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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:

SOWANS OR FLUMMERY

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 groves and as “a beachcomber on Puget Sound,” before he settled his family in Whittier, California, where he bought and edited the local paper. Whittier (also the hometown of Richard Nixon) is now more or less a suburb of Los Angeles; but in 1912 it was a xenophobic Quaker town of fewer than five thousand people, where it was déclassé to be Episcopal, as the Kennedys were. The combination of now unimaginable spaciousness (the Whittier ranch where M.F.K. Fisher grew up is now a small park) and the dull clannishness of the town gave her one kind of childhood good for a storyteller, in which personality is thrown into high relief and domestic events take on the richness of novels. A child’s chance remark unearths a family skeleton; someone’s fancy additions to chicken salad are a secret vocabulary of failed social aspirations.

Her parents were among, or possibly constituted, the town’s intelligentsia, and she describes in her 1970 memoir, Among Friends, their belle epoque library, stocked with J.M. Barrie, Kipling, Richard Harding Davis. She writes of herself as a child, “I read the way alcoholics drink,” and it seems prophetic that the family’s thick unabridged dictionary, “since most of our semantical discussions happened at table,” was kept in the dining room. Speech and food, the two oral pleasures, were indissolubly blended for her from childhood, as they are less consciously for most of us, whose vocabulary of emotion—sweet, bitter, relish, poignant, tender—so often emigrates from the vocabulary for the sensations and textures of food.

Perhaps her fascination with kitchen matters was also stimulated by prejudice. She tells in Among Friends how the Quaker ladies of the town snubbed her Irish mother, on the grounds that “all Irish females in America were or at least had been cooks.” It is tempting to see Mrs. Fisher’s elegant taste as at least in part a riposte to small-town dogmas. At any rate, M.F.K. Fisher is surely the only semi-Irish semi-cook who has been a journalist, novelist, screenwriter, vineyardist, and celebrated beauty—photographed by Man Ray and in the immortal-goddess, Hollywood-studio style of George Hurrell.

Although she tells us that she “wrote as naturally as I breathed from about nine, when I almost but never finished my first novel,” she learned to work as a writer on her father’s newspaper, substituting “during vacation for the Society Editor, the Gardens and PTA man, and even the Sports Editor,” held to the strict schedule of copy due by 1 PM. Her disciplined production reflects that training, much in the way that her microscopic sense of incident does.

In 1929, she married the first of her three husbands, a professor of literature named Al Fisher, with whom she moved to France, where she studied French at the University of Dijon while her husband worked toward a doctorate. It was to entertain him that she began writing the sketches that would become her first book, Serve It Forth, although it was through the unexpected intervention of the artist Dillwyn Parrish, who would become her second husband and an important figure in her finest book, The Gastronomical Me, that Serve It Forth was published.

The Fishers lived in a milieu recognizable from early Hemingway stories and novels. They were part of the first generation of middle-class Americans to live in Europe instead of touring it, the young couples who crossed the Atlantic on the great ocean liners and discovered another world while Josephine Baker’s record J’ai Deux Amours played in the cafés across the street. Europe showed them that daily life is a matter not only of circumstance but of thinking about how to live, and it is this that gives Serve It Forth its subject, and helps it move agilely back and forth between disparate essays on food in the ancient world to memories of a French family’s painstaking preparation of snails, which becomes an allegory of the French dream of civilization, a portrait of a people for whom perfection was worth the trouble.

And in Serve It Forth, alongside the careful charm of the informative essays, are moments of pure storytelling. Some of these stories have the concentrated power of parable, with parable’s peculiar characteristic of enlisting the external world as narrator, in the form of a withering fig tree or a formerly great restaurant going to seed, as in “The Standing and the Waiting,” an oblique account among other things of her divorce from Al Fisher and remarriage to Dillwyn Parrish, a relative of Maxfield Parrish and an artist in his own right.

