MFK Fisher, mot justes and the art of eating – still delicious after all these years

Anthony Bourdain called AJ Liebling’s Between Meals (1962) “the benchmark for great food writing”, so there’s palpable excitement among gastronomes that 60 years on it’s about to be republished. This Francophile expat contributor to the New Yorker is an obvious inspiration for Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, quirkiest of odes to La Vie Parisienne mid-20th century (though that movie is set in the fictional provincial town of Ennui-sur-Blasé).

Liebling was more gourmand than gourmet and his unreconstructed attitude to women matched his gross appetites at table, which in turn led to obesity, gout and death at just 59 in 1963. Yet the guy could undoubtedly write. Like his almost exact contemporary also renowned for evocative prose rather than recipes, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher. She  survived him by a further 30 years, dying as a feted grande dame in California’s Napa/Sonoma wine country.

As with Alice Waters or our own Elizabeth David, hers is a formidable foodie name to drop. Meryl Streep was never destined to play her. Snooty MFK in an apron for telly demos à la Julia Child? Quelle horreur! All we have is the writing and a certain cult following, of which I’m happy to be a fully paid-up member. If Liebling got Bourdain’s vote, I’m happy to endorse WH Auden’s verdict on her: “I do not know of anyone in the States who writes better prose”.

The great poet died in 1973 (a year after I had dinner with him in Oxford – we disagreed over the merits of the avocado), so that view of his may have dated. Indeed there is a certain antipathy in some quarters towards her legacy and the genre of food-centric life memoirs she initiated. Nadir? Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. 

Yet MFK doesn’t really deserve this diatribe from one Josh Ozersky in Medium magazine, culminating in “Her legacy suffocates us, immobilises us, covers us as tightly as puff pastry in a beef wellington. Food writing today is one great echo chamber, and the voice it echoes must be silenced. M.F.K. Fisher must die.”

Harsh. Contrast it with the unlikeliest of MFK homages in Birmingham last weekend, which sparked this, my own reminder of her greatness as a writer. No, I didn’t attend the supper club ‘Lunch with MFK Fisher’ hosted by Matt O’Callaghan, whose Italophile blog isthe rather excellent MangiaMangia, but I’d like to have shared that menu of tea, bread and honey, sherry, tomato, chicken and wine broth, cheese tarts (with white wine), roast pigeon with herbs and bread (with red), iced fruit, gaufrettes and Tokay, coffee and Armagnac.

This ‘fusion of food and art’ apparently replicated a meal she served for friends and family in her rural Swiss home, Le Pâquis above Vevey, just before the outbreak of World War Two. This was just one stop-off in a peripatetic life that also took in Italy, various parts of France and later, her native America (she was born in Michigan). 

Food was integral but she always aimed to chart her life in its entirety, summed up beautifully in the opening to her most popular book, The Gastronomical Me, “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.” 

She was a great beauty. Photographer Man Ray worshipped her bone structure. Her determinedly independent life had its fair share of glamour, but also trauma, especially when her terminally ill second husband, Dilwyn Parrish shot himself. Life after the war as a single mother can’t have been easy but those years yielded two of my favourite books of hers on Marseille and Aix-en-Provence. I visited both cities last year and her ghost was there, particularly in Aix along the Rue Cardinale, her base in the Mazarin Quarter.

The area on which she is most evocative is Burgundy. In 1929 she moved there with her first husband, A,l to Dijon, where both studied at the university. Heady days as the newlyweds celebrated its rich food pickings: “We ate terrines of pâté ten years old under their tight crusts of mildewed fat. We tied napkins under our chins and splashed in great odorous bowls of ecrevisses a la nage. We addled our palates with snipes hung so long they fell from their hooks, to be roasted then on cushions of toast softened with the paste of their rotted innards and fine brandy.”

A touch florid, even Lieblingesque, maybe but, especially as her marriage faltered, she grew into her razor-sharp narrations. My favourite of these, set in the Burgundian Avallon region, is I Was Really Very Hungry

It was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1937; I discovered it in a delicious ‘greatest hits’ compilation, As They Were (1982). The centrepiece is a kind of a joust between a serving girl besotted with the cuisine her chef is producing backstage and the solo diner (MFK is always brilliant on the ‘woman who dines alone’).

It starts: “Once I met a young servant in northern Burgundy who was almost frighteningly fanatical about food, like a medieval woman possessed by a devil. Her obsession engulfed even my appreciation of the dishes she served, until I grew uncomfortable.

“It was the off season at the old mill which a Parisian chef had bought and turned into one of France’s most famous restaurants, and my mad waitress was the only servant. In spite of that she was neatly uniformed, and showed no surprise at my unannounced arrival and my hot dusty walking clothes…”

3,000 words later, after being pressed with glasses of marc and settling the large bill, the relentlessly sensuous ‘tasting menu’ is over, our heroine ready to leave…

“Suddenly the girl began to laugh, in a soft shy breathless way, and came close to me.

‘Permit me!’ she said, and I thought she was going to kiss me. But instead she pinned a tiny bunch of snowdrops and dark bruised cyclamens against my stiff jacket, very quickly and deftly, and then ran from the room with her head down.

“I waited for a minute. No sounds came from anywhere in the old mill, but the endless rushing of the full stream seemed to strengthen, like the timed blare of an orchestra under a falling curtain. She’s a funny one, I thought. I touched the cool blossoms on my coat and went out, like a ghost from ruins, across the courtyard toward the dim road to Avallon.”

You’re hooked? You must be. Follow this link to read the full 3,500 words.

The best introduction to Fisher at her peak is The Art of Eating, a compendium of four books, her debut, Serve It Forth, Consider The Oyster, The Gastronomical Me and An Alphabet for Gourmets. Her most recipe-led volume, How To Eat A Wolf, was published at the height of Second World War food shortages and its wryness still resonates. One chapter is called How to Be Cheerful Through Starving, another How To Boil Water, and she helpfully tips us off on creating a life-saving ‘sludge’ for 50 cents, yet the message, echoing the rest of her 25-strong oeuvre, is ‘food is pleasure’. When we “nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy and ever-increasing enjoyment it is a way to “assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war’s fears and pains”.

That message was there at the start of her writing career in Serve It Forth: “If you have to eat to live, you may as well enjoy it.”

Main image is courtesy of the Audubon Canyon Ranch, a sustainable nature charity based at Stimson’s Beach, who are custodians of MFK Fisher’s Californian legacy.