Of course, many of the great American prose writers of the 20th century were women, especially when it came to essays and criticism: Elizabeth Hardwick, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Pauline Kael, M.F.K. Fisher. What strikes me as more surprising, or at least more notable, is that the last four all came from California, far removed from the magazine culture where they made their names.
Why this should be the case I can’t say, not least because the figures I mention vary widely in substance and style, method and consequence. I could make some kind of argument about independent and self-reliant pioneer spirits, about the death and rebirth of the New World on the beaches of the Pacific coast, about first-rate public universities (Kael, Sontag, and Didion went to UC Berkeley, though only Didion finished there). But perhaps none of that’s true; perhaps it’s an accident. Nevertheless, the broader point is worth mentioning: cultures are continually renewed by outsiders, who leverage their estrangement into influence—and then become insiders, in a universe of their own devising.
It’s Fisher who interests me here, because she’s the least known and celebrated of the lot, the only one who, even to date, hasn’t found her proper place. She should have a Library of America volume, if not two or three, but she has none. Her fans, and I’m certainly one, are a devoted lot, but we’re surprisingly small in number. Many others have read a thing or two or heard her name. Many more have not. The subhead in her New York Times obituary (she died in 1992) read “Ignored for Years.” And why? No doubt much of the reason has to do with her subject matter.
This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
She’s widely known as a food writer, perhaps the first American to elevate that genre into an art form. But that’s banal, a bit tame, like calling Bruce Chatwin a travel writer or Anne Carson a literary critic, and Fisher threw it back. “I do not consider myself a food writer,” she once said, testily, wearily, accurately. It’s harder to say what, instead, she was.
The fact that it’s so difficult is part of her charm: like most originals, she’s elusive, the prerogative of our betters. With the exception of How to Cook a Wolf, from 1942, a guide to getting by on wartime rations, she didn’t write cookbooks, not really, and while there are instructions for specific dishes scattered throughout her books, they seem like afterthoughts. A recipe for North Country Tart in An Alphabet for Gourmets calls for four ingredients, in no specified quantity or proportion. Another, for a sort of poorhouse stew, includes the line “Cover the thing with what seems like too much water.”
Advice wasn’t really her field. She often said that The Joy of Cooking was the only resource most people needed. Her own best-known work, a collection of five short volumes she wrote on food, is called The Art of Eating, a curious phrase if you think about it: it’s not the one who makes the meal who’s the hero of this tale. It’s the one who partakes, and anyone can step into that role, even you and me.
She is neither a historian nor an anthropologist, not a purveyor of exotica, not a critic. She offers no restaurant reviews, though she often writes about eating out. If she ever visits a kitchen to chat with the chef about technique, I don’t remember it. But she loves waiters, especially those in France’s rural provinces, kind, eccentric, ingratiating, and proud, with their dramas and sorrows and the tenderness with which they serve.
In fact, she’s a writer who uses food as an excuse; her essays usually start with a dish, a meal, an ingredient, and then drift this way and that, return home for a moment, and then maunder away again, tossing off rich little apothegms. (“A group of deliberately assembled relatives can be one of the dullest, if not the most dangerous, gatherings in the world.” “No vegetable should be cooked for as long as you think.”) She cites Lucretius, Talleyrand, Pope, weaving in memories and observations, opinions and exhortations. Hunger and satiety are simply experiences, hardly distinguishable from their surroundings: travel, romance, grief. “It seems to me,” she wrote, “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.”
Though she admits to having once eaten a pound of caviar over the course of a single day, she was neither a gourmet nor a glutton. Instead, she was a connoisseur, of food, yes, but also of the rituals that surround it. A democratic connoisseur, if you can imagine such a thing, with a taste for simplicity: fresh vegetables, local sourcing, clean compositions, nothing too fancy, no heavy sauces, exotic spices, or elaborate stews. A newly harvested snail; oysters (she wrote an entire book about them); cauliflower; fresh, ripe tomatoes.
