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