Culinary Giants

The very surprising M.F.K. Fisher

Pioneer memoirist rewrote the rules of food writing

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M.F.K. Fisher had a way of surprising people. Take the name, for instance. Hiding behind those genderless initials stood a woman. That was a shocker in the 1930s. For anyone who could write so confidently and exult in a subject so base as food had to be a man, maybe a "frail young don from Oxford" or so her first publishers hoped.

Yet by the time she died, 20 years ago this month at the age of 83, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher had changed forever the notion of what food writing could be — and who could write it.

"Oh, she was the pioneer," says Barbara Haber of Winchester, Mass., a food historian and author of "From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals." "She started the whole genre of food and memoir writing. ... She was the first, in this country anyway, to take food seriously in that way."

For Haber, who once thought she had to justify being a food writer, Fisher proved "you can be a serious writer and write about food."

Nor did food writing have to stick to the safe confines of cookbooks and recipes as was expected of women writers in her day. Fisher made that clear in her very first book, "Serve It Forth," in 1937 as noted by her biographer, Joan Reardon.

"She used recipes as she said: 'Recipes in my book will be there like birds in a tree — if there is a comfortable branch.' She was not interested in writing about food as such. She was interested in writing about food that was interesting to her," says Reardon, a Chicagoan, author of "Poet of the Appetites: The Lives and Loves of M.F.K. Fisher."

Fisher did not consider herself a food writer. And, she wasn't, in the context of her time. Fisher's focus, as she memorably described it in 1943's "The Gastronomical Me," reached out to "wilder, more insistent hungers."

"We must eat," she wrote. "If, in the face of that dread fact, we can find other nourishment, and tolerance and compassion for it, we'll be no less full of dignity."

Fisher was a complicated woman with hungers of her own. She was married three times, divorced twice and widowed once. She had two daughters, and raised them as a single mother in the Beaver Cleaver 1950s. Writing daily was like a fix, Fisher once said, but it was a habit borne out of the pressing imperative of earning enough money to survive.

"She was a stylist, a wonderful writer, a natural writer," Haber says of Fisher. "She wrote 'How to Cook a Wolf' in a month. The ideas flowed, the writing flowed."

Fisher wrote many sorts of things in her life, even a very boring novel. Food often served as a framing device in her works, which combined a signature mix of culinary, historical and sociological trivia leavened with remembrances, sometimes surprising, always perceptive, of her life and loves.

Readers could trace her movements from a girlhood in Whittier, Calif., to married life in provincial France to her mature years in California wine country. Her voice was deep, knowing and hovered somewhere near the soul.

Yet, that persona on the page wasn't always what one encountered in the flesh. Betty Fussell, a New York City journalist and author, says Fisher fostered "an illusion of intimacy" with her writing.

"(Fisher) was so complicated, so puzzling, but in ways I so admire,'' says Fussell who served up equal spoonfuls of admiration and wariness for Fisher in a 1983 book, "Masters of American Cookery: The American Food Revolution & the Chefs Who Shaped It."

"I'm always puzzled whenever I think about her. There is one word or phrase that, for me, describes it. She was artful, an artful dodger. That's one reason she was so interesting. She created that writing person so early and so completely and it draws you in so fully."

In her words

"There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine is drunk. And that is my answer, when people ask me: Why do you write about hunger, and not wars and love?" — "The Gastronomical Me" (1943)

"As the steak disappeared, I watched her long old earlobes pinken. I remembered what an endocrinologist had told me once, that after rare beef and wine, when the lobes turned red, was the time to ask favors or tell bad news." — "Serve It Forth" (1937)

"An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life." — "Consider the Oyster" (1941)

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