About Aileen Ah-Tye Davidson


 

When I first read M.F.K. Fisher’s Two Towns in Provence, her classic memoir that consisted of two books - one concerned with Aix-en-Provence, a university town, the site of an international music festival and the former capital of Provence, and the other with the port town of Marseille - I thought her evocative prose was some of the best travel writing I had ever read.  France was her spiritual homeland, and she embodied a spirit that was “sensual, Gallic, sensitive,” the Washington Post Book World had said.  

    Fisher’s description of the sights and smells belonging to an Aix bakery shop window is her Platonic ideal of a bakery shop window to be found anywhere in France - one with “delicately layered” scents of “fresh eggs, fresh sweet butter, grated butter, vanilla beans, old kirsch and newly ground almonds,” for example.  And I love her comparison of the scent of a freshly-caught loup to the heady, “first breath from a dark winery cellar,” or the smell of a “silent printing pressroom if one reacts as I do to good ink and paper.”    

    Fisher, the preeminent American food writer, then in her 80s, lived up north from me in the town of Glen Ellen, right in the heart of Sonoma wine country.  Her book, Dubious Honors, had just come out, and I had wrangled an assignment to photograph her for a UPI interview.  After our visit, I sent Mrs. Fisher a print and received a post card inviting me for lunch.  A series of visits followed.  Undoubtedly, a femme formidable when she chose, we became firm friends with the understanding there was to be “no worshipping at thrones.”  
 
    Her personal Provence became my Provence as I began to embark on a series of exploratory trips.   I haunted the flower and food markets in Aix, which spilled out into the town’s squares and the main street itself under the cool shade of its plane trees.  Students still brought their books to the “students’ room” in the venerable Deux Garçons, the Café of the Two Waiters.  And, in summer, the music of the fountains did mingle with the music of Mozart in its courtyards, as Fisher had written.  In the countryside, I was happy to find copper pots in the kitchen of an old estate, as well as a mas with its blue shutters and the reflection of a country garden in its window.  

    Marseille was its own adventure.  If I felt apprehensive about photographing the fishermen standing behind their stalls of sardines and prickly rascasse, I soon overcame my shyness.  Yes, they did stand about as if they were characters from a Pagnol story, as Fisher wrote, but they would also stop to nonchalantly pose with the Japanese tourists as if they were old friends.

    Though I hadn’t studied in France like Fisher, I have a Humanities BA from SF State University and a graduate degree from UC Davis with a French minor.  When I met Mrs. Fisher, I had photographed Paris, the Loire and Normandy, having earned my first travel credits when several of my photographs appeared in Stewart, Tabori and Chang’s Dumont Guide to the Loire Valley.

    Thus, it was my privilege to photograph Counterpoint Press’ M.F.K. Fisher’s Provence.  The book celebrates the legacy of a writer who described with elegance and wit the joys of Provençal living and all its sensual pleasures that can nourish the soul.

~ Aileen Ah-Tye