Saturday, January 01, 2011

Leo Racicot: A friend to Julia Child and M.F. K. Fisher

( Leo Racicot with his sister Diane--engaged in one of his favorite activities in NYC)

Leo Racicot is a Lowell, Mass. Native, but has spent much time in Somerville, Mass. For awhile he worked at The Somerville Theatre in Davis Square, and crossed over to our burg from the Republic of Cambridge quite often to live his life. Like Jack Kerouac, another Lowell native son, Racicot writes poetry that is spiritual, with ample doses of Catholicism and Eastern Religion. Racicot, a food writer, poet, and movie critic, among other things was befriended by noted food writers Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher and has many anecdotes about these epicurean icons, and other personages he has come across in his rich life and his eating of rich food. His latest book of poetry is " Alone in the Yard: Buddhist, Beat and Otherwise." (Big Table Press)

Doug Holder: You were friends with famed food writer M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child.

Were Child and Fisher close? Did they have different perspectives on cooking?

Leo Racicot: I can never say enough good things about Mary Frances and Julia. Their presence in my life altered it in ways that came as a complete surprise to me. Here were two food icons who embraced a person who knew nothing about food except how to eat it. Life works backwards sometimes and their friendship came to me way before my ability to cook came to me. I still marvel at the dynamic. They were close friends, knew each other in France and Julia would often visit Mary Frances in Glen Ellen. Both had a marvelous mind, fertile, and always probing, and engaging as hell. They both steered away from shop talk; it was actually not easy getting them to talk about food. Julia loved long discourses on politics and international affairs (she hadserved in the OSS), the state of education, fashion, the environment. She loved to gossip and was not above breaking wind, regardless of where. I used to get a kick out of that. She also had the most peculiar habit of throwing things on the
floor (newspapers and magazines, napkins, table crumbs) after she was finished with them. She was made for television, a real comedienne in a league, I think, with Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. Mary Frances had a keen wit, too, but she did not go in for t.v. exposure, though she had been given many chances at it. She was more subdued, less a performer than Julia. She introduced me to a world I never thought I would know and people like James Baldwin, Isaac Stern, Molly O'Neill, James Beard, Rosemary Manell, Vincent Price and of course, Julia.

I miss them both terribly. They changed my Life.

DH: I find food very evocative and worthy of scholarly attention. I wrote my thesis at Harvard on food in Henry Roth's fiction, and we all know about Proust's little cake. Does food play a role in your own work?

LR: Your thesis is a marvel of craftsmanship and research and I had such a good time reading it! Food plays less of a role in my poems than it does in my non-fiction. I agree with you 100% that it is an amazing and important metaphor for more universal topics such as health, comfort, love. I LOVE to eat. Some people can take food or leave it. But I live to eat. And my weight is proof! Yikes! The doctor just told me that in three years, I have gained 40 lbs. Can you say "Macy's Parade helium balloon"? JOKE. LAFF.

DH: You contemplated being a priest, but you felt spiritually bankrupt with your experience with the church. What happened? You found poetry as a sort of spiritual elixir. Explain.

LR: I was raised strict Catholic, by nuns and priests, and fell hook,line and sinker for the whole shtick. I was just the other night watching again "The Sound of Music" and it struck me how very different my spiritual beliefs are now compared to how they were when I was a "good, little Catholic boy" and worshiped the church and all its teachings. I used to say Mass in my room using a cup, a tissue for the burse, a blanket for the chasuble. My faith was strong. But when some very serious crises hit, and I turned to the church for help, guidance, trust, it (they) let me down hard.I woke up. Through friendships with Allen Ginsberg at that time,and other Beat writers, also through exposure to other religions, I was opened up to more spiritual ways of thinking and being. I think God wants spiritual fruits, not religious nuts. I changed. And I am glad I did.

DH:Big Table Publishing published your poetry book; " Alone in the Open: Buddhist, Beat and Otherwise"-- tell us a bit about the collection.

LR:I wanted to fashion a group of poems that speak to the universal question, "What do you do when confronted with loss, pain, disappointment, tragedy?" Events we all experience. In using language to heal myself, I am told I found a way to heal others.

People who read the book tell me they have gained insight and hope from it for themselves. The poems incorporate Catholic, Buddhist, Judaic and Muslim concepts but their satisfaction lies beyond all of that. The work does seem to be coming from somewhere outside of me. My dreams are filled with poems, fully realized. I feel I am a pen and The Divine is the writer. I do pray a lot. I try to practice gratefulness. Life can be hard. But it is much harder if you don't believe in something, even if it is not a traditional form of worship.Writing is my religion. Writing is what has saved me from myself and my demons.

DH: You write movie reviews for the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square, Cambridge. I of course loved Pauline Kael's interviews--what makes for a good movie review?I LOVED Kael, too, and wish we would hear more about heroine this post-Kael age. Who is writing good reviews nowadays?

LR: Can you think of anyone? I said previously that writing has saved me but an equal thanks has to go to movies. If it weren't for movies, I don't think I could live. No hyperbole! My sister,

Diane, estimates I have seen at least 2000 movies in the last couple of years. I think you have to love the art of films in order to write a good review. You have to be able to watch recognized masterpieces but you have to love celluloid so much, you can also sit through something like "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" and enjoy it for what it is -- which is garbage but someone thought enough of it to make it so it deserves to be watched, too! My favorite reviews are of movies where the dialogue is perfect or near-perfect: movies like "The Philadelphia Story" or "Wonder Boys" or "All About Eve" or "Amadeus" or "Julia" where not one line rings false. Those reviews are easiest for me to write because as a writer, my ear is overjoyed.

For me, movies are as aural as they are visual. I have to hear the director's intent. A movie has to sing!

1 comment:

  1. Ah, Doug, love this interview. Leo is such a kind, dear and gentle man, and his sense of humor is so hysterical, acerbic and subtle, I think you really capture all of that. As someone who loves him, I am glad you were able to catch many of the qualities I love best about him. The only thing I could add to this is that he is even more interesting, funny and talented in person than he is in this interview. His poetry is a marvel that sticks with you forever and I'm so proud I go to publish one of his poems about Julia Child in my magazine. Thanks for this Doug!