The Art of M. F. K. Fisher

Here Let Us Feast: A Book of Banquets

by M.F.K. Fisher
North Point, 323 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Among Friends

by M.F.K. Fisher
North Point, 306 pp., $10.95 (paper)

The Art of Eating: How to Cook a Wolf, Consider the Oyster, Serve it Forth, The Gastronomical Me, An Alphabet for Gourmets

by M.F.K. Fisher
Vintage, 749 pp., $11.95 (paper)

Serve It Forth

by M.F.K. Fisher
North Point, 146 pp., $11.95 (paper)

Consider the Oyster

by M.F.K. Fisher
North Point, 96 pp., $7.95 (paper)

How to Cook a Wolf

by M.F.K. Fisher
North Point, 224 pp., $11.95 (paper)

The Gastronomical Me

by M.F.K. Fisher
North Point, 252 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Sister Age

by M.F.K. Fisher
Vintage, 243 pp., $7.95 (paper)

In 1937 Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher published Serve It Forth, the first of her unclassifiable works on the art of eating, blends of autobiography, culinary history, parable, and cookbook. Serve It Forth, as she tells us in her most recent book of essays, Dubious Honors, was deliberately written and accidentally published; in its idiosyncratic combination of storytelling and recipes she found the matrix for the subsequent books on food that have won her, at the age of eighty-one, a cult of readers ranging from insurance agents to Proust scholars.

All of M.F.K. Fisher’s books—whether they are about Marseilles, like A Considerable Town, or folk medicine, like A Cordiall Water, are largely autobiographical, but nothing animates her memory so much as food. It is the five books written from 1937 to 1949 collected in The Art of Eating that are at the heart of her work: Serve It Forth; Consider The Oyster, a biography of the mollusc as well as a guide to cooking it; How To Cook a Wolf, her reflections on food during the Second World War; the memoirs called The Gastronomical Me; and An Alphabet for Gourmets, a kind of exotic dictionary in which the nuances of words and phrases are traced through the flavors of dishes. (The sense of the word “Exquisite,” for instance, is pursued through “a salad of satiny white endive with large heavily scented Parma violets scattered through it.”)

George Balanchine once said that by bringing a girl on stage, he could show an audience the world. M.F.K. Fisher, in her own way, brings onstage a peach or a brace of quail and shows us history, cities, fantasies, memories, emotions. In her anthology of writing about food and drink, Here Let Us Feast (1946), she glosses the famous scene in Oliver Twist in which the workhouse orphan asks for more gruel with this recipe for gruel from A Handbook of Cookery for Irish Workhouses:

6 ounces unsifted oatmeal

1 gallon water

Soak meal in lukewarm water 24 hours, press the mixture through a fine sieve, boil until thick. Let stand 15 minutes and serve.

This brutally unseasoned sludge makes us know almost physically the rack and pang of Oliver’s hunger, and the authorities’ contempt for it. Politics, poverty, institutional sadism, and lovelessness are all part of this saltless paste.

M.F.K. Fisher’s books also tell of the drama of hunger, that central force which impels us from conception to death, and teaches us the pattern of much other longing. She sees our approach to food as a kind of behavior, in itself a description of the nuances of character. To juggle with Brillat-Savarin’s famous aphorism, we eat as we are.

She was born in 1908, the first child of parents of Scottish and Irish descent, her mother, Edith, a banker’s daughter; her father, Rex, “born into newspapers,” although he displayed a professional wanderlust similar to his eldest daughter’s, failing first with orange …

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