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Contest honoring legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher looks back on a remarkable year

Last House Writing Workshop

What: A virtual writing workshop with author Elizabeth Fishel that explores what M.F.K. Fisher’s writing and design choices teach us about making our homes sanctuaries for creativity and joy. The workshop includes a virtual tour of Last House, writing exercises and an interview with Fisher’s daughter, Kennedy Golden.

When: 10 a.m. Jan. 23

Cost: $50 for workshop; $65 includes workshop and Audubon Canyon Ranch membership.

To reserve: Go to egret.org and scroll down to events.

M.F.K. Fisher, who elevated the humble genre of food writing to literary status with her appetite for combining travel, culture and personal experience, lived out the last 20 years of her life in a Glen Ellen cottage built for her by her friend and patron, the British architect David Bouverie.

Fisher designed Last House, as the cottage is known, to inspire her as she wrote, cooked and entertained well-known literati while surrounded by the natural world. The modest home, visible from Highway 12, is located in the Bouverie Preserve, a 535-acre property owned and managed by the Audubon Canyon Ranch.

“Mary Frances created her house there because she loved nature and the views of the mountains and to listen to the owls at night,” said Susie Allen, Last House program coordinator and Audubon Canyon Ranch events manager. “So there is a connection between food and the love of the land. I’m trying to bridge those two things.”

As part of her educational outreach during the pandemic, last summer Allen helped launch the Last House Writing Contest, which attracted 30 entries from as far away as Detroit and Los Angeles and as near as Sonoma and Santa Rosa.

With most of her events canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, including a major fundraiser in April for which she’d already sold hundreds of tickets, Allen saw the writing contest as a way to “introduce a new crowd” to the educational programs of Last House and Audubon Canyon Ranch.

In connection with the contest, Audubon Canyon Ranch will hold a virtual writing workshop at 10 a.m. Jan. 23 with Bay Area writer Elizabeth Fishel that will include a virtual tour of Last House and explore how to make your home a sanctuary for creative work, good food and creating joy (see box for details).

Although the contest didn’t raise much money, it did snag several new memberships to the Audubon Canyon Ranch, which has two preserves in Marin County and two in Sonoma County.

“So many people were thrilled to have this writing contest because they were out of work or at home all the time,” Allen said. “So it’s a great thing to do during a pandemic.

Food, writing and memory

“The theme of the contest was connecting food and nature and culture and writing,” Allen added. “People were really good about finding a connection to their personal stories.”

With the help of food and wine consultant Clark Wolf of Guerneville, the contest attracted a stellar panel of judges, including food writers Ruth Reichl, Harold McGee and Michele Anna Jordan, among others.

There were eight prizes given in three categories: children 8-12, youth 13-17 and adults 18 and older, as well as a grand prize, which went to a 10-year-old poet from Alameda for his timely ode to “Rain.”

The essays and the poem ranged widely in subject mater, but they embodied themes that were near and dear to Fisher, from nature and gardening to cooking and eating. Many of the winning entrants took a cue from the esteemed food writer by incorporating their childhood memories into their essays, from epic feasts of abalone to the unusual sandwiches that were packed in their school lunches.

“As a first-time effort in the middle of a pandemic and a busy fire season, the response was spectacular,” Wolf said. “We were pleasantly surprised by the quality we got.”

The winner of the adult category, who lives in the small Michigan town of Hamtramck just outside of Detroit, wrote about the resilience of nature she glimpses in the nooks of crannies of Detroit’s abandoned lots. In her essay, “Love Letter to an Empty Lot,” Rachel Reed wrote about a humble chicory flower attracting a bee, urban pheasants making nests in underbrush in an alley and an apple tree providing a layover for all kinds of migrating birds.

Her evocative essay won her a free ticket to the Last House writing workshop later this month. Allen said Reed found out about the contest while she was researching places to visit in Sonoma County after the pandemic.

Peter Albert of San Francisco, who won second place in the adult category, wrote an essay entitled “Sandwiched” about the unusual sandwiches his mother used to make from the fish his father had caught off the coast of Monterey.

The sandwiches were fragile, colossal and weird, made by an inventive mother who had to feed eight kids by making “leftovers out of leftovers.” But they always drew the attention of his high school friends, who begged for bites.

“It was personal and experiential and human and very moving,” Wolf said of the essay. “And it had a sense of humor.”

