Happy (belated) birthday

m-f-k-fisher from HiLoBrow

(Happy not-belated birthday to our nephew Landon – 8 years old today, wow! We love you!)

July 3rd 2012 would have been M.F.K. Fisher’s 104th birthday. Like so many people who like to write, and especially those of us who like to write about food, I count her as a hero and an inspiration. It was in her books that I first saw clearly how food laces its way through the stories we tell – and how those stories, though ostensibly about food, are really about so much more.

cake with mascarpone cream

When I started working on this blog, many of my dear friends and pretty much my entire extended family had a very … enthusiastic response. Emails and phone calls poured in, offering recipes, ideas, encouragement and excitement. I am so thankful for that. (Thanks guys!)

One email was a total shock: Aunt Linda (who is not actually my aunt at all, but is the best friend of my Aunt Marty) is an avid – AVID! – cookbook collector. She sent me a long note about food writing that said in part: My all-time favorite has to be M.F.K. Fisher. I started collecting her first editions back in 1975 … I just loved her. I collected many books from Marian Gore, [a] vintage cookbook seller in the 1970’s ( try her persimmon pudding). She made an introduction to M.F.K. Fisher for me and it was the start of a very nice friendship that lasted until her death in 1992. … George and I first visited her in 1981 in Sonoma and saw her every year thereafter. 

Jacob decorates cake

WHAT?! How had I not known this?! I fired off a string of nosy questions about M.F.K, and Linda was gracious enough to answer. She also sent me some photos of her personal correspondence with M.F.K. and of books M.F.K. gave to her. I figured that some of you out there might find this as fascinating as I do – so I have included an excerpt down below from all my emails with Aunt Linda,  along with some of her photos.

Jacob's flag cake

Happy birthday M.F.K. Fisher – and thank you so much Aunt Linda for sharing your stories about her with me, and with the readers here too.

flag cake

(And at the very bottom – a recipe for frosting and a little birthday cake – happy birthday Landon – and happy belated birthday to M.F.K. Fisher, and to the United States, too). 

I have cut-and-pasted excerpts from an ongoing email conversation – all text and photography courtesy of Linda Magre. Thanks *so much* Aunt Linda for sharing your memories! 
letter from M.F.K. Fisher
I started collecting cookbooks when I got married in 1975. It was the Julia Child/James Beard/Gourmet Magazine era and, as a new bride, I wanted to learn how to cook. … We lived near an old bookstore and my Saturday morning delight was to rummage through the used cookbook section. The owner eventually invited me to the “secret” room, and it was there that I found all the plastic-covered first-editions of M.F.K. Fisher. I can’t remember the first book I bought but I can remember how the voice in that book spoke to me … Her stories were simple, direct and yet filled with imagery so seductive and secret.  [Eventually] I collected [the first-edition of every book] M.F.K. Fisher authored or co-authored. [HH: Aunt Linda eventually had over 4,000 cookbooks in her library, but says M.F.K. was always her favorite author]. 

I first met [M.F.K.] in 1980, on a trip to Napa. We visited [the area] frequently back then and stayed at a B&B in Yountville … I wrote [M.F.K.] a lengthy letter and told her how much I enjoyed her books. She wrote back saying next time we were in northern California please do come for a visit.
inscription from M.F.K. Fisher

My most vivid impression of her was her voice. She was a physically impressive woman but she had this soft, high pitched, little girl voice. I spoke to her first on the phone and I thought maybe I was speaking to a granddaughter or niece. She had a lilting, tinkling softness to her speech.  

Her home was in Glen Ellen and built on the ranch of a friend. It was quite secluded, on a long road off the highway. It was small yet very cozy, decorated in a California Spanish style with dark wood, painted ceramic tiles, a big stone fireplace [and] books covering every wall and surface….stacks of books. She had this fabulous red bathroom with a claw foot bathtub right in the center of the room – surrounded by books. 

The only being [we ever saw there] other than herself was her Siamese cat, Charlie.  … On each visit she served tea (Earl Grey) and toast with butter and marmalade and jams. 

I shopped at the San Francisco food emporiums seeking out little culinary treasures that she had referenced in her books. I always brought her a good sourdough bread, unsalted French butter, a bit of pate, a French brie. The little treat that impressed her most was the Bar-le-Duc white currant preserve. [It was a] favorite of her beloved husband. This small token … brought tears to her eyes. She mentioned it frequently in her subsequent letters: how [her husband] loved it, how happy it made her to taste it again, etc.

