M. F. K. Fisher Essay - Critical Essays

Fisher, M. F. K.

Introduction

M. F. K. Fisher 1908–1992

(Full name Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher; born Mary Frances Kennedy; also wrote under the pseudonyms Victoria Bern and Mary Frances Parrish) American essayist, short story writer, memoirist, novelist, translator, journalist, and author of children's books.

The following entry presents an overview of Fisher's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 76.

Fisher is best known for essays and reminiscences in which she combines sensual descriptions of food with observations about life and culture. In addition to gastronomical essays, Fisher wrote autobiographical short stories, two novels, travel sketches, and memoirs. Although she was primarily known as a food writer during the early years of her career, Fisher is now considered one of America's finest essayists. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1991.

Biographical Information

Fisher was born in Albion, Michigan, in 1908, the daughter of Rex Brenton Kennedy, an editor, and Edith Oliver Holbrook Kennedy, a real estate broker. Two years later her family moved to Whittier, a small Quaker community in southern California. In 1929 Fisher married her first husband and began attending the University of California in Los Angeles and then the University of Dijon in France, where she developed her lifelong passion for French cuisine and culture. She divorced in 1938 and remarried twice, in 1942 and 1945. Residing alternately in California and Europe, Fisher traveled extensively, particularly throughout France, and her experiences there inform the setting and subject matter of many of her books. In her later years she suffered from Parkinson's disease but continued writing, examining both the indignities and consolations of aging. She died in Glen Ellen, California, in 1992.

Major Works

Fisher's first book, Serve It Forth (1937), is recognized as an unusually stylized and artful collection of gastronomic essays with its mélange of personal reminiscence, anecdote, and erudite observations on the cuisine of ancient cultures. Consider the Oyster (1941) and How to Cook a Wolf (1942) are similarly eclectic, combining practical advice on food preparation with insightful commentary on the historical and philosophical significance of cuisine. The Gastronomical Me (1943) has been described as an autobiography using food as the unifying motif for diverse memories. The first of Fisher's two novels, Not Now but Now (1947), presents four interrelated stories about an adventurous girl named Jennie. The work received mixed reviews by critics who considered it contrived in comparison with the engaging directness of her essays. A later novel, The Boss Dog (1991), is based on Fisher's experiences in Aix-en-Provence and is considered suitable for children as well as adults. Fisher's memoirs and travel sketches include Maps of Another Town (1964) and Long Ago in France (1991). Also highly regarded for her work as a translator, Fisher is known for the 1949 English-language version of The Physiology of Taste, a work by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.

Critical Reception

While early reviewers of Fisher's works recognized the originality and excellence of her prose, they tended to focus on her merits as a "food writer." As critics began to view her work in a broader context, she acquired a reputation as a neglected writer of immense sophistication and formal skill. Among her more famous admirers was W. H. Auden, who once said, "I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose." Although she remains relatively obscure among the mass public, Fisher has acquired the status of a major writer among critics who cherish her idiosyncratic and highly cultured prose style.

Principal Works

Serve It Forth [as Mary Frances Parrish] (essays) 1937
Consider the Oyster [as Mary Frances Parrish] (essays) 1941
How to Cook a Wolf (essays) 1942
The Gastronomical Me (essays) 1943
Here Let Us Feast: A Book of Banquets (nonfiction) 1946
Not Now but Now (novel) 1947
An Alphabet for Gourmets (essays) 1949
The Physiology of Taste [translator and editor] (nonfiction) 1949
A Cordiall Water: A Garland of Odd & Old Recipes to Assuage the Ills of Man or Beast (nonfiction) 1961
The Story of Wine in California (nonfiction) 1962
Maps of Another Town: A Memoir of Provence (memoir) 1964
The Cooking of Provincial France (nonfiction) 1968
With Bold Knife and Fork (nonfiction) 1969
Among Friends (memoir) 1970
A Considerable Town (travel sketch) 1978
Sister Age (memoir) 1983
The Boss Dog (novel) 1991
Long Ago in France: The Years in Dijon (memoir) 1991
To Begin Again: Stories and Memoirs, 1908–1929 (anthology) 1992

∗These works were published as The Art of Eating: The Collected Gastronomical Works of M. F. K. Fisher in 1954 and reprinted as The Art of Eating: Five Gastronomical Works in 1976.

Criticism

Katherine Woods (review date 20 June 1937)

SOURCE: "About the Various Pleasures of Eating," The New York Times Book Review, June 20, 1937, p. 3.

[In the following review, Woods offers enthusiastic praise for Serve It Forth.]