Lorelle Saxena, an acupuncturist from Santa Rosa, won third place in the adult category for her thoughtful essay, “Passing Through,” in which she ponders her relationship to her home, the land and her family’s future in light of the devastating fires of the past few years.

Last House Writing Workshop

What: A virtual writing workshop with author Elizabeth Fishel that explores what M.F.K. Fisher’s writing and design choices teach us about making our homes sanctuaries for creativity and joy. The workshop includes a virtual tour of Last House, writing exercises and an interview with Fisher’s daughter, Kennedy Golden.

When: 10 a.m. Jan. 23

Cost: $50 for workshop; $65 includes workshop and Audubon Canyon Ranch membership.

To reserve: Go to egret.org and scroll down to events.

At the onset of the pandemic, she closed her practice temporarily in order to take care of her 8-year-old son.

“I sent an email to my patients saying I would be closed for three weeks,” she said. “That was nine months ago.”

That first weekend after the shelter-in-place order, the gravity of the situation hit her. Saxena took out her seeds and started to plant her sunny garden beds bordering Santa Rosa Creek.

“It was a feeling of, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen, so I’m going to plant food,’” she said. “A couple of weeks later, I was reading a book about a time of war in China, and all the women started to plant gardens. My mother was Chinese, and it felt like it was an instinct in my bones.”

Planting seeds, especially those of the fast-growing radish, provided her with a metaphor for the frailty of life itself.

“It is an act of faith, especially now, when everyone’s job is to just try to stay alive and survive the pandemic,” she said. “We’re confronted with our mortality. Every time you plant a seed, you never know if you’re going to be around to see it thrive.”

Meanwhile, the fires and protests of 2020 made her question colonialism and the idea of homeownership on land once occupied by the Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo people.

“Quietly, complacently, we occupy their land and call it our own,” she wrote. “It has never been ours. We were always just passing through.”

The first-place winner in the youth category, for ages 13 to 17, also delved into the story of the early inhabitants of California in her essay, “Local Eats.” Natalie Sandoval of Sonoma wrote about the acorns laboriously collected, shelled, ground and strained by the Miwok people, who used the acorn flour to make biscuits and pancakes.

“That is so local and pre-local,” Wolf said.

The poem “Rain,” by 10-year-old Josh Cohen, won first place in the children’s category (ages 8 to 12) as well as the grand prize.

“Even though we never suggested a poem, it got right between our eyes because it was so moving and evocative,” Wolf said. “It also could be that, at that moment, we wanted nothing more than rain.”

Fisher’s legacy

Kennedy Golden, Fisher’s youngest daughter and overseer of her literary trust, also served as a judge of the writing contest.

Golden, who lives in Citrus Heights, has been involved with reviving Last House since 2016, when a steering committee decided to return the house to its state when Fisher lived there, from 1972 to 1992.

In January of 2019, the committee decided to create a separate program for Last House, and Allen was hired to bring that vision to life. Events she had planned for 2020 included classes, workshops and other educational programs revolving around writing, food and art.

As one of the preeminent food writers in America, Fisher was well-known by food and literary celebrities as well as many locals; she left an indelible mark on the Sonoma Valley similar to the late cookware retailer Chuck Williams, founder of the Williams-Sonoma franchise, whose original storefront in Sonoma was recently renovated by the company and turned into a paean to the visionary entrepreneur.

Like the original hardware store purchased by Williams, Last House is modest in scope, encompassing a bedroom, kitchen, large bathroom and back porch punctuated by archways. Fisher lovingly painted many of its rooms in a bright red hue and filled them with precious objects and souvenirs from her extensive travels.

During the 2017 Nuns fire that ripped through Bouverie Preserve, the Last House was saved but did not completely escape damage. At that time, it was already being renovated.

“The groundskeeper had lived in it for years,” Wolf said. “So the bathroom had to be painted, and many, many pieces have been returned to the house.”

Allen hopes to get a grant to buy some rugs and a chandelier to help return the house to the way it was when Fisher lived there, only improved.

In the future, she hopes to hold dinners or lunches there with big-name chefs such as Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters, who was a friend of Fisher’s.

“There’s going to be classes and free tours as soon as we can,” Allen said. “And we always want to do a birthday/Bastille day celebration for M.F.K. Fisher. Her birthday is July 3 and Bastille Day is July 14. ... She was a big Francophile and always celebrated Bastille Day.”

To read the winning entries from the contest, go to egret.org/writing-contest-winners-announced

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

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