Another paradox: the first line of An Alphabet for Gourmets is “A is for dining alone…and so am I, if a choice must be made between most people I know and myself.” And yet she had enormous influence on American cooking, in large part because of her extraordinary capacity for friendship. They came to her door: James Beard and Julia Child, Ruth Reichl
and Alice Waters, not out of deference, exactly, since they were formidable figures themselves, but because they loved her.
It seems it never occurred to Mary Frances Kennedy to be anything other than a writer. She was born in Albion, Michigan, in 1908: her father was a newsman. She liked to say that he wrote 2,000 words a day, every day of his working life—if true, an astounding rate, roughly equivalent to three Moby-Dick-length manuscripts a year. By 1912, he had moved the family down to Whittier, California, a small town of about 4,500 in southeast Los Angeles County, where he bought and edited the local paper. At the time, it was a Quaker community focused on citrus crops (today, it’s best known as the town that gave us Richard Nixon). The Kennedys were Episcopalian, Mary Frances a somewhat obdurate child, who wrote poetry and later worked as a stringer for her father. She did a semester at one college, a year at another. At the age of 21, she married Al Fisher, a grad student and would-be poet. Within a few weeks of their wedding in 1929, they moved to Dijon, where they lived for three years.
In France, she discovered the true depth and entanglement of her appetites: for food, for travel, for love. Of their first night’s meal, she writes, “Everything that was brought to the table was so new, so wonderfully cooked, that what might have been with sated palates a gluttonous orgy was, for our fresh ignorance, a constant refreshment.” Upon their return to California, she began writing, and her first book, called Serve It Forth, was published in 1937. Soon after came another, many magazine articles, another book, a move to Switzerland, and her life came to a boil.
She started an affair with a man named Dillwyn Parrish, a close friend and next-door neighbor: he was the true love of her life, and each left their spouse to marry the other, but their time together was short. Parrish had a rare neurological disease, which left him in excruciating pain. There was no treatment: a leg was amputated, the disease progressed, more amputations were on the horizon, and Parrish took his own life with a pistol. Mary Frances heard the shot and was neither surprised nor appalled. It was what he had to do.
A few years later, she had a daughter, whose father she never identified, even to the girl herself, who desperately wanted to know. In 1945, she married her third husband and had another daughter; in 1950 came her second divorce. She came back to California, eventually settling in Glen Ellen in Sonoma County. At this point she was halfway through her life.
I mention all this because her life was of a piece with her work: both voluptuous and touched by a certain melancholy, the need for pleasure tempered with a toughness of mind, a capacity for delight alternating with a hard-won worldliness. She was intemperate and impatient, in a mild sort of way. She disliked rewriting and rarely did it, except under duress (she often complained that the editorial process at the New Yorker was too finicky and intrusive). She endured events—a series of marriages interrupted by infidelities, a love child, the perpetual scramble to make a living—that might have left another woman cowed by scandal or smothered in resentment. She had no time for that: there was always another story to be told.
The boundaries of her production are hard to establish: no one seemed to bother to keep track of it all, least of all Fisher herself. According to the Times obit, she published 15 books. “More than 20,” says one of her publishers; 31, says her great admirer Reichl; 33, says Wikipedia. Fisher’s own website says 35. Her biographer says 37, as does her official bibliography, with a few score more appearing as special limited editions, repackagings, and the like. Along with them, there were God knows how many essays—hundreds, for everyone from Ladies’ Home Journal to Westways, a magazine published by the Automobile Club of Southern California. And there were travelogues, a study of folk medicine, a children’s book, many short stories, one novel (which, despite its brilliant title, Not Now, But Now, is, by her own admission, not very good). When asked if she would consider publishing her journals, she said, “No, they’re very personal.” After her death, three volumes’ worth of entries were published: together, they ran to more than 800 pages. A separate volume of letters added 500 more. On top of that, there was the miserable year she spent writing gags for Hollywood movies and a spirited and lasting translation of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s 19th-century classic, The Physiology of Taste, which she considered her greatest achievement, though it is not. Blurbs, reviews, anthologies, an M.F.K. Fisher reader. Not just a cottage industry: an entire sector.