This is a book about food; but though food is universal, this book is unique. The first adjective for Serve It Forth must certainly be "different." And as one reads on the mind takes note again and again of that different quality, and is charmed and shocked and entertained by it, in what the author has to say and in the way she says it, and even, too, in the quaint illustrations scattered through the text. This is a delightful book. It is erudite and witty and experienced and young. The truth is that it is stamped on every page with a highly individualized personality. Sophisticated but not standardized, brilliant but never "swift-moving" or "streamlined," perfumed and a little mocking, direct and yet almost précieuse, the style of Serve It Forth is as unusual as its material is unfamiliar and odd.

And it really is a book about food. Mrs. Fisher even goes so far, in spite of preliminary assurances to the contrary, as to include two recipes—rare ones, both. But this is no book of practical counsel. These pages are filled with odd fact and obscure fantasy, illuminating comment, personal reflection and remembrance. The young author goes back to the simple and democratic food of the Egyptians and their simple lives; she dwells a bit on the Greeks. Then, with some horrible particularity of detail, she tells how "in their furious delicacy of palate and heavy-handed subtlety of selection the wealthy Romans left Greeks far behind." She explains how good cooking, like learning, was kept alive in the monasteries in the Dark Ages. She has surprising notes from Elizabethan England and Catherine de' Medici's France.

Of all the present nations France, says Mrs. Fisher, "has the simplest school of cooking." But when she explains the proper preparation of snails at their best (they ought to be starved to death, to be most appetizing), one realizes that there are different kinds of simplicity! Mrs. Fisher has lived in provincial France, and much of her oddest research and most pungent comment comes from that land of culinary supremacies; she brings some responsive human anecdotes from France, too. But most Americans, she declares, don't know how to eat: they are "taste blind."

The New York Times Book Review (review date 28 June 1942)

SOURCE: "A Guide for Cooks When Wolves Prowl," The New York Times Book Review, June 28, 1942, p. 3.

[In the following review of How to Cook a Wolf, the critic praises Fisher's highly informative and vivacious writing style.]

If the wolf is snuffling at the keyhole—well, it's possible to make a dish that will keep you going for several days, says M. F. K. Fisher, if you can succeed in borrowing 50 cents. Here, she continues [in How to Cook a Wolf], is exactly how to prepare it.

This suggestion—which is admittedly a counsel of desperation and should be appreciatively received as such—is the farthest point of the wolf-hunt beguilingly organized by the author of Consider the Oyster and Serve It Forth. And even if practical value may be sought first in the recipes and hints offered by this original young writer, her book's enjoyment is no less conspicuously high. Whether these recipes are as irresistibly seductive as they sound, a mere review can't say. But there is no possible question about the book's good reading, or, for that matter, about its basic good sense.

The good sense is most obviously employed in carrying out the theme that the quality of informed choice is important in keeping the wolf from the kitchen door as well as in setting really excellent meals on the dining-room table. Far from being ashamed of discussing food, Mrs. Fisher insists, we should make a point of it. And to that end she writes of luscious soups, of the difficulties and delights of egg cookery, of the most civilized ways of serving potatoes; she provides a long course in meats, from the simple rare beefsteak to kidneys and calves' brains and on to pigeon and rabbit; and general hints on vegetables are followed by notes on very particular economies, from other days as well as our own.

This highly individualistic adviser is never afraid to puncture a convention of which she disapproves or to protect a tradition she believes worth honoring. Nor is she afraid to individualize her dishes themselves by her individual phrasing: do we, for instance, prefer the "bland, unctuous broth" known as Vichysoisse to that "thick unsophisticated soup," the "heart-warming and soul-staying" minestrone? Her book is lively and amusing and intelligent; and a real cook book, too.

John W. Chase (review date 31 August 1947)

SOURCE: "Jennie's Clever Trick of Vanishing," The New York Times Book Review, August 31, 1947, p. 7.

[In the following review, Chase offers a mixed assessment of Not Now but Now.]

At first careless glance one might wonder why the author of How to Cook a Wolf and other books of culinary exoticism should try her hand at fiction. Strictly speaking, Mrs. Fisher has not produced a unified narrative [in Not Now But Now]. Upon a not too cumbersome framework, she has created four stories involving the girl Jennie, at different periods of time and in quite separate settings. But no matter what the circumstances, Jennie is always an extraordinary gal, possessing a...

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Rex Stout (review date 9 October 1949)

SOURCE: "Suggestions for the Sensitive Palate," The New York Times Book Review, October 9, 1949, p. 25.

[An American novelist, journalist, and critic, Stout was best known as the author of the popular "Nero Wolfe" detective mysteries. In the following review of An Alphabet for Gourmets, he lauds Fisher's culinary expertise and writing skills.]

