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M.F.K. Fisher: on the art of golden words and memorable meals. FOOD PROSE

By Arlene MuellerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 1, 1988

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.''

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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.''