This is not a bibliography of unprecedented length—John Updike, for example, published at least twice as much—nor does it come across as graphomania, though Fisher herself describes it as “compulsive.” She was, on and off, a single mother, who claimed that she never in her lifetime received a royalty check for more than $500 and once received one for $10. She wrote for love and she wrote for money; she wrote because she had to, because she enjoyed it, and because, well, it was easy.
I say this carefully, and with a certain disbelief. I don’t think I’ve ever looked deeply into an author’s life and found so little struggle—with writing itself, I mean. Rarely, if ever, does she express doubt, despondency, blockage. Henry James once wrote of Flaubert, “He felt of his vocation almost nothing but the difficulty.” Fisher was quite the opposite: not joyous, perhaps, but not the slightest bit balky either. She seems to have been blessed with a mixture of confidence and modesty: tart with those who underestimated her, and dismissive of those who fawned. Most essays about her include the fact that W.H. Auden helped elevate her status a notch or two. “I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose,” he said in the introduction to a British edition of her work. When she was reminded of this some years later—a vivifying touch from a distant god—she shrugged and replied, “I don’t remember. Did he really say that? How nice.”
And yet she wrote in her own high style, with a fully formed voice even at 29, already regal, tough in her way, carnal, every word in its place, every assertion steady. You can tell this was a choice by reading her letters, which are very different: chatty, full of ellipses and exclamation points, occasionally scatterbrained, often mischievous, and sometimes wicked. “Please write some juicy gossip, if any…and believe everything you hear about unicorns and other mythical beasts!!!!!” she wrote to James Beard and his family. You don’t hear that tone in her books.
“It is difficult to write about physical pleasures without being either coarse or over-delicate, vaguely sentimental or dry and scientific,” she once wrote. This extends to sex, which she covered the way she covered everything else: frankly but elegantly. The Gastronomical Me, an autobiographical volume published in 1943, begins with an account of a pass made by a fellow student at the girls’ boarding school she attended as a teenager, an event that coincided, almost too perfectly, with the first time she tasted an oyster. It ends with the story of a mariachi singer with a silvery voice named Juanito, who developed a crush on Fisher’s brother during a vacation in Mexico, gradually revealed himself to be a Juanita and then, heartbroken, went back to male drag. In neither case does Fisher indulge in the usual clichés of stories like these: sensationalism, titillation, misplaced pity, pronouncements on the human heart. She simply tells what happened, in calm, rhythmic, flawless prose, and then moves on.
In this she reminds me of no one so much as Colette: she’s sensual but not decadent—and, in fact, Colette was one of her favorites (she once considered translating the latter’s complete works into English). And like Colette, she’s easy to underestimate: because it’s trivial, isn’t it, these stories of meals and friendships and love affairs? But they’re the objects of our deepest appetites and greatest enjoyment. She wrote about taste, not to scold but to celebrate. If that’s trivial, then we’re all trivial, because our choice among pleasures is fundamental to our humanity—more so, I think, than our ethical standards or our capacity for reason.
It may be an accident that the taste we sense with our tongues and the taste we apprehend with our minds have the same name, or it may be one of those strokes of genius that are embedded in the language. Because taste in food, taste in clothes, taste in paintings, these are all aspects of a single faculty, and so is taste in people, in behavior, in landscapes, in belief. The exercise of that faculty is life itself: where we go, and with whom, what we do, and above all what we enjoy. And this is why Fisher is more than a food writer. What she’s after, and it shows on every page, is not just a better meal, but a better way of being—a eudaemonia, as the Greek philosophers called it: a Good Life. I do believe she found it.•