COOK'S NOTES: In which we use Ms. Fisher's own words to take a trip through the North Bay's gastronomical history.
Bohemia's Timeless Harvest
Imagining a timeless meal through the ages with M. F. K. Fisher
By P. Joseph Potocki
I want to be evocative of either the past or the future. I thought it'd be amusing writing about observing what was going on as if I were a ghost very much alive.
—M. F. K. Fisher
The beloved culinary writer and novelist Mary Francis Kennedy Fisher was born exactly one century ago. Fisher believed that the food we eat speaks to and reflects upon our human condition. Food anchored her prodigious, exacting prose, serving as example and metaphor through which to explore, critique, chronicle, inspire and muse over love, sex and relationships, philosophy, history—and both the mystery and the mundane essence of life itself. W. H. Auden once said of her, "I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose."
Fisher spent the last four decades of her life in the North Bay. She moved to a cottage on the Bouverie Ranch, near Glen Ellen, in 1970. Prior to that she called St. Helena her home for 17 years.
It's harvest season, when life transforms itself. Here we imagine that Fisher, who passed some 16 years ago, has come along with long-gone others to journey with us in celebrating seven courses of North Bay Bohemia's timeless abundant harvest.
Where: COPIA. When: today. What's served: assorted hors d'oeuvres. Libations: Carneros sparkling wines and M. F. K. Fisher's "One Two Three"—Campari, gin and dry vermouth. Hosts: contemporary North Bay chefs.
Our harvest feast begins in Julia's Kitchen at COPIA. The appetizing array of finger foods was prepared by some of our most acclaimed North Bay chefs. Hello to Sondra Bernstein of Sonoma's Girl and the Fig, Douglas Keane, owner and executive chef of Cyrus up in Healdsburg, Mark Franz of Nick's Cove, and, of course, the French Laundry's Thomas Keller.
Before we get back to Fisher, we're first joined by Food Network personality and local restaurateur Guy Fieri.
What do you make of the appetizers, Guy?
"This stuff's clean out of bounds. Nothing but flavor town."
Well, seems our guests have polished off the starters. The tables are bare. What say we take these folks off for a bowl of soup next?
"It's on like Donkey Kong. Time to go."
Soup du Jour
Where: a choice acorn grove in the Valley of the Moon. When: long before recorded history. Hosts: local Coastal Miwok. What's served: nupa acorn soup with spicy hazelnut and peppernut relish. Libation: madrone berry punch.
We're here to partake in the hospitality of the Miwok who, each harvest season, travel here from throughout the region. Wood smoke and the musky aromas of autumn are everywhere. A dance has ended. The Miwoks call this place tso-noma, the earth village. General Mariano Vallejo once said this translates into Valley of the Moon. Vallejo claimed the Miwoks believed the moon would rise as many as seven times in a single evening here, leading one to conjecture that our Miwok hosts may have partaken of substances rather more potent than the vine. But then again, this may be another of the general's well-spun tales.
What a lovely grove of black and tan oaks. We'll be walking past the cha' kas, the raised acorn granaries. Now come steaming bowls of nupa acorn soup. Plain fare, but nourishing. What's your take on it, Ms. Fisher?
"I think I have always liked the basic things. Good seasonal foods. Now it's called California cuisine or something ridiculous like that. It's all very betraying, how we eat."
Where: Fort Ross, on the Sonoma Pacific coastline. When: 1821. Hosts: Russian immigrants, Kashaya Pomos and Aleutian tribesmen. What's served: raw oysters and fire-roasted king salmon atop seaweed salad. Libations: manzanita cider and icy Russian vodka.
Ms. Fisher instructs, "An oyster lives a dreadful but exciting life. He—but why make him a he, except for clarity? Almost any normal oyster never knows from one year to the next whether he is he or she, and may start at any moment, after the first year, to lay eggs where before he spent his sexual energies in being exceptionally masculine. Oysters, being almost universal, can be and have been eaten with perhaps a wider variety of beverages than almost any other dish I can think of . . . and less disastrously. They lend themselves to the whims of every cool and temperate climate, so that one man can drink wine with them, another beer and another fermented buttermilk, and no man will be wrong."
