A couple of weeks ago I posted a list of favorite memoirs, and since then I’ve been revisiting one of them—The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher—and falling in love with it all over again. So let me introduce Fisher to those of you who don’t know her writing, or who tend to think of food writing as tedious, frivolous, effete, or merely professional. A lot of it is. But the best of it goes way beyond. I continue to revere—not as foodie niche writing, but as literature—many of the works of A.J. Liebling, Elizabeth David, and Edna Lewis. And especially Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher.
The daughter of a California newspaperman, Fisher (who died in 1992 at age eighty-three), escaped a cloistered childhood to become an eccentric, passionate, and wide-ranging culinary writer. Throughout an adventurous adulthood she remained unconcerned—to put it mildly—with the conventional morality or gender-role expectations of her time. Twice divorced, once widowed, a single mother for long stretches, she left her first husband (a Smith professor) for an affair with the painter Dillwyn Parrish (cousin of painter Maxfield Parrish), then, years after Parrish’s early death from a dreadful and wasting vascular disease, bore a child out of wedlock to a father whose identity she kept secret. Her resume included stints as Hollywood screenwriter, New Yorker columnist, and—at age 56!—English teacher at a rural school in segregated Mississippi. She had an arch appreciation of her independence as a woman, and could wave it in men’s faces. “I make it plain that I know my way around without them,” she wrote in an essay on dining alone, “and that upsets them.”
Fisher’s best writing is found in the books she published in the dozen highly productive years between 1937 and 1949—Serve It Forth, Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, and An Alphabet for Gourmets—and most of all, smack in the middle of this period, her 1943 autobiography, The Gastronomical Me. The book is Fisher’s masterpiece. Covering three decades of her life, it weaves together vignettes centered on cooking, eating, and food, charting Fisher’s progress through school and college, marriage, divorce, relocation to Europe, and the dark onset of wartime there. In her forward, she discusses her preoccupation and her method:
I tell about myself, and how I ate bread on a 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 was marketed as a different kind of food writer—a sexy kind. “Fisher writes about food as others do about love,” the cover of The Gastronomical Me boasted. And it’s true. Her essays are mined with erotic charges where you least expect them. The inchoate stirrings of sexuality are summoned through the recollection of eating oysters at a banquet at her rigidly traditional girls' boarding school, as students dance together in an atmosphere Fisher imbues with barely suppressed erotic energy. A few years later, in the 1920s drabness of an impoverished Midwestern college, she and two friends rebel against the daily fare of parsnips by buying six heads of mid-winter lettuce, locking themselves in their room, and indulging in a green-leaf Bacchanalia. Later still, in the “soft sultry chamber” of a Strasbourg hotel room, she peels a tangerine, heats the sections on the radiator until they grow “plump, hot and full,” then places them to cool on the snow of the windowsill—waiting impatiently for the chambermaid to leave before eating them. Desire, delay, appetite, ecstasy: often Fisher’s gastronomy reads more like Joy of Sex than Joy of Cooking.
Her topic, broadly put, was sensuality and its uses. She loved the story of how as a boy the novelist Walter Scott exclaimed over his mother’s good soup, only to have his father dump a pint of cold water into his bowl. This Anglo-Saxon hostility to pleasure—her own Scots-Irish family included an in-house grandmother who insisted food be eaten “without sign of praise or enjoyment”—propelled her on what James Beard called her “uninhibited track through the glories of the good life.” Fisher’s guiding light along this track was the concept of “conscious appetite,” which to her mind meant eating as the French ate, with a “frank sensuous realization of food.” Good eating meant not just doing it, but thinking about it, and talking about it too—before, during, and after. Did you enjoy that as much as I did?
There’s more here than mere culinary naughtiness. Her metaphysics cast eating as a kind of existential test: can we face the demands of appetite—“that dread fact,” she called it—which terrifies us with our own neediness? Against the puritan’s flight from pleasure, she sounded her signature note of combative sensuousness (“Next time they come,” she wrote of a group of faculty wives, “I will blast their safe tidy little lives with a big tureen of hot borscht and some garlic toast.”) She campaigned against living timidly. Her goal, as cook and as writer, was to send people away “shocked into recognition of their own powers of enjoyment.”
For Fisher, that shock had nothing to do with the size of one’s wallet—or one’s culinary expertise. Close behind the puritanical prig on her list of culinary enemies was the boor with the fine palate and a lot of culinary pretensions. In fact, the meals which call forth Fisher’s most Proustian raptures are the simplest ones: a favorite aunt’s fried egg sandwich, or a casserole she cooked for her first husband, Al, in the France of 1930, where he had a job as an exchange professor at the University of Dijon. Still relative newlyweds, and in a new country to boot, the couple lived in a tiny apartment with little money (“we bought four plates and four forks, instead of two, so that we could entertain”), and Fisher came to rely on a simple cauliflower casserole as a thrifty staple. The way Fisher describes making this casserole and serving it to her husband and a colleague reveals what makes The Gastronomical Me tick. First come ingredients and technique:
In Dijon, the cauliflowers were very small and succulent, grown in that ancient soil. I separated the flowerlets and dropped them in boiling water for just a few minutes. Then I drained them and put them in a wide shallow casserole, and covered them with heavy cream and a thick sprinkling of freshly grated Gruyère... I put some fresh pepper over the top, and in a way I can’t remember now, the little tin oven heated the whole thing and melted the cheese and browned it.
As soon as that happened we ate it. The cream and cheese had come together into a perfect sauce, and the little flowers were tender and fresh. We cleaned out plates with bits of crisp bread and drank the wine, and Al and Lawrence planned to write books about Aristotle and Robinson Jeffers and probably themselves, and I planned a few things, too.
Back in California years later, try as she might, she could not re-create that casserole, and she observes that along with certain ingredients, what was missing was “our young uncomplicated hungers.” What exalts even the humblest meal, Fisher grasped, is not finally food, but fellowship, and what sanctifies it over time is memory and the fact of change. “We were hungry,” she writes, “and everything tasted good.”
Time-Life published The Cooking of Provincial France in 1968, placing Fisher in the company of culinary celebrities such as Julia Child and Craig Claiborne. But unlike them she was never a food professional. Rather, she was a philosophical food writer à la Brillat-Savarin, the 18th-century French epicure whose works she translated, and a sensuous one à la Colette, whom she revered. Typically, food writers either know a lot about food and are merely capable writers; or they’re really good writers who know just enough about food to get by. But Fisher had it all; a true gastronome, she was also a writer of opulence and eccentricity. She can pile up the prose rich and thick. Of her brother’s infatuation with a girl she writes that “he was a hopelessly gone gosling; his nimble tongue was tied; his quick flashing mind was full of smoke.” Or she can pare down to a clean Hemingwayesque simplicity: “We knew that we were hungry, and that even if it had been bad it would have been good.”
The Gastronomic Me reverberates with the loss of Dillwyn Parrish, the love of Fisher’s life, two years earlier, at age 47, a death that infuses the book with its magnificent sense of love and leavetaking. Nominally about food, Fisher’s masterpiece is really about discovery, soul-friendship, love and loss, and it is one of the most rapturously spirited and poignant books you’ll ever read. Fisher understood the power of appetite as metaphor. “When I write about hunger,” she once said, “I am really writing about love and the hunger for it.”