With the help of The Daily Meal Council, we have selected 10 key figures in the history of food to honor this year in our Hall of Fame. Here, North Carolina-based Council member Kelly Alexander, an author, radio commentator, and food writing teacher, explains why author M.F.K. Fisher belongs on the roster.
The ideal circumstances for a writerly childhood — one in which the minor has no choice but to grow into a woman or man of letters — is disputed among literary types, but there are a few commonalities upon which we can draw: The kid must be highly intelligent (so much so, he or she might argue, that a traditional classroom setting is boring), an outsider or outcast in some way (perhaps due to the usual suspects of race, class, religion, gender, or some combination thereof), and the bearer of the kind of precocious curiosity that leads to the label “troublemaker.” Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher (1908–1992), the great American food essayist, met all three conditions.
She happened to come from a family of writers, too. Born to a fourth-generation newspaperman, Rex Kennedy, she relocated with her family, as a small child, from her birthplace of Albion, Michigan, to Whittier, California, where her father had purchased The Whittier News. Whittier was a predominantly Quaker town and the Kennedys were Episcopalians, a difference that imprinted on Mary Frances' childhood the sense of being on the outside looking in: “Episcopalians were the third world in Whittier," she said in an interview shortly before her death. “I wrote a book about my childhood, and I wanted to call it ‘Child of an Inner Ghetto.'” The book, published in 1970, is instead called Among Friends.
Describing herself as a “haughty child” and an insatiable reader in a house full of books and visiting newspaper writers, she also had a family cook who gave her cooking lessons. What she didn’t have was a lot of enthusiasm for school. She was a four-time college dropout, content to read and write but not to do much of anything else. While enrolled at her last school, UCLA, she fell in love with a brilliant loner, a doctoral student in literature named Alfred Fisher. They moved to Dijon, France, in 1929 for his studies.
Dijon was where Fisher's love for writing and her engagement with food cohered. Her real work as an essayist began. She began writing pieces that used food as a metaphor for all of the important themes in life, including love and loss. Of the decision to take food as her subject, she wrote in her book The Gastronomical Me, published in 1943: “People ask me: ‘Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don't you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do?’ They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft. The easiest answer is to say that, like most humans, 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.”
The quote is a choice example of the voice Mary Frances adopted for herself, one with an unmistakable air of authority, a certain impatience and orneriness, and an intense desire to evoke the power of a good meal or a strong taste boldly enjoyed. She believed that “[A]lmost every person has something secret he likes to eat,” (in Serve it Forth, 1937); described the “dreadful but exciting life” an oyster leads (in Consider the Oyster, 1941); and dispensed the advice that should one find a wolf at one’s door, the best course of action is to invite him in and have him for dinner (in How to Cook a Wolf, 1942).
In a career that spanned more than 60 years, she managed to further the form of what we today consider “food writing," taking it from little more than a note accompanying a recipe about the formula’s provenance to a work of considerable literary charm and passionate opinion. She did so in some 27 books, including novels, collections of her famous essays, and countless articles for publications including the New Yorker and Vogue.
Fisher was no less colorful in her personal life than she was on the page. A great beauty photographed by Man Ray, she said of herself, “I wasn’t so pretty that I didn’t have to do something else.” Her marriage to Fisher, though it gave her a ticket to Europe and an entrée into the world of French cuisine, left her cold. She left him after two years for the love of her life: the painter Dillwyn Parrish, 14 years her senior, a cousin of the artist Maxfield Parrish and a friend of Mary Cassatt. They lived in Switzerland and in a cabin in the San Jacinto mountains of California, where, by all accounts, they shared a marvelously passionate relationship. But Parrish was plagued with ill health due to his heavy smoking and from having suffered from severe malnutrition during World War I. At some point in their seven-year marriage he contracted the dreadful Buerger’s disease, a progressive inflammatory condition of the circulatory system that resulted in the loss of a leg, constant pain, and the threat of further limb amputations. Parrish committed suicide in 1941, when he was 47. Fisher’s memoir of their relationship, Stay Me, Oh Comfort Me: Journals and Stories 1933–1941, contains some of her most soulful, least food-inspired writing.“I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose,” said the poet W.H. Auden in 1963.
In 1944 she married her third husband, the New York-based publisher Donald Friede, with whom she had two daughters. His publishing world connections gave her a privileged status with periodicals, including the Atlantic Monthly, Town & Country, and Gourmet. At this point in her career, Fisher was somewhat of a celebrity; a writer worth knowing about. “I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose,” said the poet W.H. Auden in 1963.
Mary Frances said she eventually “had to leave” Friede because he didn’t want children. She left New York in the process, moving to California with her daughters to take care of her ill parents. She spent the rest of her life traveling between France, Switzerland, and California, working and writing, most notably producing a translation of Jean Anthelme Brilliat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste. She also produced scores of magazine articles and a book on French provincial cooking that was part of the famous Time-Life Foods of the World series.
From 1970 until her death in 1992, Fisher lived on the estate of the Glen Ellen winery in Santa Helena, California, in a home built especially for her by the winery’s owner, her friend and ardent fan, the architect David Bouverie. Her papers are archived at the Schlesinger Library of Harvard University, alongside the world’s largest cookbook collection, which would no doubt please her. As she wrote in Serve it Forth, “Central heating, French rubber goods, and cookbooks are three amazing proofs of man's ingenuity in transforming necessity into art, and, of these, cookbooks are perhaps most lastingly delightful.”