M.F.K. Fisher: on the art of golden words and memorable meals. FOOD PROSE
Glen Ellen, Calif.
HAD M.F.K. Fisher been born a few minutes later, her father would have named her Independencia. But she arrived just before midnight, July 3, 1908. Actually Independencia would have been a very appropriate name for this 80-year-old writer, of whom W.H. Auden once said, ``I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose.''
Ms. Fisher has served up a smorgasbord of offerings on the literary table for half a century. Because a love for food and cooking play a central part in her life as well as in 18 books and countless articles, many agree with the critic who called her ``America's chronicler of feasting.'' But Fisher shakes her head, rejecting this confining label.
``Years ago I was told to quit writing about food, but somehow it creeps in,'' she says, leaning forward in her wicker chair in the living room of her two-room home. ``I could just as well have written about gardening, or love, or politics, or any of the great things. But none of these exist unless we've had something to eat.''
Bookstores are baffled by where to shelve her books - food, travel, essays, fiction, or health. She's written about the oyster, Nazism, the Middle Ages, health cures, Quakers, frugality, and celebrations, often improvising on the ``recipes'' for traditional genres. Fisher calls her works ``pieces,'' rather than essays or articles, emphasizing her independent style.
In ``The Gastronomical Me'' (1943), which Fisher wrote in three months to entertain herself during her first pregnancy, she takes a sentimental journey, beginning with her first memory of ``the grayish-pink fuzz my grandmother skimmed from a spitting kettle of strawberry jam.'' At age 10, she says she ``saw'' her father for the first time as a person, when she shared with him and her sister Anne a ``big, round peach pie, bursting with ripe peaches picked that noon.''
She writes: ``Father says all his nervousness went, and he saw us for the first time as two little brown humans who were fun. Anne and I both felt a subtle excitement at being alone for the first time with the only man in the world we loved.''
She recalls other memories of food in this book of 26 ``pieces'': ``ice cream rich enough to curl the tongue''; blocks of Dijon gingerbread with a pitcher of milk and a pot of honey; long, silky ropes of garlic hanging over the attic rafters; ``Gruy`ere, freshly grated into a soft pile''; roasted wild boar meat; bouillabaisse ``sending up its potent saffron steam''; and smooth Strasbourg p^at'es. She describes an intimate Easter Eve supper with her husband and the ``tin of beluga caviar in the center of a huge, pale-yellow plate, and all around the edge of the plate were apple blossoms.''
But as she writes of simple and elegant meals, Fisher also writes of herself and others, weaving joy, pain, and bafflement into her tales.
Her answer to the oft-asked question of why she writes about food, eating, and drinking appears in the preface to ``The Gastronomical Me'': ``I am hungry, but there is more than 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 then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied ... and it is all one.''
At age nine she regaled her parents at lunch with selections from her first attempt at a novel.
``I believe writers are born, not created. A writer can no more not write than not breathe,'' she says.
In her teens she was ``used'' (her word) by her father, editor of the Whittier News, who often assigned her as many as a dozen items a day on subjects from society to sports.
At 21, Mary Frances Kennedy married Al Fisher, and went with him to Dijon, France. She attended the Acad'emie des Beaux-Arts and wrote little pieces to please her new husband. Her writing career was launched in 1937, when friends sent her manuscript ``Serve It Forth'' to Harper & Bros.
In London a few years later, she approached Hamish Hamilton about publishing her second book. His staff was horrified to learn M.F.K. Fisher was a woman. Actually, she had not attempted to disguise her identity, but like her mother, E.O.H. Kennedy, preferred initials to names. She was to keep this name even after she and Fisher divorced.
When her second husband, American writer and artist Dillwyn Parrish, died in the early 1940s, she returned from Switzerland to California. She signed on with Paramount for $50 a week as a gag writer for the Dorothy Lamour/ Bing Crosby/ Bob Hope movies.
She was so good at the job that the studio accused her of plagiarism when she wrote a successful three-minute sketch in half an hour. ``They said it should have taken me at least two weeks.''
The seven-year contract forbade her from publishing her own writing. Unable to live under that constraint, she appealed to the Screen Writers' Guild. A test case was made over her contract. ``We won,'' says Fisher. ``No longer can people get caught that way. That's one of the few stars in my crown.''
Ever the independent woman, she refused alimony after the breakup of a brief marriage and set about supporting herself and two daughters by writing for magazines, including Harper's Bazaar, The New Yorker and Woman's Day.
While earning money from articles, she wrote books ``for fun - my fun. My agent coddled me and wouldn't allow me to be `circused.' One year I earned $37, and he treated me to lunch with his 10 percent.''
These days M.F.K. Fisher lives well, she says, often with some help from others. Her two-room house (``It's a selfish house - just for me'') was designed for her 20 years ago by her friend and architect, David Pleydell-Bouverie, on his ranch in Sonoma County. Stacks of empty baskets crowd her porch like dishes after a feast, reminders of food gifts from admirers.
``Sometimes I feel like a stylite on a pillar being fed by the birds,'' she says.
She answers all her mail with a note, insisting, ``My fans are different. They aren't just autograph seekers.''
Since she never expected fame, she is amazed by the last decade's success. Her early books are being reissued, and a new one, ``Dubious Honors,'' has been released in time for her 80th birthday.
Through the years Fisher has followed one ideal: to write well. ``I've never knowingly split an infinitive. I keep trying to write good and pleasing sentences.''
In ``Sister Age'' (1983) she admits the difficulty of accepting gracefully the presence of ``the nagging harpy, old age.'' She says there are compensations. I appreciate things so much more than I used to. When I was 10 or 20 or 40 I thought I could never experience a more beautiful morning or eat a tastier ripe cherry. But now they're even better.''