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.
In 1942, having moved back to the United States, Mrs. Fisher published How to Cook a Wolf, her scenes of domestic life during wartime that capture the tone of homefront life as richly and as consciously as the pop music of the period. In the preface to the revised edition, she writes that it has become “as curious, as odd, as any fat old goldribbed volume called…Ladies’ Indispensable Assistant and Companion.” This book, with its advice on coping with rations, fuel shortages, blackouts, and bombings, is a shockingly radical book about eating and the psychology of eating. In 1941, her advice on how to procure fresh fish for supper was to “go out along the river or in your dinghy at the tide’s change, if you can get past sentries and avoid the mines.”
How to Cook a Wolf is a book about surviving in wartime; with its deadpan wit and its evocation of luxuries among such grim necessities as soap making, it is also a book about how to want to survive. Mrs. Fisher can write movingly about scrounging up an edible supper because she is writing about sharing meals as enactments or betrayals of what we have learned about how to live together.
In “How Not to Be an Earthworm,” she writes on cooking in bomb shelters. Here she contrasts sample institutional menus for twenty-four-hour emergency rations (breakfast, for example, consists of tomato juice, peanut butter, soda crackers, and hot milk chocolate) with her own suggestions for emergency shelf supplies, emphasizing foods that “work miracles of restoration” for different personalities, desserts for people whom sugar comforts, meat for people who feel threatened without it, cheese and bread because people have survived on them for so long. With its mix of purely practical and psychologically subtle suggestions, “How Not to Be an Earthworm” tells how to provide intelligently for oneself while imaginatively considering the needs of others, in a generous exchange of human knowledge, which is precisely what war most opposes.
During this period, M.F.K. Fisher found work as a screenwriter for Paramount, moving in the wartime Hollywood milieu of Man Ray, Nunnally Johnson, Groucho Marx; Hollywood was crowded with refugee talent, and its famous apartment complex “The Garden of Allah” was known as “The Algonquin of the West.” Perhaps something about the displacement from Europe to California dislodged the material of The Gastronomical Me; it was under these circumstances that she published, in 1943, the most vivid and sustained of her books, a self-portrait through food spanning the years 1912 to a harrowing visit to Mexico in 1941. Each memory is presented separately, in the form of a self-contained story, with food as its sensual catalyst.
In her foreword, M.F.K. Fisher spoke directly about her way of writing, explaining that in writing about hunger, she had found a way to write about love and power and danger:
I tell about myself, and how I ate bread on a lasting hillside, or drank red wine in a room now blown to bits, and it happens without my willing it that I am telling too about the people with me then, and their other deeper needs for love and happiness.
She writes about cooking and eating as they reflect and change character, both of people and places. The confusing stirrings of sexuality are remembered through the trauma of eating an oyster for the first time at a boarding school banquet, while senior girls danced with junior girls in an eerie atmosphere of social rigidity and repressed lust.
Meals and the way they are served can be acute memorials of national character, as with this gala evening aboard a German ship, circa 1935:
And the last night…we went to a Forest Feast…The picture [of Hitler] was still there, but almost hidden by real pine boughs everywhere, with cabin boys hidden behind them whistling like birds, and a delightful smell in the air. The meal was long and amazing, with things like truites au bleu and wild boar…. And at the end of this solemn banquet, so elaborately planned and carefully performed, we were given wooden pistols and baskets of little white cotton balls. It was so funny, so weighty and well-meaning, that Chexbres’ mother…popped one bullet straight at a small dour professor who always ate alone…. He stood up, bowed, and left the room.
In another story in The Gastronomical Me, “To Feed Such Hunger,” Fisher recounts an episode of prewar European politics practiced unconsciously by means of gastronomic and sexual perversity. The story tells of an evening’s adventure between a Czech and German student in Dijon, Maritza, the girl, and Klorr, who “talked mostly of the coming renaissance in Germany.” Mrs. Fisher is called to Maritza’s room because the landlord is worried by the sounds of the girl’s hysterical moaning. Inside, Mrs. Fisher discovers the girl lying on the bed, “naked except for a few crumbs and grapeskins on her belly,” and nearby, a table
set up by the fireplace, with a linen tablecloth…a plate of beautiful grapes with dark pink skins, an empty champagne bottle and a fine glass and a little round cake with a piece out of it. It looked like the kind of table a butler arranges in the second act of an old-fashioned bedroom comedy, except that there was only one glass, one plate, one fork.
And “I knew,” writes Mrs. Fisher, “Klorr had been supping there, while Maritza lay naked on the bed and moaned for him. And I know that he had put the empty grapeskins on her protesting flesh without ever touching her.” This sexual still life brilliantly suggests the power and contempt that would soon be repeated on a larger scale.
