While the reputation of M.F.K.Fisher as 20th-century America’s finest food writer is clearly established, this prolific author and prose stylist rejected the “food writer” label.
For Fisher, the writing was never devoted to food or drink itself; her fascination was with the hunger of the human race. Fisher’s keen, appreciative eye and elegant, seductive voice earned a wide readership in nonfiction books and in essays, articles, and short stories published in magazines such as the Saturday Review, the New Yorker, Gourmet, and Vanity Fair over a career that spanned almost 50 years. The poet W.H.Auden, among others, noted the excellence of her prose.
Fisher, the daughter of a California newspaper editor and educated at three American colleges and the University of Dijon, began her writing career as a freelance magazine writer. She spent her early adult years in southern France, Switzerland, and Mexico before returning to California, where she worked briefly as a screenwriter at Paramount Studios.
Her first book, Serve It Forth (1937), established Fisher as a charming and nontraditional food writer who combined scholarship with humorous anecdotes and clever social commentary, writing about the world of food and drink as a devoted amateur who combined ambitious research with good grace. Like her subsequent books on food (Consider the Oyster, 1941; How to Cook a Wolf, 1942.; The Gastronomical Me, 1943; and An Alphabet for Gourmets, 1949—all five reprinted as the collection The Art of Eating, 1954), this work revealed Fisher as an intellectually ambitious and perceptive writer for whom food preparation was only a small part of a compelling human story. In How to Cook a Wolf, a deft and humorous treatment of wartime rationing, the resourceful Fisher offers advice on what to do when the wolf is at your door: invite him in, seduce him, and cook him for supper. In her foreword to The Gastronomical Me, she stakes out for herself the territory of hunger: “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 other…There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.”
The decade of the 1960s marked her greatest contribution to scholarly gastronomic writing. She produced a highly entertaining study of folk remedies, elixirs, and nostrums (A Cordiall Water, 1961) and a comprehensive survey of the history of European and American wine-making (The Story of Wine, 1962.). In 1968 she collaborated with fellow gourmets Julia Child and Michael Field on The Cooking of Provincial France. But the scholarly work for which she was most praised was her 1949 translation of Brillat- Savin’s Physiologie du goût (1825; Physiology of Taste).
Fisher also enjoyed a strong reputation as a writer of memoirs whose autobiographical pieces preserve the fragile, disappearing spirit of times and places. Whether the focus of her remembrances is a Quaker community in the southern California of her childhood (Among Friends, 1971), the South of France where she spent some 20 years (A Map of Another Town, 1964; Two Towns in Provence, 1983; The Boss Dog, 1991; Long Ago in France: The Years in Dijon, 1991), or the northern California wine country in which she spent her final 22 years as an elegant Grande Dame of Sonoma Valley gourmet society (As They Were, 1982, and various essays and magazine articles 1970–92), Fisher captures and celebrates precarious 20th-century local cultures whose worlds are being impinged upon by fast food franchises and shopping malls.
Only one volume of her collected essays has been published to date (As They Were).
Among the attributes cited by its reviewers is Fisher’s capacity for drawing vignettes in powerfully sensuous language. She brings to the description of everyday activities a cultural anthropologist’s sense of ritual and symbology. Clifton Fadiman has spoken of her as a philosopher of food. Taken as a whole, the body of Fisher’s work celebrates the complexities of satisfying our appetites; it explores the culture of sensual and intelligent living.
Her prose style is warm yet precise, in the fashion of E.B. White (admired for his control of American language and closely observed life), the one essayist Fisher identified as influencing her own writing. Fisher’s readers encounter a passionate and charming voice. In a 1991 interview, the 82-year-old Fisher identified her composed and seductive approach to the reader: “I have to write toward somebody I love. Express myself as that person I love would want me to be.” Fisher’s essaying voice conveys a rich sense of appreciating the moment, of taking joy in the world she sees around her.
After reaching her 75th year, Fisher entered an impressively productive decade in which she published seven new books and saw several of her earlier works reprinted.
After developing rheumatoid arthritis and, later, Parkinson’s disease in the 1980s, she wrote by dictating to an assistant. Her book of essays and meditations on aging, Sister Age (1984), expresses the sentiments of a woman who accumulates experience with frank, unsentimental good humor and grace. Near the end of her career, she received considerable recognition for her literary accomplishments, being elected to both the American Academy and the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher. Born Mary Frances Kennedy Brenton, 3 July 1908 in Albion, Missouri. Studied at Illinois College, Occidental College, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Dijon, France, 1929–32. Married Alfred Young Fisher, 192.9 (divorced, 1938). Lived in Dijon, from 1929, and Vevey, Switzerland, from 1938. Married Dillwyn Parrish, 1940 (died, 1942). Screenwriter in Hollywood, briefly after 1942. Married Donald Friede, 1945 (divorced, 1951): one daughter and one son. Lived in northern California for the last two decades of her life.
Awards: California Literature Silver Medal, for With Bold Knife and Fork, 1970; Los Angeles Times Robert Kirsch Award, 1984. Member, American Academy, and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Died in Glen Ellen, California, 22 June 1992.
Essays and Related Prose
Serve It Forth, 1937
Consider the Oyster, 1941
How to Cook a Wolf, 1942
The Gastronomical Me, 1943
An Alphabet for Gourmets, 1949
The Art of Eating: The Collected Gastronomical Works, 1954
With Bold Knife and Fork, 1969
As They Were, 1982
Sister Age (includes fiction), 1984
Last House: Reflections, Dreams, and Observations, 1943–1991, 1995
Other writings: the novel Not Now But Now (1947) (also coauthored a novel with her second husband, 1939), short stories, books about cooking, food, and wine, and memoirs.
Also translated The Physiology of Taste by Brillat-Savarin (1949).
Angelou, Maya, “M.F.K.Fisher,” People Magazine, 24 January 1983:63+
Eames, David, “How to Cook a Life,” Quest 81 (June 1981): 38–42
Ferrary, Jeanette, Between Friends: M.F.K.Fisher and Me, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991
Fussell, Betty, “The Prime of M.F.K.Fisher,” Lear’s, July-August 1989:67–71
Greene, Bert, “America’s Finest Food Writer—M.F.K.Fisher: An Intimate Portrait,” Food and Wine, December 1986:28+
Hawes, Elizabeth, “M.F.K.Fisher: A Profile,” Gourmet, November 1983:50+
Lazar, David, Conversations with M.F.K.Fisher, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992
Reardon, Joan, M.F.K.Fisher, Julia Child, and Alice Waters: Celebrating the Pleasures of the Table, New York: Harmony, 1991
Reed, Julia, “Eating Well Is the Best Revenge,” U.S. News and World Report, 8 September 1986:62+
Reichel, Ruth, “M.F.K.Fisher,” Los Angeles Times, 6 June 1991: Food Section, 1+
Shapiro, L., “The Fine Art of Remembering,” Newsweek, 24 September 1990:71+
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