Having Christmased to rib-squeaking capacity on capon and chestnuts, Stilton and sweetmeats, I eased cautiously into the New Year, installed in a (large) chair by the fire to feast further, but less fatteningly, on the remarkable writings of M. F. K. Fisher.
M. F. K. Fisher (or ‘M. F.’ as she was called by her friends) has only recently become a new and exciting presence in my life, despite her having lived from 1908 to 1992 and published the first of her 26 books, Serve It Forth, as long ago as 1937. She was then one of the relatively few women to attempt a type of social reform in cooking and eating by writing – loudly and coherently – about it.
Her approach was considered exemplary, and the absence of a feminine name (always initials only) led people – even the British publisher of her first volume – to assume that these books must have been by a man: no female could possibly have written with such style.
That I had managed to live for so many years in my food-orientated world without consciously encountering her initials – or at least without them stirring any sort of interest – is more a sad reflection of my own ignorance and lack of adventurousness than anything else, because her work has been in print for most of the past twenty years. Much contemporary food-writing is about all-swinging, all-prancing celebrities featured in gory technicolour, and it is possible to overlook books that do not have a picture and recipe per page or the ubiquitous sticker proclaiming the author to be this or that of-the-year. Quite suddenly, however, and for little reason other than my passion for oysters and the slim insouciance of the book in which I was being asked to ‘consider’ them (Consider the Oyster, 1941), I was abruptly and totally hooked.
M. F. K. Fisher’s books were published in both the United States and Britain, but her journalistic writing was for the New Yorker in the 1960s, at a time when she really needed to work to support herself and her daughters. It was during this period that she broke into the American food establishment, which included such prominent and respected individuals as Julia Child, James Beard and Craig Claiborne, by writing The Cooking of Provincial France for Time-Life’s ‘Foods of the World’ series. It was Julia Child who encouraged Fisher to meet Judith Jones, who became her editor at Knopf, and this led to the publication of several further books, starting with Among Friends, a childhood memoir, in 1970.
M. F.’s father, a fourth-generation newspaper proprietor in a small Quaker town in California, was the strong influence on her writing career. From the age of 15 she was required to fill in during the holidays for the various section editors.
I learned in my early days, if I had not already known it through my cells and bones, that there’s never time to rewrite and to consult the dictionary and brood or ponder. Father’s paper went to press at three in the afternoon, six days a week, and my stuff had to be on the copy-editor’s spindle by one at the latest. So all the time I was sharpening pencils for the older reporters and running [errands] . . . my mind was shaping sentences and learning without even knowing it to punctuate, and even to think, as naturally as I breathed.
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher did write exquisitely. She also wrote a vast amount, and one might fear indigestion on so hefty a diet of opinion, scathing contempt and passion for the many and varied food experiences of her long and pretty colourful life. Still, I have yet to tire of either her prose or her subject. Every sentence draws me on to the next with its confidence, palpable enjoyment and dry wit – even when she is only plotting the slow progress of an uneventful family meal.
Take the description in The Gastronomical Me (1943) of her maternal grandmother, who lived with the Kennedy family on and off during M. F.’s West Coast American childhood:
She was a handsome dignified old lady, [who] had been told by her doctors to belch whenever she felt like it, which she did . . . long voluptuous Gargantuan belches, anywhere and any time at all, which unless you knew Grandmother would have led you to believe that our table was one of fabulous delights.
This was not the case: her grandmother imposed her own health-driven dietary rules on the household, forbidding all fried foods, pastries, oils and seasonings. It was Ora the cook (who later killed and sliced up her mother before cutting her own throat) who inspired Mary Frances.
Ora loved to cook, the way some people love to pray, or dance, or fight. Her meals were among the best I have ever eaten . . . all the things we had always accepted as food, but presented in ways that baffled and delighted us.
But Fisher and her sister were not allowed to comment on the thrill that they felt at Ora’s creations, and their grandmother was increasingly unimpressed by the cook’s influence on the household:
‘Their table manners are getting worse,’ Grandmother observed between belches. And that was true, if you believed, as she and unhappy millions of Anglo-Saxons have been taught to believe, that food should be consumed without comment of any kind but above all without sign of praise or enjoyment.
We easily forget – if we ever knew – that to discuss, speculatively and sensuously, the food we eat as we eat it has only recently become relatively acceptable in this country (and in the US, I assume), which is why Fisher’s passion must have seemed all the more extraordinary in her time.
Mary Frances developed her interest and skill in cooking on the family cook’s days off. She enjoyed the feeling of importance it gave her, the sense of being grown up. She was in control. I have the impression that this was a fairly key aspect of her character. Many of the views she expresses are concerned with the way she feels things ought or, more often, ought not to be done. And she doesn’t hold back when it comes to the quality of food and the experience of consuming it: ‘The damnable things are fakes; they admit it on the labels . . . “simulated” Romano, Cheddar “type”, and so on. They are flatulently proud of being pasteurized.’
But she does acknowledge and attempt to justify her dogmatism, as in the introduction to An Alphabet for Gourmets, written in 1949:
If a woman can be made more peaceful, a man fuller and richer, children happier, by a changed approach to the basically brutish satisfaction of hunger, why should not I, the person who brought about that change, feel a definite and rewarding urge to proselytize?
