Letter from the canyon
Posted 15 May 2006 - 10:09 AM
As an inveterate letter-writer, it is perhaps inevitable that over the years some of the recipients of my missives have been people I donít know. Or, maybe itís the farthest thing from inevitable. After all, sending letters to people one doesnít know is usually the bailiwick of direct mailers and charity solicitors, isnít it? Either of which I am not.
But at any rate, itís true. In the interest of full disclosure it should be said that, to me, the mail is something pretty close to magic, or maybe sacred, and I have a stamp fixation rivaled only by my, um, other fixations. And the mail just keeps getting more magical -- e.g. Click-n-Shipģ? A beautiful thing.
So some of these not-known-to-me-personallys have been editors of publications whom Iíve felt could benefit from my considered if unsolicited advice. Very infrequently, theyíve been principals of companies or organizations with whom Iím disappointed. This particular sort of letter writing holds little interest for me, although there are times when disgruntlement must be aired. (Briefly: Keep it brief. State the problem, state desired compensation, sign off. Oh, and cc: everybody in the executive suite. I never participate in surveys, unless Iím trying to skew results.)
But by far the best category of not-known-to-me-personallys continues to be writers. Whether Iíve received simple deep enjoyment reading a compelling book, or learned a lot or both, the strong, not-unpleasant feeling of residual indebtedness sometimes inspires me to write what is,of course,a Fan Letter.
When I write a Fan Letter (it seems doubtful Iíll ever inure myself to the cringefulness of the term), I send it off with no expectation of response: itís quite sincerely and simply an expression of appreciation. That said, Iíve been astounded by responses!
A nice note from Patricia Wells after our first trip to Paris wherein we made great use of the first edition of her Food Loverís Guide, with further information on her directions for putting up oneís own cornichons. There arenít thanks enough for leading us to the bakery and tea room Laduree, and to Dehillerin, the mind-blowing restaurant supply store. On that first visit to Dehillerin I acquired financier molds toted home to try to replicate Ladureeís.
A sentimental favorite from Craig Claiborne, on his New York Times letterhead, saying that my letter gave him a boost, then relating a short anecdote about running into M.F.K. Fisher in the lobby of a San Francisco hotel and inviting her to join him at the caviar tasting he was attending. That one I framed, and it hangs in my off-the-kitchen powder room.
Craig Claiborne is one of only two writers (the other is Paul Prudhomme) Iíve ever purposefully gotten a book signed by -- Iím a letter-writer, not an autograph collector. But I did go, because it was Craig Claiborne, to a book signing for the reissued New York Times Cookbook. Craig Claiborne appeared, improbably, at a no-longer-elegant department store in Santa Ana. It was the height of Southern California summer, which is to say HOT, and while I was wilted by the time I got there, Craig Claiborne waited cool and nonchalant in a navy blazer and striped shirt, open at the neck. When I handed my book over to be signed, I told him about my fan letter of a few years earlier, and how much Iíd appreciated his response. He stopped signing my book for a second and looked mildly surprised. ďI answered?Ē he said, and then went on, ďUsually, itís nothing.Ē
And then there were a couple of notes from Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher herself. She not only responded, but asked me to write back to her! It was the tortoiseshell cat connection, I feel certain, although we also talked about her annotations for Sylvia Plagemanís Fine Preserving and uses for the chermoula recipe contained therein. She admonished me to spay my tortoiseshell cat believing that her genetic irregularities shouldnít be passed on. She was already spayed,of course -- Iím a cat-overpopulation activist from way back. (I believe in tortie genetic irregularities, although my evidence, while no less anecdotal than MFKFís, is more behavioral than physiological.)
And then there are those Iíve missed. Elizabeth David, I missed. She was living when I discovered her work and through the years when I cooked my way through her books. But she intimidated the hell out of me and I was reticent to write, even though I knew it was the right thing to do. After girding my loins and summoning my strength and taking a deep breath and performing sundry other mental exercises, I was ready to write.
And I missed her. By mere days, it seems in memory, but was probably not quite so close as that. But I think I learned the there-is-no-later-there-is-only-now lesson with that one.
Post-internet, I have sent some fan letters electronically. E-mail is an irresistible tool for us letter-writers. Charles Perry, the erudite and funny writer for the Los Angeles Times, sent a cordial reply to my e-mail of several years ago, and has equally cordially answered occasional questions about Russian, Middle Eastern and Turkish cuisine. And I adore the ease of the eGullet PM system for sending notes to Anthony Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman about their work.
Even in this era of food celebrity on a scale never before seen -- and no end in sight -- the writing part of the job remains the same. Writing is a solitary endeavor. Someone once told me that writing is like tossing a stone into a pond, and there may be ripples, but one never knows the actual effect or extent. My friends at the USPS understand: theyíve just issued an especially beautiful first-class stamp series, Crops of the Americas, ideal for bouncing back one of those ripples to its source.
Priscilla writes from a Southern California canyon populated by the typical mix of old hippies, wannabe off-the-gridders, equestrians running the gamut from 20-acre Thoroughbred full dressage to clip-clop nag-riding busted flat in Baton Rouge, schoolteachers, artists, wealthy entrepreneurs, and law enforcement officers (for some reason).
Art by Dave Scantland
Posted 18 May 2006 - 12:17 PM
I will tell you of one incident that might amuse you. I was invited a week or so ago to a 'small' caviar tasting by Mats and Daphne Engstrom, producers of a magnificent caviar taken from sturgeon in Manchurian waters and called Tsar Nicoulai. I was staying at the Stanford Court in San Francisco where they lived and they also invited James Nassikas, a mutual friend and president of the hotel. We met M.F.K.F. in the lobby and invited her to join us. The Engstroms then decided to have the tasting in a small private dining room in the hotel.
They arrived promptly at eight o'clock the next morning with five pounds of caviar. Seven of us sat down to those black pearls, a mount of buttered toast rounds and endless bottles of Roederer Cristal champagne. For the first time in my life I refused a final offering of 'one more spoon full.'