It would be fun to argue the question: which is the greater treasure, a gifted cook or a gifted writer on cooking? But M. F. K. Fisher—to stick to the lady's pseudonym—could not be cited in evidence on either side, because she is both. For the first I can offer only hearsay, from people who have had the good fortune to...

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Rex Stout (review date 19 September 1954)

SOURCE: "Cooking for Sauce," The New York Times Book Review, September 19, 1954, p. 12.

[Below, Stout praises The Art of Eating, commenting on the skill and occasional eccentricity of Fisher's writing.]

Someone has said of Casanova's Memoirs that it is a wonderful book about life with the accent on love and sex. M. F. K. Fisher's The Art of Eating is a wonderful book about life with the accent on food and cooking. Casanova could certainly love, but his book is wonderful because he could write; and Mrs. Fisher can certainly cook, but her book is wonderful because she too can write. It is an omnibus volume containing her Serve It Forth, Consider the...

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Jan Morris (review date 4 June 1978)

SOURCE: "Marseille Ramble," The New York Times Book Review, June 4, 1978, p. 10.

[Morris is an English journalist, travel writer, and autobiographer. In the following review, she extols A Considerable Town as an exceptionally perceptive portrait of the French city of Marseille.]

Most city essays are awful—I have written some really ghastly ones—and most city books are worse still. Is there any literary product more depressing than your archetypal urban travelogue, with its statutory folios of lush photography interspersed among the obligatory historical gobbets and hashed-up anecdotes?

It is a delight, then, to welcome another distinctly...

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Raymond Sokolov (review date 6 June 1982)

SOURCE: "On Food and Life and Herself," The New York Times Book Review, June 6, 1982, pp. 9, 44-6.

[Sokolov is an American critic, cookbook author, novelist, and translator. In the following review of As They Were, he presents an overview of Fisher's career and considers her to be a major American writer.]

In a properly run culture, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher would be recognized as one of the great writers this country has produced in this century. A few acute readers have understood this. Nearly 20 years ago, W. H. Auden said: "I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose." Perhaps As They Were, her new anthology,...

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Frances Taliaferro (review date 29 May 1983)

SOURCE: "The Art of Aging," The New York Times Book Review, May 29, 1983, pp. 10-11.

[In the following review, Taliaferro assesses Sister Age as an artful though uneven collection of meditations on aging.]

To describe M. F. K. Fisher as the doyenne of food writers would be an absurd reduction, as if one were to call Mozart the greatest Freemason composer or Cézanne the leading painter of apples. Food, it is true, often happens to be Fisher's subject, but the narrow certainties of the home economist and the restaurant critic have no place in her gastronomic or her emotional vocabulary. She is, after all, the philosopher who wrote years ago (in How to...

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Christopher Benfey (essay date October 1984)

SOURCE: "In the Company of M.F.K. Fisher," in Boston Review, Vol. IX, No. 5, October, 1984, pp. 9-11.

[In the following essay, Benfey offers an appreciation of Fisher's career, focusing on the autobiographical and "American" qualities of her writing.]

If you go to a library to look for M.F.K. Fisher's books, you will find them scattered all through the stacks. If the library is big—big enough to hold a history of California wine-making, say, or a book about Aix-en-Provence (Fisher has written both)—you will have to climb up and downstairs searching through different categories. You will probably find more of her works among the cookbooks than elsewhere (in a...

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Mary Hawthorne (essay date 11 January 1993)

SOURCE: "A Hunger Artist," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXVIII, No. 47, January 11, 1993, pp. 107-10.

[In the following essay, Hawthorne reflects upon Fisher's life and career, emphasizing the importance of sensual experience and memory in her writing.]

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher's just issued book, To Begin Again: Stories and Memoirs, 1908–1929, is mostly about the years of her youth in California, before her first marriage and her now celebrated sojourns in France and Switzerland. Some of these pieces were written as recently as a couple of years ago, when she was fully in the grip of the indignities of old age and Parkinson's, and could be found propped in bed...

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Brenda Wineapple (review date March 1993)

SOURCE: "Feasting on Life," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. X, No. 6, March, 1993, pp. 14-15.

[Wineapple is an American educator, critic, and biographer. In the following review of To Begin Again, she provides an account of her personal acquaintance with Fisher and an overview of the author's life.]

M.F.K. Fisher changed my life. Not in direct, obvious ways: her ways, like her prose, are subtle, graceful and not a little mischievous.

I first spoke with her almost eight years ago when researching a biography of Janet Flanner, the New Yorker's longtime Paris correspondent. I had known that the two women were first acquainted in the...

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