Betty Fussell

She's not Elizabeth, but Betty, she says, "plain Nebraska Betty." Over the years, her name has evolved: in 1949 she traded in the name Harper when she married a young academic named Paul Fussell. In the '50s, when an article on T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets was repeatedly rejected, she began using "B.H. Fussell," and it was instantly accepted. Her master's degree from Radcliffe reads Elizabeth. "What mattered," she says, wasn't what was legal, but "perception." And Radcliffe did not perceive Betty to be a legitimate name.

Betty she may be, but she's hardly plain. At 72, she looks 30 years younger. She wears her hair long, pulled back from her fine-boned face, and she's barefoot, dressed in jeans and a roomy sweater. Her casual style brings to mind dorm-room visits, except the food is much better--delicious coffee with frothy hot milk and a hot shortbread made with dried apricots and nuts.

After 20 years of writing about the culture and preparation of food, her new book, My Kitchen Wars: A Memoir (Forecasts, Aug. 2), uses it as a metaphor for her life. Or a good part of her life, as the focus is on her 32-year marriage to Fussell, the author of The Great War and Modern Memory, Abroad and Wartime. It's a book that she's been working on for seven years or for decades, depending on what you mean by working on it--"I'm constantly scribbling and I save everything." But her material lacked a scaffold. A chronological structure was, she says, "too laborious and irrelevant. Who would care that I was born in 1927 in California? I needed to find something objective that would bring people into the frame very quickly, something that they share, something that's in their life. Well, everyone has a kitchen in their life. I focused on food to begin with, then I thought--it's really the process of food, it's the implements. For me in particular this is how my life is objectified--it became my life in things."

Fussell's New York City apartment and the things in it are revealing of the arc of her life. Before they separated, she and Paul lived in a big house in Princeton, N.J., with a designer kitchen complete with a six-burner stove and commercial gas-fired lava-stone grill, where the couple threw grand parties for Mardi Gras, Sunday brunch, Boxing Day, fund-raisers, any and every occasion. The Greenwich Village apartment where Fussell now lives is tiny, with huge exposed beams and skylights. Every space is filled, the walls crowded with books, paintings, exotic masks, pictures, dried chilies, a papier-mâché totem pole, made by her daughter, of Fussell's favorite redheads, including Lucille Ball and Red Grooms; more books, baskets and indefinables are crammed under and on top of every surface.

The apartment's odd shape comes from its location in the eaves of a Presbyterian church; symbolically at least, Fussell, who is descended from devout Presbyterian stock, has come full circle. Her parents and grandparents were the poor, sturdy folk of American legend, pushing steadily west and ending up in Southern California. But they were not all sturdy: her mother, perhaps intentionally, perhaps not, swallowed rat poison when Fussell was not yet two. Though she d sn't really remember her, she felt her mother's absence strongly because of her stepmother's constant disapproval. Even Fussell's earliest memories are linked to food: the happy recollection of her grandmother's rich, simple farm fare--"eggs floating in butter; deviled eggs floating in mayonnaise"--gives way to bitter memories of her stepmother's obsession with health. "Everything," she recalls, "was to be liquid for the sake of flushing through the system as quickly as possible."

In 1948, Fussell fled her stepmother's household for Pomona College, where she met her future husband. After graduation, she moved east and found a job at Knopf, but quit a few months later when she married Paul. Although she got her M.A. at Radcliffe in 1952, it was hard to find a job in academe, in part because few schools would hire a woman and even fewer would hire one married to another faculty member. Her first stint teaching ended in 1955 when her daughter, Rosalind (called Tucky), was born. A son, Sam, was born three years later.

Like many women of her generation, Fussell was also constrained by a profound sense of obligation to her veteran husband. Paul Fussell's service in WWII colored his personal and professional life, but as Betty explains it, "for all of us, men and women, battle defined us, battle conditioned us. We're used to the men's story, we're not used to the women's story."

In 1955, Paul accepted a position at Rutgers and soon after, the couple moved to Princeton. There Fussell abandoned the party food of her young married life--tuna casserole with Lipton's Onion Soup or clam dip with Ritz Crackers washed down with cheap alcohol--for lavish picnics of butterflied leg of lamb and retsina and indoor feasts of blanquette de veau and cervelles au beurre noir. "Those of us who had a lot of drive, but didn't know where to put it, used food as competition. We loved and embraced the professionalism of a Julia Child because it was something we could do at home." Fussell, whose academic focus had been on theater, also admits that for her, the kitchen and dining room are a stage; the dinner party, a performance; the menu, a script. "Entertaining at home is a complete theatrical event, which everyone understood and took for granted. It was a place for home ritual."

