Remembering an inspiring local culinary writer and hostess extraordinaire

As an aspiring young chef at the age of 15, I began a job with a lady in Glen Ellen, where each week I would take the bus, get picked up by her caretaker and brought to her home. Together we would prepare items for her week of entertaining. At the time, I didn’t know I was lucky enough to be working for M.F.K. Fisher—a true legend—who entertained guests about whose importance or celebrity I only learned later. I departed after a year with her for a job at a catering company, thinking I needed better work experience!

Mary Francis Kennedy Fisher, aka M.F.K. Fisher, was a premier food writer and a culinary treasure. She wrote many books that most chefs have referenced time and again. “How to Cook a Wolf” and “Consider the Oyster” are still my favorites to revisit.

Fisher resided in Glen Ellen from 1970 to 1992 at what she called “Last House,” which her friend David Pleydell-Bouverie built for her on his ranch. She had moved from St. Helena and chose Glen Ellen as it reminded her of France: the food, environment, vineyards and views of the hills. Over those 21 years, she wrote 13 books. M.F.K. lived a full life of writing and traveling, but was not solitary; she was widowed once, divorced twice and had two daughters, Kennedy Mary Friede and Anne Kennedy Parrish.

In Last House, she entertained many chefs and culinary stars including Julia Child, James Beard, Chuck Williams and Maya Angelou. The home was small yet rich in character, sporting bright red walls and filled with lots of pictures, books and copperware. The kitchen housed many jars of herbs and spices, bottles of unlabeled wines, Campari and gin, fresh produce—so many colors, flavors and essences.

M.F.K. Fisher passed away at her beloved home in 1992. Although I actually did not know her personally, I felt honored to have worked for her and I credit her with inspiring me to this day.
Recently I had the pleasure of touring Last House on what is now Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Bouverie Preserve. The organization is beginning a remodel, planning to return the house to its original state when M.F.K. resided there. It will serve as a private writers’ retreat and education center on the ACR Bouverie Preserve, 535 acres with forests, waterfalls, chaparral ecosystems and wildflowers. Visiting Bouverie Preserve is by appointment only on select Saturdays in spring and fall, where nature walks are offered by trained docents.

For the first phase of the project, ACR has set a goal of $250,000 to make necessary repairs to Last House, restore the interior with many of the furnishings and artifacts that belonged to Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, and provide initial funding for ongoing maintenance and administration of the facility.

For more information about how you can donate or be a part of this project, please contact John Petersen, ACR executive director, at 707-938-4554 ext. 304 or Date of fundraiser to be announced. SD

In addition to my mentor Ig Vella of Vella Cheese Company, who recounted the luminaries M.F.K. Fisher served his cheese to, I also learned about the importance of her books from chef John Ash when I was attending SRJC’s Culinary Program. Here is one of Ash’s memories of M.F.K. Fisher:

By John Ash

This is more a remembrance than a recipe. I had the pleasure of knowing and often visiting M.F.K. Fisher at her house in Glen Ellen. I think that more than any other writer, she helped me see and understand how food was touchstone to everything else we do. Her books are the treasures of my bookcase and I encourage everyone to read her. Since her death, many of her books are being reprinted and, as a result, are easy to find at a good bookstore.

Back to the sandwich…Usually when I visited Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher I brought lunch, but on one particular day she said she would fix it for us. I arrived in the morning and as we chatted she busily took a loaf of crusty French bread, split it in half and slathered it with a bit of homemade mayonnaise and a generous amount of a good, coarse Dijon mustard. She then proceeded to layer on slices of a tasty smoked ham and a nice Jack cheese from Ig Vella in nearby Sonoma. She then meticulously wrapped the loaf in several layers of plastic wrap and handed it to me to sit on while we chatted for the next hour or two.

At the end of that time, I stood up and unwrapped the loaf (which was now compressed and warm from my body heat) and we sliced it into nice finger sandwiches and enjoyed it with a glass of Pinot Noir, as I recall. She remarked that this warm sandwich was one of her tricks to get wild children to sit still for awhile. I’m not sure if I fell into that category or not!

Gin & Campari
Inspired by MFK Fisher
Created by Sheana Davis, The Epicurean Connection

Yields 1 strong drink
To an 8-ounce mason jar filled with ice, add 1/4 cup gin and 1/4 cup Campari. Top off with seltzer water and garnish with lime.

MFK Fisher-Inspired Cassoulet

Created by Sheana Davis, The Epicurean Connection

2 pounds dried small cannellini beans, rinsed
2-1/2 quarts chicken stock, divided
Bouquet garni: 8 parsley sprigs, 2 thyme sprigs and 2 bay leaves, tied together with string
1 teaspoon Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
1/4 cup pork fat
1/4 cup duck fat
4 carrots, sliced 1/2 inch thick
2 white onions, cubed in 1/2 inch pieces
6 stalks celery, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
12 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1/2 pound ham hocks with bones
6 ounces ham, cubed into 1/4 inch pieces
6 ounces Prosciutto, cubed into 1/4 inch pieces
1 pound ground pork sausage
1 cup chopped fresh tomato
6 duck confit legs
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs, 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley and 1 teaspoon chili flakes

Place beans in a bowl, cover with water and soak overnight. Drain and rinse, place in large stock pot with 2 cups chicken stock, bouquet garni, salt and pepper. Simmer for 1 hour or until tender. Remove from heat. (Beans may be made a day prior.)

In an 8-quart soup pot, heat pork and duck fat. Add carrots, onion, celery and garlic; sauté. Add ham hocks, ham, prosciutto and ground sausage and continue to cook over low flame for approximately 20 minutes or until ham and prosciutto are crispy and golden. Add the remaining 2 quarts of broth and bring to a boil. Add the beans (keeping bouquet garni) and tomato and continue to simmer over low flame for one hour.

Preheat the oven to 400°. Place duck legs on a baking sheet, brush with olive oil and bake for 20 minutes or until crispy on top. Remove from heat and lay duck legs onto bean mixture.
Turn the oven down to 300°. Cover beans and duck legs. Place in oven and bake for 4 hours. Check hourly and add stock if dry. Remove from oven, allow to rest. Sprinkle with bread crumbs, fresh parsley and chili flakes. Serve with a fine red wine and enjoy with great company!

Note: This recipe may be prepared up to 3 days in advance and reheated. Add bread crumbs when reheating.