Although Mrs. Fisher remarried, raised children, and continued indefatigably to produce distinguished books, including her authoritative translation of the gastronomic bellelettrist Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste (1949) and an acknowledged failure, her static novel Not Now But Now (1947), The Gastronomical Me remains her masterpiece. Charles Rosen has written that “many of the finest writers on cookery are writers of pastoral. The cookbooks that touch the heart most strongly are those that take us back in time—to mother’s cooking and childhood memories or to an ancient and more splendid age. The deepest of all pastoral sentiments is nostalgia, a longing for a past that is ideally mythical,” that we “repossess symbolically only by eating.”
Mrs. Fisher is capable of passages of radiant pastoral, but she is also the least idealistic of writers on food and cooking. For her cooking can be an implicit or explicit exercise of power as when, in the eerie and funny tale “Define This Word,” from The Gastronomical Me, she is relentlessly force-fed perfect dishes by a food-obsessed waitress:
She pushed her face nearer, and looked with ferocious gloating at the pâté inside me…her voice grew higher…. “Here is the trout, Madame. You are to eat it au bleu, and you should never do so if you had not seen it alive. For if the trout were dead when it was plunged into the court bouillon it would not turn blue…. Any trout is glad, truly glad, to be prepared by Monsieur Paul. His little gills are pinched, with one flash of the knife he is empty, and then he curls in agony in the bouillon….” She panted triumph at me, and hurried out with the bucket.
Because The Gastronomical Me is autobiographical, following Mrs. Fisher from childhood to widowhood in different countries, we are able to see its food not only as a matter of personal taste, but as a perpetual emotional and social force within a life. Here are meals as seductions, educations, diplomacies, communions. Unique among the classics of gastronomic writing, with its glamorous but not glamorized settings, its wartime drama and its powerful love story, The Gastronomical Me is a book about adult loss, survival, and love.
These themes recur recognizably in her recent volume of stories, Sister Age (1983), among the few valuable pieces of reportage on the subject of old age, unsentimental in its intimate account of physical deterioration, fury, and sensuality. The book’s special distinction, though, is in its close-up portraits. In “The Second Time Around,” a tale set in Aix-en-Provence in 1954, there are brilliant sketches of two French women, one exhausted by experience almost to the point of insanity, the other having become as meticulous as a medical diagnostician. Both are elderly women trying to eke out livings in impoverished postwar France by turning their homes into boarding houses. Madame Perblantier clings crazedly to her destroyed landed-gentry way of life:
The dinner was…elaborately presented as was every meal…plates changed from four to six times, with the gold fruit knife laid this way…over the steel cheese knife and the pearl-handled fruit fork…. There we all sat in the luster of this insane bright shell…the old poodle…making a mess on the tiles because there had always been a valet de chambre to trot him out before bedtime and now Madame was simply too bone-weary to do it.
Instead of self-destructive gallantry, Madame Duval’s strategy for self-preservation is to detach herself so effectively from the people around her that they are almost driven mad on her behalf:
She deliberately collected about her a group of near-maniacs whom she used as tools; they would scream in substitution for her, and haggle in her place, and strike people she would like to punish with her own whip.
This is a book about old age as part of the sensual life, as intense as her writing about food, capturing the physical workings of emotion itself.
All of her stories, with their evocations of Mason jars, “the old-fashioned bluish kind like Mexican glass, full of cream,” and snail shells “of the most luminous gentle browns…like the hair of a Leonardo Virgin” are the verbal equivalents of still life, with the added pleasure that we know the stories involved with the fruit and flesh she shows us.
It is fitting to associate her work with scenes by American still-life and genre painters like Raphaelle Peale or John Peto. Although W.H. Auden compared her to Colette, and her English prose has the aching particularity of someone who has spent a substantial part of life speaking a foreign language, M.F.K. Fisher’s work is strikingly American in her sense of the continuity between domestic and moral life, the Emersonian sense that daily life is philosophy.
Her books have traceable roots to the genre of domestic “companions” popular in America just after the civil war, books like Marion Harland’s Commonsense in the Household, which M.F.K. Fisher helped to rediscover. These books were designed to advise on topics ranging from bread baking to alcoholism to cultivated reading—even their recipes seem a form of counsel. If the English Isabella Beeton’s slightly earlier Cookery and Household Management was the Oxford English Dictionary of domestic life, Marion Harland’s Commonsense resembled Walden as a book that dealt not only with managing a household but creating one, cousin to M.F.K. Fisher’s books in their American willingness to construct an education out of the materials life itself provides. Both writers share the direct speech, the sense of implied dialogue that was part of Thoreau’s ideal of writing as “conversation folded many times thick.” In Mrs. Fisher’s case, one might say she bears roughly the same relation to cooks as Thoreau does to carpenters.
M.F.K. Fisher represents a type of American artist still cherished in the national imagination, one who has knocked around the world, and so understands lives lived under many different conditions. At the heart of her stories, and even in her recipes, is a vision of choice and how choices shape life. “The ability to choose what food you must eat, and knowingly, will make you able to choose other less transitory things with courage and finesse,” she writes. It is in eating that we first learn something of our power over our own life and death, and our capacity to live in company with others.
December 7, 1989
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. ↩