Betty Fussell is filled with a zest for life and has observations on everything. She is a peach of a woman, possessing spunk beyond measure... I know this sounds like gushing, but it's true. Some years ago I had the fortune to meet her through my friend Jon Rowley (another amazing spirit) and in the time since, she has become essential to my experience. Thank you Betty for sharing your world with me, and for letting more worlds share in you.
I interviewed her at her home a couple weeks ago, before sitting down to a characteristic meal of lush, elemental food together.
|Collections of every kind fill Betty's home, including a coyote skin from her son--a hunter--on the settee|
|San Cristóbal & Santa Catarina traditional Day of the Dead damas - notice the cigarette held by the figure on right|
|Betty's dining table|
|A beloved (and solid!) ceramic jaguar from a mountain village in Mexico, brought home over 20 years ago|
What is one of the most important things to you right now? Philosophy, ingredient, food issue, anything…
I think it’s the pleasure of thinking about eating. What am I going to have for lunch, what am I going to make for dinner? It’s the anticipation. I think this has always been true for me, but because I’ve lived so much alone, it’s the way of ritualizing the day that is totally pleasurable.
Mm-hmm. I can appreciate that!
Eating has a lot to do with ritual.
How would you describe the process of that ritual?
I’ve never missed a meal, three meals a day! Because I’m home and working at home, I snack all the time, if there’s something salty around... But it has everything to do with the anticipation of creating something that will only be done once, it will never appear again. It’s like a Buddhist sand mandala - it’s for that moment only and there’s something about that that I adore. It’s also creating something out of nothing, essentially, which I also adore! I didn’t create the food, I didn’t make me, but you know… I love the process, and always feel I am part of the food. It’s part of me, I’m part of it. We’re going through the same thing.
Was your mom a good cook?
In my household, my mom wasn’t there and my step-mom never cooked a meal in her life. My dad was the cook and he was - this was a puritan household - a Calvinist Presbyterian of the 1930s when there was a Depression on and we were very poor, so we didn’t know anything about good food.
What was the food?
This was canned peaches, because these were farm folk and they just adored that they didn’t have to can all summer long, although my father still canned a whole lot of stuff, but it wasn’t the necessity it had been. So, canned DelMonte peaches was great, postum – there was no coffee – ovaltine for the kids; Wheaties – that was a luxury, mostly cornmeal mush instead. There was no oatmeal; everything was cornmeal – again, this is very Midwestern. Favorite Sunday supper was toast in hot milk with cinnamon and sugar. This was very old fashioned, you know.
Everything had to be bland and everything had to be as close to liquid as possible, literally. Everything had to be soft – soft and bland.
What was that about?
That’s about food is an evil because it has to do with the body. And this is the generation of colonic irrigation, and the Kellogg sanitarium didn’t invent that but it tapped into the same strain. My grandparents did not have the money for a stay at Kellogg's, but the culture was the same, where food – anything to do with the body – is wicked. Old-fashioned Calvinists… food is just stuffing this body thing, so you try to make the food like water, and then you get rid of it as fast as possible. You keep flushing the system, from the top and from the bottom. (laughter) It is not about bodily pleasure – no! Bodily pleasure – everything to do with the body - is a sin, so you try to get rid of it everywhere you can.
When did that start to shift, because obviously it did?
Culturally, for me, it shifted with my good friend from junior high school. (the one whose ashes are around the jaguar sculpture’s neck) Her parents were not Calvinist Presbyterians, so I learned there was another way to live. They actually had lamb chops on their table – how astonishing! Her mother and father were never home, so my friend was raised by her grandmother. They were from the east and they were upper middle class, as opposed to my lower genteel middle class. So it was a whole different food pattern. Very exciting! Her pattern turned out to be closer to what became the norm of food, after The Depression and the War. Her grannie’s meat was the first meat that I had to chew – that was an astonishment – and not until I got to college did I eat meat regularly, even though it was like slop, or glop, as we called it. It was still better than what I had at home. And then, we could go out to dinner and have a steak…
When you were in college?
