Betty Fussell Is Fierce, Funny, and Frank
The Famous Author’s Recipe for Living Large
by Kelly Grogan | Published July 18, 2019
he interior of author Betty Fussell’s apartment at Casa Dorinda is as vivid as the interior of her imagination. You have to look closely to spot the three James Beard Awards she’s won, dangling from the frames of paintings and photographs that mosaic nearly every inch of wall space. A wall-to-ceiling bookcase sags with the weight of her collection, including her own books of more than a dozen titles alongside her ex-husband’s and children’s publications.
Her shelves are strewn with artifacts: handmade pottery, costume jewelry, exotic feathers, knickknacks from a lifetime of international travel. There’s a diorama, a hand-felted quilt, a bundle of dried chilis, woven baskets. Completing the look, Southwestern artisan rugs spun with ochre, turquoise, and sienna render Fussell’s home a Technicolor dream.
“It’s a lot like my apartment was in New York City,” Fussell tells me. “Except the kitchen is much, much smaller here.”
She had to get rid of a lot of her belongings when she moved to Casa Dorinda, a retirement community in Montecito where fellow food writer and trailblazer Julia Child also lived. Fussell’s method for unloading before moving was to throw a party and invite all of her friends. The price of admission? “They had to take at least one item with them before leaving, one that meant something to them,” said Fussell.
All of the artifacts in Fussell’s home are connected to particular people or places. She surrounds herself in memories. This depth of meaning given to ordinary, everyday objects is steeped in her writing, too. For Fussell, everything is a metaphor.
“We think if we just look close enough, dissect each thing, and see what it’s made of, the cells and particles, then we’ll understand it. Wrong. Just like you can’t cut open a person and know who they are. The story is hidden, invisible.” She means it’s impossible to truly know something or someone by staying on the surface of things — you have to consider the whole picture, everything seen and unseen.
Every item in her home has a story, and as she nears 92 years old at the end of July, Fussell has collected a lot of stories. As she works through the process of completing her second memoir, How to Cook a Coyote, she also talks about all the stories she will continue to gather in her daily experience.
“It feels like we’re catapulting toward a conclusion of our own inevitable doing,” she comments at one point in our interview. “But let’s play with the narrative anyways.”
The Educated Wife
Betty Ellen Harper was born in Riverside, California, in 1927, the second of two children. Her mother died when Betty was 2. Betty and her brother, Bob, moved in with their grandparents, but when her grandmother fell ill, they returned to Riverside to live with her father and stepmother, who loomed, a malign presence, over her adolescence. “I was trapped,” writes Fussell about that time. “Trapped like a piece of Swiss steak inside my father’s favorite newfangled kitchen instrument, the pressure cooker.”
Betty escaped by enrolling in Pomona College in 1944, at the peak of World War II. While enlisted men like Betty’s brother were fighting in the tropic heat of Guadalcanal or against the German forces in Europe, Betty and her college friends were “fighting a battle for sexual equality against a battalion of deans and housemothers and faculty wives wielding parietal rules more appropriate to the time of the Spanish-American War than the second global one.”
In her sophomore year, the war ended and veterans returned to Pomona College. “Overnight, we were busted,” Fussell writes in My Kitchen Wars. “Not from officer to private, but to comfort women. We listened to their war stories, their tales of comic snafus, their broken laments, and never once dreamed of asking for equal time. We were not equal.”
She fell in love with a veteran who had served at the Battle of the Bulge, Paul Fussell, while at Pomona College. He captured Betty’s interest with his passion for writing and literature. Paul graduated prior to Betty and followed his brother east to Harvard while Betty continued to consume as much literature as she could, hungry for every book that came her way. They met again by chance a year and a half later in New York City and married in 1949.
With marriage came a new set of expectations: “The wife’s job was to prepare the food, mend the clothing, and tidy up the house. … Other duties of a housewife were to be pretty but not recklessly beautiful, to be attentive but never boring, to be intelligent but not to have a mind of her own, to be entertaining but never to upstage her husband, to be educated but for no practical or professional purpose.”
This was far from satisfying for Fussell. She enrolled at Radcliffe College while they lived in Princeton to receive her master’s degree in English, focusing on drama to avoid trespassing into her husband’s professional territory as an author.