I see some of our fellow travelers are already engaged in games of chance. Careful now, these Pomos are masterful gamblers.
Where: The Petaluma Adobe. When: 1840. Host: General Don Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. What's served: a Spanish-style barbacoa, featuring whole spit-roasted longhorn, elk and black bear, as well as goose and wild turkey. Libations: Vallejo's own Mission Grape wine and brandy, along with a barrel of latter-day Sonoma Valley Zinfandel.
"I get pretty peeved about being called things like 'past mistress of gastronomical pornography' and so on," Ms. Fisher fumes, taking a delicate bite of elk. "I believe in living fully, as long as we seem to be meant to live at all. This implies the deliberate use of all our senses. We must eat, just as we must breathe, in order to exist. Eating demands the use of several of our senses in order to attain plain physiological success: taste, touch, smell and so on. But I think it is Puritanical rubbish to say that the enjoyment of freshly picked green peas cooked over hot coals on a hillside is 'pornographic.' I really do not understand this seeming confusion of lascivious sensuality and real innocence. I think we should enjoy what our senses can give us, and not twist and hide that enjoyment—and one of the best ways we can do it is to eat good food with good people."
Where: Pt. Reyes pastoral zone. When: anytime. Hosts: multiple generations of Pt. Reyes dairy folk, including local Miwoks, Azore Island Portuguese, Irish, Swedes and Swiss Italians, as well as Chinese, Filipinos, Mexicans and Germans. What's served: assorted North Bay breads and cheeses, house-cured olives, fruits and roasted chestnuts. Libations: Gravenstein cider and Jersey cream egg nog.
"'The proof of the pudding is in the eating,' it says in Don Quixote," Ms. Fisher tells those gathered as she scoops up a slice of Red Hawk triple crème. "I believe it, myself, and would as soon have a hollowed ring of cold cooked cereal, Roman Meal or Wheatena of hallowed memory, with the hollow filled with grated maple sugar and a fat pot of cream waiting, as I would cherries jubilee. But then, in spite of Cervantes and a host of awesome authorities, I would rather have some ripe grapes or a little properly selected cheese than any of their artful messes. Or nothing . . . wolf or no wolf."
Where: a solar/wind/geothermal hothouse. When: some distant future. Hosts: enthusiastic farmer-disciples. What's served: a tossed mixture of lightly dressed heirloom and recently hybridized greens folded together with crisp raw succulents.
"I must say that 'following the seasons' doesn't mean today what it once meant," Ms. Fisher laments. "Now so much is picked green, put into controlled rooms with all these mirrors and lights, injected with chemicals and colorings, and sprayed with God knows what-all. It's horrible. But those willing to make the effort can still find naturally grown vegetables and fruits, picked in the morning, purchased at noon and eaten in the evening." But all is not lost.
"Here in the Sonoma Valley," she says, "I see young people growing their own food and making their own bread. And, of course, the American people seem to be demanding so much more and, with exposure, choosing more wisely what they put in their stomachs."
Where: Christian Brothers Winery at Greystone in St. Helena. When: 1950. Host: Brother Timothy. What's served: black walnut cake and Cloverdale lemon and purple basil sorbet. Libations: Christian Brother ports and brandies.
"There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk," Fisher toasts. "It's like religion. If you have a glass of water and a crust of bread with somebody and you really share it, it is much more than just bread and water. I really believe that. Breaking bread is a simile for sharing bread."
To end the day, Fisher tells us that the trick to polite exiting is "mainly a question of withdrawing to the vanishing point from the consciousness of people one is with, before one actually leaves. It is invaluable at parties, testimonial dinners, discussions of evacuation routes in California towns, and coffee breaks held for electioneering congressmen." And with that, she bids us all adieu.
Conversations on M. F. K. Fisher with renowned chef John Ash, Kathleen Hill and Sylvia Crawford will take place on Nov. 9 at the Sonoma Valley Women's Club, 574 First St. E., Sonoma. 1pm. $20; admission includes a taste of cassoulet and a glass of wine. Purchase tickets at Readers' Books or at the door. 707.935.7960.
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