First time. After age 16 – that’s when I went to college. Different world. Not recoverable, thank God.
No matter what our backgrounds are, we always have some kind of a contextual story that defines our eating patterns, diets, and it’s kind of bizarre to look back on. That those were the eating habits…
Because food, like everything, is both intimate and cultural at the same time. We confuse the two because we don’t realize how much our tastes are conditioned by our culture - everything to do with a moment in time. What food is accessible, what’s acceptable, what class you are, what you identify with. And religious forms of prohibition or acceptance are just one form of that. One thing I love is that anybody now can discover through food that the world really is constituted of clubs, that we have to divide up into groups in order to have an identity. How many billion people are alive at this moment?? We’re approaching 8 billion – or was it 80 billion (laughter) – doesn’t really matter… Okay, so how do you identify? You friend people on Facebook! Food is another way of friending, where you join a different food club. So what you eat always reveals what your club is. Always has. As Americans we think we’re club-free, but of course we are not. Cave men had clubs: “our cave was not that other cave.” Same with food.
In your life here now, what are five indispensable food items? Or, if you knew that a certain meal was going to be your last, what would you have?
Similar answers. Indispensable are butter and lemon. They're for the lobster, for my last meal. :-)
Lobster... It’s the texture of lobster, the sweetness, and I never of course had any seafood growing up. It was only when I came East that I ate, on my honeymoon at Cape Cod, my first lobster. Never forgotten it. It was a complete revelation. I love cooking it, I love the fact that they were climbing out of the pot, I love the action, the theatricality. I had no idea how to cook or eat it, but fortunately there were other people around whom we were having to dinner. But the taste of it … I salivate when I think of lobster. This is the scenario of my last meal: I’ve been caught – finally for all the murders I’ve committed. It's time and the guard comes with my tray and there's no lobster on it. There’s coca-cola and a burger and I can’t stand it...might as well get on with it.
Back to the essentials – we need three [more] for the daily life...
Salt. I’m partial to lemon, but salt is my necessity. Sugar is not. I can do without chocolate. It would be a hardship, but it’s not part of my five. Garlic, and, what’s the fifth? Maybe egg. I really live on eggs. All those textural differences again. There’s no egg without butter, or salt. So it all goes together...Hmmm, I’m thinking egg and lemon…I’ve not done lemon on scrambled eggs…
Well, you could do a hollandaise…
Ah yes, hollandaise! There we go, the texture again. Velvety, agreed.
Returning to that last meal...
I think we start with oysters. Another extraordinary thing – we had oysters once in 8th grade. That’s the only time I’d ever seen an oyster – that any of us had seen an oyster in southern California. We did not have airplanes bringing in oysters. This was completely unknown, and half the class wouldn’t eat it. We were doing the required Home Ec course. So we were each given an opened shell and told how to eat the contents raw, and of those few who tried it, most of them gagged. I was one of the lucky ones, because I thought “What was that?!” (Can I have another??). This is very individual; I understand the people who gagged, but I’m not a gagger. I love new foods, I love discovering another world, even in eighth grade. Ah! Somebody out there is eating this!! How amazing.
And what a striking contrast to those canned peaches or toast soaked in milk….
Yes! Literally a different world.
So, lobsters and oysters, what else would you have at that dinner?
We’ve gotta have a green, because of the taste and contrast, and then the palate. You require it to refresh. It would have been watercress, but now watercress is raised different, so the bite is gone. Now it’s arugula (and they’re trying to take the bite out of that) I want a green bite. Just the leaves without any dressing.
|Betty prepared the sweetest, juiciest squid - no seasonings at all, only seared in olive oil|
|This bark, left, is actually pastured spiced beef jerky! Delicious, all of it|
Oh yeah! that’s easy – the one I do all the time because it’s the easiest thing I know and because it has all the ingredients I like. It’s shortbread but with flavorings. I’m sure I’ve made it for you. My fave at the moment is chocolate chili. You do it all in the processor, takes two minutes, then you press it into the pie pan and twenty minutes later, it's done. It’s like a really good cookie that’s not too sweet. Use brown sugar and butter and nuts and just enough flour to hold it together. Just enough sugar to help grind the nuts, and then you can add whatever you want, like crystallized ginger, or chipotle and guajillo chiles with a little cocoa. You can also vary the texture by putting in oatmeal. You can keep varying and varying it. It is a perfect, instantaneous dish.
