because of its great formative significance to her values and her image of an ideal existence. In addition, it purposely connects her with the rich literary history and literary names associated with the region. It also marked the beginning of the development of her special ability to capture the essence of a place in her writing. Last year, the Lavaux vineyards became protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in an interesting twist that preserves the, “The Sweet Cool Resting Place” that Fisher found for herself which may perhaps allow certain writers/hostesses/expatriates to learn some of life’s lessons there themselves.
In a larger context, it is interesting to conclude this discussion by analyzing how the expatriate experience of a place can powerfully affect the formation of values, especially in expatriate literature. Fisher herself believed that she achieved greater purity of prose by having to think and write in English while navigating her daily life in French. More than just in language however, the expatriate experience forces individuals to become consciously aware of and question every one of their inherent values that is set askew in the context of the new place. This necessitates a phase of self-discovery, whether it is desired or not. And then it allows for self-construction with the chance to learn a new culture, to learn it in the context of the one you carry with you, and not as a relatively helpless, accepting child, but as a curious, independent and questioning adult. I believe that it was this process that allowed Fisher to crystallize her perspectives on what is truly important in life and how to live it well during her years at Le Pâquis. It is well known that this process has been a part of producing some of the greatest American literature and the expatriate American in Europe is a familiar archetype but in the course of writing this paper I have become convinced that literary geography, both natural and cultural, and literary expatriation merit deeper attention in future literary research.
Fisher, M.F.K. The Art of Eating 50th Anniversary Edition. New Jersey: Wiley Publishing, 2004. Compilation of works first published in book form under the titles: Serve it Forth (1937), Consider the Oyster (1941), How to Cook a Wolf (1942), The Gastronomical Me (1943), and An Alphabet for Gourmets (1949).
Fisher, M.F.K. As They Were. New York: Knopf, 1982.
Fisher, M.F.K. Dubious Honors. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1988.
Reardon, Joan. Poet of the Appetites: The Lives and Loves of M.F.K. Fisher. New York: North Point Press, 2004.
O’Neill, Molly. “M.F.K. Fisher, Writer on the Art of Food and the Taste of Living, Is Dead at 83”. New York Times. June 24th, 1992. www.nytimes.com/books/98/01/18/home/fisher-obit.html