AAfter a lifetime of reverence for fine dining, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher died on June 22, 1992 at the age of 83 with, we hope, a belly full of the seafood she so adored. Just a year before her death, at LA times Profil found the author “propped up on pillows” at her ranch in Sonoma, California, but still enthusiastically baked oysters with spinach. They were, wrote Ruth Reichl, “one of the few sensual pleasures that Fisher, who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, had left.” Her voice was “reduced to a whisper,” and she could neither read nor hold a pen to write. So, an oyster feast was a small but important moment of celebration, surpassed only by the friendly cats that jumped onto her bed during the interview.
Throughout her career, Fisher has been the polar opposite of the food-as-fuel brigade. The act of eating is usually reduced to two categories: eating to live or living to eat. Fisher decided firmly on the latter. Her elegant, exciting prose fused the practical with the sensual; Eating was a necessity, yes, but it could also be the highlight of your day — a chance to savor every last drop, scoop, and bite of what life has to offer. But food also provided a much-needed contrast to the darker moments in Fisher’s life, including the suicides of her brother and second husband that same year.
Fisher’s fusion of food writing with personal experience provided the template for so many of Nigella Lawson’s chicken recipes in her 2010 cookbook kitchen — which “brings our long-absent mother back to the kitchen and to the table with us” — to the impassioned personal essays found in the Contemporary Food Newsletter Vittles. Recent re-releases of Fisher’s most popular works by Daunt Books – the next being a new version from 1989 An alphabet for gourmets coming November, complete with a foreword by young British cookbook author Ella Risbridger – have gone a long way in confirming Fisher as one of the all-time greats, but she’s still a name rarely discussed outside of foodie circles. But there were probably very few like her before she began writing.
In the introduction to her first book, 1937’s Keep serving it, Fisher briefly discusses the types of “what to eat” books that were on the market in the early 20th century. There were only two, she argued, and the first kind was dead boring, “boring [and] thorough”. The second type was “usually French” and perhaps unnecessarily wasteful. Fisher’s own writing fell into neither camp, definitely not boring but certainly not overdone either, and giddily celebrated nutrition in all its forms. Keep serving it – like the 30 or so published works that were to follow, including posthumous collections of letters and journals – was direct, witty and instructive. A brisk leap through the history of cuisine, the 150 pages might not have been particularly in-depth, but it was entertaining, celebrating the discovery of the humble potato, Roman gourmets and Elizabethan sugared meats alike.
“I might as well have written about gardening or love or politics or some other great thing,” Fisher explained in a 1982 interview with Christian Science Monitor. “But none of that exists unless we’ve had something to eat.” In particular Fisher herself, who really excelled as she reflected on her own culinary experiences, particularly during her years in France. These are addressed in Keep serving itbut dove with devotion in the jubilant 1943 memoir The gastronomic me. It was published when she was 35 and features an imposing figure named Chexbres; a nom de cuisine bestowed on her second husband – and the love of her life – the writer, illustrator and painter Dillwyn Parrish.
Mary Frances Kennedy was born in 1908 in the city of Albion, Michigan, and her family moved to the warmer climes of California when she was a child. She never denied that she lived a life of privilege, reaping the rewards of a private education and writing as a teenager to help her father, who was the editor of the local newspaper. Eventually, she arrived at the famed liberal arts school Occidental College, where she met her first husband, Alfred “Al” Fisher. They married in 1929 – Mary Frances was just 21 – and then moved to France so Al could pursue a doctorate at the University of Dijon.
There the couple moved into a guest house run by a local family, and it was here that Fisher fell in love with French cuisine – an obsession shared by her equally ravenous contemporary, chef Julia Child, who was born four years after Fisher became. They returned to California a few years later, and Fisher’s writing quickly took off. Their first piece in print was in a 1935 issue of the Automobile Club of Southern California magazine, publication of which coincided with Dillwyn Parrish and his wife Gigi, who became close friends of the Fishers.
During this time, Fisher lived in the Eagle Rock and Highland Park neighborhoods of Los Angeles, worked part-time at a card store, and regularly visited the LA Public Library to research old cookbooks. Inspired, she began writing essays about food, and Parrish’s sister, children’s author Anne Parrish, introduced them to her publisher Harpers. The writings would become Keep serving it, which was published in 1937, the same year that Fisher and Al broke up. Fisher has long denied anything else unforeseen happened between her and Parrish before she and Als split. Despite this, Fisher and Parrish would marry the following year, and the couple lived in Switzerland until war broke out in 1939.
In 1941 Fisher published one of her most popular works, Look at the oyster, a passionate tribute to the beauty of the shell. With a mix of recipes – including “Oysters Rockefeller,” inspired by legendary New Orleans seafood restaurant Antoine’s – and short, exuberant essays, the book not only highlighted the supposedly aphrodisiac properties of oysters, but also delved into the danger they pose could. One essay begins with Fisher casually recalling a man’s headstone in Maine that read, “He died of a bad oyster.” In re-launching the book in 2018, food writer Ruby Tandoh praised Fisher for her ability to blend a touch of darkness into her prose. “This writing isn’t the high-gloss, always-cheerful lifestyle journalism that dominates so much food media today,” Tandoh explained. “Where there is hunger, there is the shadow of death, yes, but also the promise of indulgence.” The book’s occasionally existential tone somberly matched the fact that Parrish – whose leg suffered from blood clots and burns sustained by illness called Buerger’s disease – shot himself in the woods near the home he shared with his beloved wife in Hemet, California. Parrish died just before Fisher had finished writing the book.
The following year, Fisher focused on the nation’s problems rather than her own, writing the famous How to cook a wolf, a practical guide for home cooks dealing with wartime food shortages. Decades before Jack Monroe Cook tin can, she offered advice on how to spice up canned food, make calf brains tasty and conjure up DIY mouthwash. However, modern editions of the book advise readers against the latter due to the presence of toxic borax. Around the same time, the quick-witted Fisher began working at Paramount Studios writing jokes for Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour’s popular Road to… movies. She was so good at it that the studio accused her of plagiarism when it took her just half an hour to write a flawless three-minute sketch.
She followed that with her masterpiece, The gastronomic me, which was written in three months during her first pregnancy. It’s packed with powerful images, from dining on a decades-old pie in Burgundy and cooking strawberry jam with her grandmother as a child, to what looks a lot like a crush on an older girl at boarding school as she enjoys her very first oyster. The book also includes a powerful chapter called “The Flaw,” an anti-war polemic served as an ode to eating white beans and drinking fizzy wine on a Swiss train in the summer of 1939.
Fisher would continue to write – and eat, of course – for many decades to come. 1982, named after the publication of a five-decade family and travel anthology as they were, ThatNew York Times wrote that the book would perhaps “take Ms. Fisher’s gastronomic curse and persuade a world to celebrate her as the doyenne of food writers that she deserves much higher literary status”. The claim that food writing isn’t quite as important as other forms of writing is not only silly but also downright ill-informed – not least because, as Fisher himself often wrote, it is food writing that makes all other forms of writing writing brings together.
“It seems to me that our three basic needs, food and safety and love, are so mixed and mixed up and intertwined that we cannot think directly of one without the others,” she wrote in the foreword The gastronomic me. “So it happens that when I write about hunger, I’m actually writing about love and the hunger for it.”
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/mfk-fisher-books-food-gastronomical-me-b2105936.html MFK Fisher’s decadent, sensual food writing remains pure self-care