M. F. K. Fisher Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.