In the story, a remarried Mrs. Fisher takes her new husband to a restaurant in Burgundy where she and her first husband learned French gastronomy six years before. She wants him to enjoy the place as if it were part of their mutual past rather than hers alone. Of course he cannot, but we understand that through the faint smells of a dirty kitchen “following after the scullion like the silver of a snail” and the drunken clumsiness of a once acrobatically graceful waiter. The waiter, after spilling the wine with his trembling alcoholic hands, recovers his agility, partly through the urgency of Mrs. Fisher’s disappointment. But his renewed skill is a momentary miracle. Unknown to Mrs. Fisher, he has been fired that afternoon, and he mystifies her by lingering at the end of their meal, saying, “I have said I would stay until tomorrow for you. I would stay until the end of the world, truly.”

There is a complex and poignant pattern here of second chances won and lost. “We breathed freely,” she writes,

once out in the courtyard…. Chexbres [her private name for Parrish] took my hand gently, and pointed to the roofs, coloured tiles, Burgundian, drained of their colour now, but plainly patterned. I began to cry.

Implicit, too, in this prewar story is something of the impending fate of the Europe she knew and the loss of her own American naiveté, hardly capable of conceiving of the waiter Charles outside her relationship to him. And it is all done through a dinner chez Ribaudot.

She moved with Parrish to the wine country of Switzerland, between Lausanne and Vevey, where during the last years before the war they lived as vineyardists, until Parrish developed a rare and painful circulatory disease. Her second book, Consider the Oyster (1941), was written for him, but he did not live to see it published. It is a comedy of a book, a study of oysters as eaten by all classes, which narrates with self-mocking authority the natural history of the oyster and tucks in a recipe for making a pearl. It must be safe to say that Consider the Oyster is the only work on shellfish whose opening chapter, with its highspirited appreciation of bivalvean sexual ingenuity, owes a debt of style to Virginia Woolf’s comedy of androgyny, Orlando. “For about a year,” Mrs. Fisher writes,

this oyster…is a male, fertilizing a few hundred thousand eggs as best he can without ever knowing whether they swim by or not. Then one day, maternal longings surge between his two valves in his cold guts and gills and all his crinkly fringes. Necessity, that well-known mother, makes him one. He is a she.

From then on she, with occasional vacations of being masculine just to keep her hand in, bears her millions yearly.

Consider the Oyster marks M.F.K. Fisher’s emergence as a storyteller so confident that she can maneuver a reader through a narrative in which recipes enhance instead of interrupt the reader’s attention to the tales. She approaches a recipe as a published dream or wish, and the stories she tells here, about for example a hunter’s dawn breakfast of oysters and onions, are also stories of the pleasures and disillusionments of dreams fulfilled.

In Consider the Oyster, she treats storytelling as a natural extension of the sociability of sharing food. Her stories are composites not only of what she has to tell, but of what she has been told by French actresses or local pharmacists. If eating sustains life biologically, storytelling sustains it culturally; a story gives a person a second, fourth, a fifth life. A story of great charm in this book is about “the best oyster I never ate,” an account of her efforts to reconstruct the recipe of a certain kind of oyster loaf her mother ate in the 1890s at boarding school after lights out. The oyster loaf itself gives us the ambience of innocence and privilege at a turn-of-the century boarding school for young ladies, but the story is as much about a child searching for a way to imagine a parent as a girl, a carefree rule breaker instead of a powerful authority, as it is about food. Through storytelling, we can imagine intimately, almost live, events that haven’t happened to us.

  1. *

    It is a pity that the North Point edition now available omits some excerpts from books so little read that anthologies are about the only places they can be encountered. It is too bad to lose the poignantly pretentious dinner party in Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams, in which a family serves a desperately elaborate meal to their daughter’s snobbish suitor, who jilts her afterward. The angel cake and chicken salad, the plush-cushioned rocking chairs, the good-hearted social helplessness, and the unfair punishment for it, are fragments of Americana that shouldn’t be swept away. That is true too of the episode from Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River, which captures with careeningly ambitious lyricism—”Magic drunkenness…you came to us with music, poetry and wild joy when we were twenty, when we reeled home at night…knowing only that we were young, and drunk, and twenty, and that the power of mighty poetry was in us”—the amorous alcoholism of the Twenties.

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