And how about this for the opening of ‘The Curious Nose’, the fourth chapter of her first book, Serve It Forth – a sort of chatty history of food through the ages; first the world’s and then her own:
Central Heating, French rubber goods, and cookbooks are three amazing proofs of man’s ingenuity in transforming necessity into art, and, of these, cookbooks are perhaps most lastingly delightful.
Yet she continues scathingly about the proliferation of cookbooks from the mid-eighteenth century onwards and the fact that they were frequently pompous and impractical. She felt that women were tied by necessity or ‘the piping of their husbands’ empty stomachs’, rather than by any thrill or enjoyment, to cook ‘doggedly, desperately, more often than not with cumulative if uninspired skill’.
M. F. K. Fisher was not really a cookery writer, nor even a cook – at least not in the way that one considers Elizabeth David or Jane Grigson or Prue Leith to be cooks first and foremost. Fisher was extremely knowledgeable, certainly, accomplished and well-read in her subject, but she was a raconteuse, more preoccupied with the art of eating, of living, of appreciating with depth and determination all that she believed to be vital to life. And despite possibly feeling that she ought to have had more success in it herself, love was intrinsic to all that she thought, felt and strove to convey in her work:
People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do? . . . The easiest answer is to say [that] . . . it seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it . . . and it is all one.
As a writer of cookery books or recipes (many of which she had acquired from all the inspiring places she visited and meals she had consumed, others from her wide reading and her translating of Brillat Savarin’s Physiology of Taste) she displays an attractive diffidence, often qualifying her bold instruction with rather a shy rider – this may not work, but it ought to; the success of this really depends on the skill of the cook; much might depend on the weather or ingredients; add whatever you feel like, in whatever quantity you might enjoy – that sort of thing. Not the most encouraging approach for a novice who is looking for strict rules and the assurance of success, but refreshing for those who can cook with confidence and are hoping to add a fillip or refinement to their repertoire. And for both the novice and the expert, there is plenty of full-blown passion which enthuses one to surge ahead with gusto.
She doesn’t advocate fancy stuff though – quite the opposite. ‘For my own meals I like simplicity above all.’ But, in the very next sentence: ‘I like newness in what I serve, perhaps because any interest I may thus stir in my fellow-diners is indirect flattery of myself.’ An honest acknowledgement of a feeling that runs through her work – a self-belief and pride as a performer of sorts. Nothing wrong with that, but at times I have found myself asking whether or not I truly like her? Is she a little too coquettish and precocious; too aware of her beauty and the spell under which people fell when they met her or sat round her table, those people whom she expected not to be dull – ‘for it is very dull to be at a table with dull people’ – and who had to consume adequately: ‘Dining partners . . . should be chosen for their ability to eat – and drink – with the right mixture of abandon and restraint. They should enjoy food, and look upon its preparation and its degustation as one of the human arts.’ Just a hint of pretension perhaps – or am I being unfair? – when her words tickle so deliciously and flow like balm, and I am neither required to sit and flatter her with my interest nor attempt being undull in her presence.
Besides, I have yet to discover a single word that is critical of her – she was universally adored it seems. As Alan Davidson wrote in 1988 in his introduction to an essay she had written about the nature of people who ‘love to cook’:
Among the famous writers on cookery in North America one stands apart, a star with her own share of the sky, a star whose luminosity differs in kind from all the others: this is M. F. K. Fisher. A quick look through her books will give the impression that they are about food – as indeed, in a sense, they are. But reading them reveals their transcendent quality; they are really about life itself.
And Prue Leith, in a new introduction to With Bold Knife and Fork (the 1993 reprint of the 1968 volume) is so excited by Fisher’s own original opening – ‘This book is about how I like to cook, most of the time, for people in my world, and it gives some of the reasons. These have made life enjoyable, so they may be of interest to other human beings’ – that she follows with: ‘Those two short sentences, so straightforward, modest, simple, convey more than such ingenuous language has a right to. Into them Fisher somehow gets her love of friends and food, and demonstrates her warmth and easy attitude to life and to writing.’
When How to Cook a Wolf was published in the States in 1942, it was reviewed in the literary columns instead of being relegated to the women’s pages, and the literary critic of the New Yorker, Clifton Fadiman, commented, ‘M. F. K. Fisher writes about food as others do about love, only rather better.’ So much of her writing is refreshing common sense. All the more so now, with complication and variety at such a peak, and supermarkets falling over themselves to provide the newest, most outlandish mixtures and combinations in off-the-peg meals, along with health freakish admonishments about what we should or should not eat. In How to Cook a Wolf, which was published during the worst wartime shortages, she provides lots of practical advice, but she also ridicules the exhortations of ‘women’s magazines’ to consume a ‘balanced’ diet at every meal. She believes that balance is important, but that it should be considered over the course of each day, not each mealtime, and there are five full pages expressing her views quite strongly on this matter, which are as valid today as when she first wrote them.
I believe that it is just as well M. F. K. F. is not around today to witness the televised antics of celebrity chefs; the integrity of her métier is being challenged. I leave you with some of her last words, while encouraging you to look out some more:
I have tried not to mislead readers, just because I used words better than they did. (I have never told them to add marshmallows to their chicken salad!) In general I think that I have been trusted to state the facts.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 13 © Jane Lunzer Gifford 2007