In 1970, after having raised a daughter, Rosalind “Tucky,” and son, Sam, and having traveled widely with her husband, Fussell returned to school again to pursue her PhD in literature at Rutgers University. “Secretly, I think I wanted validation for all those years spent as an academic wife with no identity tag of my own, no credit given and none taken,” she explained. While her husband taught and published award-winning works, Fussell toiled away at her own thesis on “English Tragicomedy in the Renaissance.”
Paul was less supportive of her writing than she had been of his, describing her attempts at professional writing as “silly.” His opinion was common to the time, but all over, women like Fussell were staking their claim on creative and intellectual pursuits and redefining the possibilities for art along the way.
Betty and Paul divorced in 1981. Alone for the first time in decades, Fussell ventured to New York City to try to survive as a writer. “I was learning to think for myself, without fear of contempt … I could think any way I wanted, say anything I wanted. I was on my own.”
Fussell knew just what to do with her newfound freedom: She wrote. Her first book, Mabel: Hollywood’s First I-Don’t-Care Girl, an in-depth biography of silent-film star Mabel Normand, was published in 1982. Fussell also pursued work as a journalist, writing articles for newspapers and magazines such as the New York Times, The New Yorker, Vogue, Saveur, and the Los Angeles Times.
Focusing on food journalism, Fussell was nothing short of a trailblazer. She avoided the traditional recipes and tidbits of yore and focused instead on the history and heritage of food. In the preface to her most recently published essay collection, 2016’s Eat, Live, Love, Die, Fussell writes, “When food is the lens, you can see all the contradictions of self and time right there on your plate. … Eating is the great connector. Of fellow creaturehood. Chewing to the waltz of past, present, future. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Repeat. Laugh between bites.”
Fussell published a dozen more books and a hefty number of essays and articles over the next two decades. Her most successful, The Story of Corn, was published in 1992 and heralded as “hypnotic, alluring, and sustaining,” by the Los Angeles Times, and as being written “with zest and romance and hordes of gorgeously costumed extras” in the New York Times. The book made an indelible mark on food writing and culture across the country, leading to more opportunities for Fussell to teach, lecture, and continue to travel the world.
Following residencies at several prestigious creative writing retreats, including the Millay Colony and MacDowell Colony, Fussell published her first memoir, My Kitchen Wars, in 1999. The book takes a satiric look at the “battles” that housewives like her had been fighting from their kitchen trenches, a war waged with utensils, pots, and ovens. The book was met with wide acclaim and eventually staged in New York and Los Angeles as a one-woman performance starring Dorothy Lyman.
Meanwhile, Fussell continued writing, publishing, and teaching as she climbed to the pinnacle of her career. She was awarded the James Beard Foundation’s Journalism Award in 2008 and was named a James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who in Food & Beverage in 2009. In 2018, she was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame for “visceral prose that always faces up to the reality of things.”
I met Betty Fussell a year ago, tasked with helping organize her (entirely hard-copy) next manuscript, 10 years in the making, titled How to Cook a Coyote: A Manual for Survival. The book, a nod to M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf, conveys Fussell’s history of food writing and her intimate experiences of aging.
“The thing that was major about M.F.K. Fisher,” she tells me, “is that she was really gorgeous, glamorous, beautiful. A seductress, a siren. A deliberate siren. So she, a seductress, said, ‘Don’t think of the wolf as your enemy. Invite him in.’ The wolf being whatever you are so afraid of. In my book, it’s a coyote instead of a wolf, but I also say, ‘Invite the coyote in.’”
Fussell’s coyote is the sly, mischief-making cousin to Fisher’s wolf as she navigates her “rebirth following divorce in 1981 through a second rebirth at a retirement community in the present,” all writ in her zesty prose. “How to Cook a Coyote,” says Fussell, “is an ironic half-smile turned to a grin.” The kind of wide, toothy grin she gives me as she talks about it.
I ask Fussell how Fisher’s book plays into her own, and she tells me, “I loved the recipe for ‘sludge’ from Fisher. This was throwing everything in the icebox into a bowl and mixing it all up. She was all about recycling and making it tasty. Whatever you have, you take it and you use it and you make it fun.” Throughout her life, Fussell has embraced the principle of making what she could with what she had — whether it was dealing with her challenging stepmother as a teenager, throwing a last-minute dinner party for dozens of literary denizens, or embarking on a new chapter after her divorce.
“Here’s the thing: You are what you are. You better find out what that is fast, and use it.” It’s another Betty-ism to add to an already long list, and like so much of her, it’s both unflinchingly honest and unapologetically playful. For Fussell, the coyote in her own book embodies wily cunning along with an insatiable hunger for life that she has found within herself. Both Fussell and the coyote are survivors — and tricksters — at heart.