(FYI Hannah… Bar-le-Duc preserves were made at one time from the white variety of currants, and the tiny seeds were removed by hand using a quill, a technique invented in the 14th century. This naturally made it very expensive. Today, both red and white currants are used, and most producers do not remove the seeds by hand anymore).

letter 2 from M.F.K. Fisher
I remember how shamelessly she flirted with my husband. She acted like a coy teenager around him; it was was endearing. George always says “She did love men, didn’t she!” … Her cat, Charlie, on the other hand preferred me. He was not to be picked up I was informed – but as soon as I sat down he would place himself on me and stay there for the duration of the visit. She really loved that cat. I also remember her bedroom /study and the old 1950’s typewriter on her desk surrounded by stacks and stacks and more stacks of books. Her home was a shrine to books.

I do think of her when drinking my Earl Grey, and when making the kumquat preserves we talked about or the sunbaked-strawberry preserves that I made and gave to her.

Mascarpone Cream with Cardamom
Mascarpone-Cream with Cardamom, on a birthday cake made for M.F.K.
(and decorated for U.S.A.)
Deb at Smitten posted this cake for the fourth, and when Jacob saw it on my laptop he said “That’s the United States Flag!” He was totally enamored of the flag cake, so we had to make it. I subbed Arrowhead Mills whole grain pastry flour for the cake flour, and made a mascarpone-cream frosting with a touch of cardamom instead of Deb’s traditional cream cheese frosting. I will send you to Deb for the cake recipe, and give you the mascarpone-cream recipe instead :)

6 ounces mascarpone cheese
1 pint heavy whipping cream
2-3 tablespoons powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon cardamom

Chill your stand mixer bowl for a few minutes before starting. 

In the bowl of your stand mixer, fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the mascarpone cheese until it is light and fluffy. Remove from the bowl (it’s okay if there is a little left on the edges – no need to wash). Whip the heavy cream in the bowl until it is soft and thick but peaks are not yet close to forming. Add the whipped cheese and sugar, and whip all together. In a minute or so it should come together smoothly and then thicken and start to hold little peaks.

Remove bowl from mixer, and using a whisk mix in the cardamom. Gently whisk the cream until it is thick enough to hold up to being put on a cake – but don’t overwhisk it, or the cream will break and the whole thing will get a grainy texture. I find it easiest to make this cream using pasteurized whipping cream (not unpasteurized, which whips more quickly and easily into butter).

Spread over cake, decorate with berries, and serve!

* Note: I made the above-mentioned changes to Deb’s recipe. I also cut my sheet into three smaller cakes: I cut it not-quite in half on the long side, and then cut the larger side in two pieces – this gave me three more or less flag-shaped pieces to decorate. We gave the two smaller ones (which I decorated) to the neighbors, and ate the larger one (which Jacob decorated, on his own) for dessert. With three adults and two kids we had a couple big pieces left over, which kept just fine overnight in the fridge.

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13 thoughts on “Happy (belated) birthday

    • I now daydream about an elegant red bathroom filled with books, but I am pretty sure I am not even remotely glamorous to pull it off. Soggy issues of Harper’s in my all-white bathroom on the other hand …

  1. Lovely post Hannah! I so enjoyed reading it. That typewriter in the photo of MFK looks like the one I saw on her desk. She still was using it in the 1980’s. We did talk about those new fangled computers but she wasn’t interested in that concept. Here is the recipe for persimmon pudding you mentioned in the post:
    Marian L. Gore’s Persimmon Pudding

    “There are many persimmon pudding recipes floating around, but they are all too fancy. This is the simplest recipe I’ve seen and the best.” M.G.

    Beat one egg well in a bowl

    Sift together and add 1 1/4 cup flour, 1 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

    Add mashed pulp of three large ripe persimmons, 3/4 cup milk, 1 tablespoon melted butter, 1 teaspoon vanilla. Stir until mixed.

    Bake 1 hour or a little more at 300 degrees

    Serve warm or cold with cream.

    • Wonderful sounding recipe Aunt Linda, I can’t wait to try it. Thank you! And thank you again for sharing your special memories and photos with me and everyone here. What a treat :)

  2. This was fabulous Hannah!!! Great stories from Auntie Linda and great cake and pics from you, too! Thanks so much for sharing — loving “Inherit” more and more!

  3. !!!! Amazing. Both your aunt’s astounding collection of cookbooks, and this window into M.F.K. Fisher’s world. Thanks for sharing, Hannah.

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