What she failed to see was that this public life of theater and ritual was becoming increasingly separate from her private life. In the 1960s, sex was added to the mix of food and drink, and both Fussells had affairs. In the mid-'70s things worsened and the trouble manifested itself in food. "There was always a difference between what we did privately and what we did publicly," she says. Paul had had a tendency to alternate self-denial and bingeing. Then he began to worry about his weight, so "when we were alone, I'd make carrots and a protein." She says she didn't see his increasing rejection of food as a rejection of her. "But when I discovered that he'd been eating 'Lean Cuisine' I realized that none of it had ever really mattered to him."

The marriage's death knell was finally struck one spring night in 1979 when Fussell discovered Paul with a male student. "I wrote down everything," she says. "I was angry, he was angry. Something inside me just wanted to be able to remember the whole thing accurately afterwards." A packrat, she also saved his painfully dismissive notes to her. In her memoir, she writes that she never fell out of love with Paul, something that she confirms in conversation. And she d s seem hurt when asked about Paul's 1996 memoir, Doing Battle. "It's the way he wanted to tell his story, but I didn't really like being shunted into a footnote. And also it's sort of indicative of how he felt about his family--we're not there."

The late '70s were bad in other ways, too. "I discovered I was completely non grata everywhere--among women who had turned their back on what they saw as retrograde and among men who were feeling so embattled. And then I discovered that no matter what I did, in terms of finally getting a Ph.D. in 1976, it didn't count for anything because I was too old."

A Second Life

With her marriage falling apart and her academic career increasingly desultory, Fussell turned to writing. She got an apartment in New York and met Gloria Loomis, who was just ending a marriage and beginning a career as a literary agent. The two have been friends and colleagues ever since. With Loomis's help, she managed to place her first book, Mabel, a biography of the silent film comedienne Mabel Normand. Originally, they submitted Mabel to FSG, but it was rejected as too academic. Fussell threw out the manuscript that had taken her several years to write and research and started over, creating an unconventional but accessible biography. "I was very, very grateful, because I was still struggling with an academic approach to biography and that had drained the life out of Mabel." The new version was then accepted by Ticknor & Fields and published in 1982. Bumpy as the path might seem, Fussell still thinks of this as her "one and only perfect publishing experience before Kitchen Wars."

A week after Mabel was accepted, a proposal for Masters of American Cookery was accepted by Times Books. This proved to be a trial of a different kind. Conceived as a biography of four American writers/chefs--James Beard, Craig Claiborne, Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher--accompanied by 10 recipes from each, the book was transformed through a succession of editors into a collection of Fussell's own recipes accompanied by increasingly slim biographies, until "it was completely turned upside down from my point of view." If frustrating, the experience was also cathartic, as she spent the year after she sold the Princeton house, but before she moved out, writing and cooking. "It was a wonderful way of going full blast in the kitchen and it was quite life saving."

It was in I Hear America Cooking (Viking, 1986), that Fussell really came into her own. Paul had always been a Europhile and a self-admitted snob. With her break from him, Betty became able to "speak in my own voice and use my family and my history. I really wanted to reassert the Americanism that I felt." She decided to travel the country. She was looking for "ethnic specificity," and wasn't particularly interested if anyone could make, say, Cranberry Pemmican. "A lot of those recipes, who's going to cook them? My interest was, can I make this work in my kitchen to see what it might taste like."

Though the recipes vary widely, Fussell did discover the great link in American food--corn. Her idea of doing a book of images on "the iconography of corn" grew over the years into The Story of Corn (1992), a botanical, chemical, ethnographic, literary, sociological examination. (No recipes--those would appear in a subsequent book titled Crazy for Corn.) She laments still that she didn't have the time to "fully grasp the language of economics necessary to understand the commodities exchange," which gives some idea of her intensity.

Though the book would win a Julia Child Cookbook Award in 1993, initially Fussell had trouble finding a publisher. At the time, she says, "nobody wanted a history. We've changed a lot in the past five years, and now there is an intense and increasing sense of history--I think it comes from ecological concerns." After losing her first editor and buying the book back from another editor who wanted to eviscerate it, Fussell ended up with Elisabeth Sifton at Viking and followed her to Knopf. Then, in the middle of the process, Sifton left Knopf. "The funny thing is that my one job at Knopf was working in production for [the late] Harry Ford, and when I ended up as an orphan at Knopf, Harry Ford took over as editor."

In contrast, Fussell's experience with My Kitchen Wars has been fairly straightforward: the book was sold to Becky Saletan at FSG/North Point, who stayed the course. When asked about returning to the house that first rejected her and where Sifton now works, Fussell says, "In my jaundiced view of the publishing world, it's meaningless, though it's unusual to have any continuity at all."

She's not sure what will come next. If it weren't for worries about paying for pictures, she says, she would like to do a history of tobacco, "because we have great resources for it and because it's a subject that I want to redeem. Its origins are in ritual and religion--the fact that we have turned it into a cancer-causing drug is hilariously American. It tells us a lot about ourselves if we would only listen and not cough."

Happily, in Fussell, we have a writer whose ear is as sharp as her palate.