Remembrance of Food Past:
The Four Courses of the Apocalypse
by Leo Racicot
One of the glaring ironies of my life consisted of being pals with food goddesses Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher, and yet not knowing how to make anything other than a peanut butter sandwich. My friends used to tease that, “Leo could burn boiling water if you don’t keep an eye on him.” When I was a kid, my poor mother, who often claimed I was her ticket to sainthood, would prepare the evening meal for my father, my sister, Diane and herself, and a lonely hamburger on a back burner of the stove for me because other than it and the peanut butter and bread, I refused to so much as look at any other kind of food. “This isn’t a restaurant,” my mother would say, but I was willful, wanted my burger and nothing else. So, in later years, it was of particular surprise to many, and especially to me, when I became a private cook to two former members of the Roosevelt administration, Hilda and Francis Shea, their son, Richard, and their live-in staff of 15 to 20 men.
I can boast a little bit now that I am quite the accomplished cook – I whip up a mean jambalaya and can flambé and sauté with the best of ‘em. But I did myself at the time no good throwing the names Fisher and Child around because that made Ms. Shea assume that I, too, knew how to cook. “Oh, Leo. Do you know how to make a Sauce Soubise?” she intoned, summoning up her most aristocratic accent. “Suuuuu-beeeeeze??” I said I did not and reminded her she had hired me to be Richard’s companion/caregiver. It led anyway to the dread question, “Well, did you ever take Chemistry 101 in school?” “Sure,” I said. I was then led by the nose over to shelves heavy with cookbooks of every decade and design, names so dear to me now but which instilled instant quivering in my spine when I first laid eyes on them: some vintage such as Michael Field’s Culinary Classics and Improvisations, and of course, the twin bibles of every serious kitchen: Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking and Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and some quirky, even strange cookbooks such as Cook It Ahead, Live High on Low Fat, John Thorne’s Outlaw Cook, Only Kosher Cooking Matters, The Zodiac Cook Book. Ms. Shea waved her hand à la Vanna White showcasing letters of the alphabet and said, “Well, this is just like Chemistry 101, only with food.” She showed me where the apron was and left me to my folly.
Folly and long months of fumbling it was. Only God knows what those first things that came out of the oven were because I certainly didn’t. When I first started cooking, it was not uncommon for the guys to take one look at what I had whipped up and call out for pizza. My feelings could not be hurt because I didn’t want to eat The Unidentifiables either. One particularly nasty dish that deserved its own wall in The Gallery of Regrettable Food was called “Catfish Surprise,” the surprise being it was inedible. Woe to the soul who looked upon it as it was bubbling up in the oven (think “Medusa”). The prep took forever and involved the shucking of fingernail-sized catfish nuggets that were then sent swimming without a life jacket into a sea of percolating fluorescent yellow sauce. Horrifying. The guys, a revolving volley of handsome jocks and scholars attending Harvard, M.I.T., B.U., B.C., made up Ms. Shea’s harem of male companions for Richard or, as we sometimes joked, for her. These gentle giants took to calling the catfish “Leo’s Hepatitis C Casserole” and would run the other way whenever I placed it lovingly on the table. It did look sickly, as if someone had had an afterbirth in a pan. My Apple Brown Betty was no better, so revoltingly sweet one man went into diabetic shock after eating only 2 or 3 forkfuls. The poor kid might just as well have poured a whole vat of sugar down his throat.
So mealtime for a long time was not fun at 17 Francis Avenue. Until, that is, I reminded myself that the Universe had blessed me with friends like Mary Frances and Julia. This must mean something, I told myself and I toed the line, worked really hard and made myself better. With time and more than a little help from my pal Julia who lived one street over and whose generous nature never allowed her to say “no” to cries of “help!” from an apprentice cook, I became competent and confident at the stove. Richard and the guys came to smack their lips with delight, arrive early for meals and leave late, heap praises on Louise for his prowess in the kitchen. (And yes, your eyes aren’t deceiving you; the fellows and Richard fondly called me “Louise.”)
But that is another story for another time. For these reminiscences of culinary hurricanes are taking me back in time to the first meal I ever put together for Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher. She would, of course, have been feeding me had she not just undergone hip replacement surgery and was pretty much confined to her combination writing room/bedroom. She bid me to go to the fridge and bring us “the artichokes and prons.” The artichokes I found but I had no clue what “prons” were. Remember – we’re dealing with Peanut Butter Pete/Hamburger Hank at this point in time. I wondered if I had heard Mary Frances right. Did she say “Prongs”? “Tongs”? Did she want a utensil? I stuck my head back in the refrigerator and panicked and prayed and via a process of elimination realized the only thing there I had no easy label for was a bowl of giant shrimp. Maybe this was “prons.” She smiled approvingly when I carried in the two items and plunked them down on the table. Eureka! Prawns!
Eating them was another matter. I kid you not that I had no idea you do not devour the whole shrimp, peels, seabug legs and all. I thought, “Better not wince; this is M.F.K. Fisher.” And what to do with these artichoke leaves? Again, I stuck the whole branch inside my mouth, trying madly to smash it down to the point where I could swallow it. My teeth worked that hard, hideous limb for what seemed like a year until Mary Frances, looking up from her plate, saw my struggles and by gracious, unspoken example, demonstrated how to eat the beast. I still see her so clearly in my memory’s eye using her front teeth to gently scrape the pulp from the frond, setting the tough husk daintily down on the plate. Whew! I felt a little bit better. If only I hadn’t burned the peas. Canned peas. Who burns canned peas?
It is a testament to Fisher’s goodwill, and to Ms. Shea’s and Julia Child’s that they allowed me the time and patience to learn the art of eating and of cooking. They overlooked my faux pas at the stove and at the dinner table to remain in faith with me true and generous and lasting friends…
Leo Racicot is an award-winning poet and memoirist, book and movie reviewer. He writes and lectures extensively about his friendships with M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Allen Ginsberg and Edmund White. Currently, he is working on an Edmund White biography and bibliography. Leo lives in Lowell, Massachusetts.
July 26, 2019
I love it!! It’s warm, it’s funny, it’s…gooey! It make me laugh and cry…and ask for a second helping!
July 27, 2019
Dear, dear Leo,
I read your piece and loved it. Did I ever tell you my Brother and Brother-in-Law both went to Culinary School of America(I think that is the title?)
My Brother-in-Law was a creative tender soul! He is gone now.
My brother is more a utilitarian Chef…..