When she began work on this new book 10 years ago, she’d termed it “A Manual for Survival in N.Y.C.,” but her move to Santa Barbara in 2012 expanded the book’s scope. Survival on the West Coast, Fussell explains, was a different matter altogether from survival in the city. She had to write about both.
“Survival in New York is physical, literal. You cross the street too slowly and bonk! You’re dead. There’s this intensity of every moment. Here, in the Casa, it became about surviving by embracing the fact of a shared ending. I can walk as slowly as I need to, but my end is still approaching. Everyone’s is. That’s why I call it the Casa Come and Go.”
It’s what moving into a retirement community signifies, but what nobody likes to talk about: the last stop. Not unlike Native American myths and lore, which Fussell has studied extensively, the coyote in her book signifies the beginning and end of life, as both creator and ultimate predator.
It took Fussell a few years come to terms with this, to learn a new kind of survival in the face of the fact. She describes it as a process of acceptance, and one that everyone eventually goes through in their own way. “My process was sped up a bit when I broke my ankle, because it made me suddenly a part of what all of this is for. It got me over the shock of moving into a place that you know what you’re there for, but you still try to deny it. I figured, this is where I am now, so why not invite the coyote in? Why not entertain each other for a little while longer?”
Death Is Piquant as Peppermint
It is with this mind-set that Fussell continues to create — not only a career, or a community, or a story, but a life, even as the clock marches relentlessly forward. “Coyote’s not your enemy, as death is not your enemy,” she says. Writing about the inevitability of ending means writing about the unavoidability of everything leading up to it, and this is the true pulse of Fussell’s latest work. As she says, “When you know death is always close, life tastes as piquant and delicious on the tongue as a peppermint drop.”
And there is still so much for Fussell to savor in her own life. She tells me her greatest joy is waking each morning to the ancient cedar tree spread wide outside her windows. She delights in the finches, juncos, orioles, pigeons, squirrels, and rabbits that come to her patio throughout the day, feasting on seeds she scatters for them. “Two mallard ducks have joined the club recently,” she says. “Husband-Duck keeps watch while Wife-Duck snarfs down so much food I have to put more out when they leave.”
Fussell has important routines and rituals. Every morning, there’s breakfast with a group of friends she lovingly calls “The Breakfast Club.” Saturdays, Fussell heads to the farmers’ market and stocks up on fresh produce, dairy, and meat for the week’s cooking. “I’m terrible with names, but I know everyone’s faces,” she tells me. “The tomato lady, the avocado man, the pistachio man, the Gaviota strawberry gal.”
She’s a passionate and generous supporter of Santa Barbara arts, attending as many musical and theatrical performances as she is able, and participates in events at Casa Dorinda too. Near the end of our interview, Fussell tells me she has signed up to help choreograph the dance portions of this year’s Casa Follies, a show put on by residents. She’s perfect for the job — ballroom dance was a major aspect of her life in New York.
Plus, she’s a pro by now, having performed in the Casa Follies before, where, “As residents ran the gauntlet snail-like in walker, wheelchair, cane, and even solid feet, the magic worked. We had entertained each other, we had shared a moment of play when we pretended we could all sing and dance and kick up our heels and fall in and out of love and woo a pretty girl and stand up to serve our country and thank God for the blessing of laughter together, in our little tragicomedy before exiting one by one from the stage.”
Tragicomedy, that same subject she explored in her studies all those years ago, remains a strong theme in Fussell’s life and work. What Fussell knows, in cooking and in writing, is how to balance the sweet with the sour. When I ask what her favorite part of being her age is, she laughs and tells me that still being alive is a pretty good thing. But upon further reflection, she adds, “You capture this renewal of the wonder of simply being. These are my fingers, my knees, my feet. Discovering myself. Constant discovery, new discovery. It astonishes me.”
So, what is the recipe for Fussell’s way of life? Fussell smiles after thinking for a moment. “There is no single recipe. There’s no medicine, there’s no magic that works for all. This is true in cooking too. People think cooking is about following the instructions as perfectly as possible, but cooking and life are more like jazz. Improvisation. Experimentation. Add a little of this, a dash of that; make it fun; make it tasty.”
Whatever Fussell’s unique recipe, as she forges ahead what matters most to her is this: “I hope I’ll be remembered as one who laughs.”