A Taste of Early M.F.K. Fisher

A FREQUENT contributor to magazines like Gourmet and the New Yorker, and the author of books like "Here Let Us Feast," "Two Towns in Provence," and "With Bold Knife and Fork," the late M(ary) F(rances) K(ennedy) Fisher wrote about food but was considered by many to be more than just a food writer. Or, if she was "just a food writer," she was among those who helped define the genre. Her intelligent, slightly acerbic meditations on dining, cooking, and travel played a role in raising America's food-conscio usness.

Fisher won high praise from W. H. Auden, who called her "the best prose writer in America." (Like many of Auden's judgments, his overrating of Fisher says more about Auden's inverted snobbery than about the merits of Fisher's prose.)

She is, indeed, a sturdy, forthright writer whose plain-spoken style lends credence to her essays. Hers was one of those early voices crying in the gastronomic wilderness of Jello salads and canned-soup casseroles who helped transform America from a nation of xenophobic convenience cooks and junk-food junkies into a nation of venturesome eaters. But she is hardly a great prose writer.

The publishers of her posthumous collection, "To Begin Again," understandably quote Auden's praise, but, more disconcertingly, quote Fisher managing to sound just as smug about herself: "I have never seen any reason to be dull... ." This note of self-satisfaction thinly concealed beneath a layer of ersatz modesty is a flaw that undermines much of her work. Can a writer avoid being dull simply by claiming not to be so? Dullness, after all, is in the eye of the reader, and what may have interested the writ er may not necessarily have that effect on anyone else.

"To Begin Again" is an intermittently interesting collection of pieces focusing on the period between the author's birth in 1908 and her marriage to Alfred Fisher in 1929. Most were written much later, in the '70s, '80s, or '90s; a few in the '50s; plus some specimens of a journal she kept in the '20s. Almost all are short, yet not all manage to avoid being dull.

Although she is writing in the first person about her own memories and experiences, Fisher coyly calls them "stories," supposedly because she may have altered some of the facts for the sake of the proverbial "good story."

Some, however, like the concluding piece, "Figures in a Landscape," are so lacking in the qualities of unity, focus, plot, and human interest that their chief value would seem to be archaeological.

Why else include extracts from a 1927 journal that reads like this: "I am at Illinois College, in Jacksonville, Illinois. Several interesting things have happened since I left home, ten days ago, but I'm too cold to write about them - and until day before yesterday I was too hot."

Looking back on that year from the perspective of 1945, however, Fisher comes up with the kind of anecdote that characterizes her best work. The 19-year-old future food writer is in the restaurant car of a transcontinental train with her kindly, urbane uncle, who asks if she would prefer "a fresh mushroom omelet or one with wild asparagus."

When she mumbles in "shy ignorance" that she doesn't really care, he firmly reprimands her: "You should never say that again, dear girl. It is stupid, which you are not. It implies that the attentions of your host are basically wasted on you. So make up your mind, before you open your mouth. Let him believe, even if it is a lie, that you would infinitely prefer the exotic wild asparagus to the banal mushrooms, or vice versa. Let him feel that it matters to you ... and even that he does!"

Fisher explores the first roots of her wholesome brand of hedonism in her reminiscence about her "Grandmother's Nervous Stomach." Thanks to the inhibiting presence of this well-meaning but austere lady who frowned on seasoning, sauces, and any meat or vegetable that hadn't been boiled for hours, Fisher came to value those rare occasions when her grandmother's temporary absence left the rest of the family free to savor forbidden dishes (rare roast beef, marshmallows in hot chocolate) and relax in one anot her's company. "The fact that we were refugees from the dietary strictures ... of a spoiled stern matriarch added a feeling of adventure and amusement to those stolen little parties. We sipped and we dawdled, and I can still remember that occasionally we would all put our elbows on the table after dinner and Mother would sing ...," she recalls.

Not all the essays focus on food. Fisher's observant senses and keen memory help fill this book with unusual and intriguing glimpses of California in the 1910s and '20s. The blossom-scented air of Southern California, as she recalls, was already menaced by fumes in the '20s, and oil from coastline fields polluted the beaches several times a year.

Racial and class prejudice were another persistent, but unacknowledged part of life, as evinced in her mother's attitude toward their Japanese houseboy: "My mother was a sensitive and very intelligent woman, but in a thousand years she could never have recovered from her first basic uneasiness at him, at his smallness, his brownness, his softness. He simply was not human to her. What is more, it must surely have disturbed her to see that to us [children] he was more than human, that he was divine. The wh ole thing is logical. Mother hated him because we did not ... and she got rid of him."

Perhaps it was Fisher's bluntness that Auden so admired - or her steadfast avoidance of showily "beautiful writing." (She claimed to have no consciously cultivated "style" at all.) Lush Faulknerian prose, tricky enough for any writer, would likely have been fatally cloying in a food writer anyway!

Yet, for all the apparent simplicity and candor of its styleless style, this book has a quality of evasiveness: While minor details are piled on in profusion, main events seem to have been omitted. The author - and the people she depicts - remain thinly penciled, if amusing, sketches. It must be said that after all its celebration of food, warmth, companionship, and family, "To Begin Again" is a curiously cold reminiscence: competent, diverting, brisk, but more than a little contrived.

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