...recipe (and pictures, of course) upcoming - look for it... (and badger me if I'm taking too long to post it!)
Who is one, or some of, your role models, and why?
In writing, I came to food from the road of literature. My word life was profoundly shaped by - okay - Shakespeare. I know he doesn’t count, but he counts to somebody my age. My modern greats were Yeats and Eliot. They were totally different bookends of what was for me "modern" poetry. Little relation to each other except that they were writing in English (chuckle).
The first food writer I found was Elizabeth David, who remains for me a heroine because she addressed food sensually. She’s also very good with language and with history. Mediterranean Food, 1950s – this was a changer, the beginning of what ended up as the Mediterranean diet. England was a starving, war-torn country, and here David was talking about the pleasures of real food. She has an extraordinary biography (look at it) . What an adventurer, she was an amazing person. I met her once when she was trying to run a food shop in London in the 1950s, and that failed because she was in no way a business woman. She was an educated English lady who was also a rebel adventurer. I can’t remember who her husbands and lovers were, but she lived a long time, well into her 80s.
I discovered her before I discovered MFK Fisher, another amazing person. I didn’t find MFK until The Art of Cooking - I was late in reading her. She was a major discovery for me because she was creating literature out of food. There was very little of that in this country. You had it in France but not in America. MFK was Southern Californian and although originally from the Midwest, she was upper middle class; much more like Julia. She has a very strong voice, and I was always a little bit wary of it because it was so highly crafted, which is why W.H. Auden said she was writing the best prose in America. MFK did write really well. Her book A Cordial Water is the best book on food I know and it’s tiny, only 100 or so pages. She, like David, incorporates history, although David's form is more objectified. Both were in the journalism world, because that’s how you got published in classy magazines: Spectator for Elizabeth and Gourmet, etc. for MFK. David was very much an English journalist, Fisher, an American. You sense a personality behind MFK that may be different from the way she talks. This was not true of David – she was who she reported. Fisher was a fictioneer in her essays. She created a written persona.
I did 3 or 4 personal interviews of her for magazines, The New York Times, etc., and Fisher was as wary of me as I of her. I was too close to her in age, not an adoring innocent. It was fascinating. This was a woman who I would not have wanted to be the daughter of. Her middle name is Kennedy and I’m a Kennedy, from the same drawer of Scotland. I feel as if I know this Scotch-Irish background and share too much of it. I wrote a profile of her as both an empress and a witch, and this exactly described why I was careful. Now she's become a Saint, but that will sort itself out. Her writing is wonderful and there's nobody better, just writing about food.... Hmmm, if there were a movie now, who would you cast…? Aahh, she’s a tricky one! In Julie and Julia, we have a very Hollywood image now of Julia. But MFK was herself a glamour girl… There are pictures of MFK out of Vogue in the 1940s/50s, where she looks like a movie star.
So she’s got this dichotomy going, playing this one thing and playing to this other thing, too.
Yeah... and her three marriages within this dichotomy. A total romantic. An extraordinary American figure. Had her Hollywood period, had an illegitimate child, never said who the father was. Had two daughters… You can’t open her files until 50 years after her death. She’s got a big back story behind the persona - dead out a magnificent persona - but that’s all that people know.
When did she pass away?
In 1992 just short of her 84th birthday. So, she lived a long arc. I saw her in the late 1970s and 80s, when she was already an old woman. Later, she got quite infirm, but was still present of mind.
These are wonderful, powerful food women... I had no identity whatsoever with guys like Craig Claiborne, or Jim Beard.
Who would be more your contemporary food heroes.
That’s right. More recent figures that I love in the food world are Paula Wolfert, who wrote the first really fine book on Moroccan cuisine. She’s a food-through-culture person, and a very adventurous gal. There’ve been a lot of really good, strong women that have emerged in the last 40 years, and that is wonderful. And Julia of course is right out front, but everyone knows about her. Of all of the food people I’ve met, she was by far the most generous of heart, a totally generous person. The way in which people respond to her is very accurate.
How has the culinary landscape in New York changed in the years that you’ve been here?
Atom bomb. (laughter) It’s changed explosively. I’ve been in New York for 30 years, which is when it began to explode. I have been lucky to watch it happen, because it moved very fast. And so completely. When food becomes a hook to "celebrity"- all those millions of food bloggers - and food is hot on the tongue, it becomes part of everybody’s daily conversation. Conversation changes culture, and that's fine, except you wonder, "What does all this chatter really mean?" America has certainly benefited by discovering that bodily pleasures are good, and that we are creatures of appetite – good! Food is also a measure of how much America changed after WWII into a major global culture, which it certainly was not before. Nor was it in the 50s when we traveled to Europe to find all the the signs of "Yankee Go Home." There was a lot of anti-Americanism then because we had established ourselves as a power: we were the new barbarians to countries that had lived anciently. We were the nouveau riche, as a country. Fascinating to watch this happen through food and in New York. The whole French wave of Jacques Pepin, and Pierre Franey, Andre Soltner - all that happened here (New York!) after the War. Everything that was going to happen happened here first, and then spread around the country. Or used to.
Is there anything else you would say to people?
That the change now is the most radical of any. So, if that was an atom bomb, this is what…? The digital revolution is like a galaxy exploding. It has everything to do with communicating and the atomization of everything is hard grasp. It happens at such speed and on such a scale. There is no mediation between private and public, an individual and the universe... (breathy) Since food is at the center of human communication from cradle to grave, what I’m eating at any given moment is cosmic. All blogs are equal and of equal importance. Well, okay (laughing)... It’s hard to make this adjustment of scale. Most of us haven’t done it yet – it’ll take us a few decades and it keeps changing. So I don’t know, I don’t know where it goes, I don’t care where it goes, since I'll be gone. I just know it’s bewildering in its speed, and fracturing.
Yeah, there are a lot of messages going out..
Drowning in them. Drowning! And there’s as much misinformation as information. Data is meaningless, it’s white noise, web noise… What are you going to select and why? I dunno (laughing again)…
And do you even have the willpower to look up various sources….
You can’t begin to see all the sources. And knowing that, everything you know is a speck of dust in relation to what you could know at that moment, and that other people are tapping into knowing some part of at that moment. That’s bewildering. (Laughs)
I try not to think about that too much because otherwise I will be frozen in my tracks, or feel immobilized to do something, because there’s just soooo much vastness….
That’s right! At your fingertips. That’s the galactic explosion. Who knows how to deal with it, because it goes on happening even as you speak or work your thumbs. In this black hole, you try to figure out fast who you are as this little dust spot, what you have to say, what you want to say, who you have to talk to. And you know that black hole is enlarging as you talk. So you arbitrarily select a tiny frame, a "club" of other people like you to communicate with. This cave rather than that cave. And they can be anywhere in the world (and maybe other worlds) of 80 billion caves. Space and time? Gone. There's huge fall outs with all of this, as we see in the Middle East. Because this is a medium of images rather than words. Words are disappearing. The new language is visual Esperanto, a huge change that was set into place with motion pictures. So, you’ll figure it out… Meantime, you and everyone else has to eat. You are still a particular body of flesh and bone in this vastly expanding universe.
|Books which litter her bedside; a large painting above her bed by a San Miguel DeAllende artist|
|Some of Betty's many traveling hats|
If you would like to listen to Betty and me, here is a snippet from earlier in the interview. Enjoy. :-) Thank you, Betty!