Long Live M.F.K. Fisher


The poet of the appetites was a woman. That’s how novelist John Updike referred to Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher. Starting in the 1920s, M.F.K. Fisher all but discarded the playbook when it came to food writing, overhauling a task long seen as esoteric and technical — food was the playground of detail-oriented elitists — and making it into a passionate if self-indulgent art form. Fisher, whose M.F.K. initials would come to define highbrow food writing, saw culinary writing as an extension of life’s travelogue. She recognized hunger as a symptom of the physical and emotional need for nourishment. To eat food was make to travel, to smell, feel, reflect and love. The food mattered, but so did the writing.

For Fisher, the poet with a strong appetite, that Frederick the Great made coffee with champagne mattered. So did Catherine de Medici’s introduction of the fork to the French court. She matched food with history so that readers were suddenly schooled in both. She waxed poetic about growing her own vegetables or sipping champagne.

She had little support from her peers. Worse still was her gender: she could be easily branded as frivolous and flighty.

But Fisher didn’t fold. She instead won converts, and later disciples. She gave food literary nourishment.

And that’s just what Esquire food critic Josh Ozersky apparently loathes. On October 7th, Ozersky published an essay in Medium that went well beyond merely criticizing Fisher. He suggested she’d ruined the food-writing universe by introducing highbrow ingredients that, at least for Ozersky, are “dull,” “monotonous,” “oracular” and “Bohemian” (not to mention her “outrageous good looks.”)

The desire of food writers to copy her, he said, fails to acknowledge an “immense, seething, varied, noisy, conflicted, confused, unclassifiable” group of online writers eager to talk about food but whose lifestyles are light years from M.F.K.’s “rich and smart” universe. Her glossy magazine legacy, he insisted, was “suffocating” a generation for whom food is relief from stress, if not a means to dodge personal insecurity.

Since M.F.K. Fisher is considered to be one of the best food writers, contemporary food writers tend to emulate her, which can happen with any great writer regardless of the subject. This is problematic for Ozersky because the emulation limits food writing, keeping it in the hands of women — who he believes are usually wealthy and privileged, and are only interested in stories about traveling through France drinking wine, meals with friends, or some paean to grandma’s cooking. Instead, contemporary food writers should ignore Fisher’s legacy so they can tackle meatier topics like the obesity epidemic, food insecurity, fair wages — the real nitty-gritty politics of the plate , which would never some bourgeois Francophile, Mary Frances wanna-be, right?

This is where he’s wrong.

Fisher did care about the more pressing issues surrounding food. She just had a different approach to writing about them, and not mention writing in a completely different time period,cwhen tourism, traveling, and food, were quite different than they are now. Her power was that she made her readers care — whether it was about the aftermath of WWI in Alsace, France, gardening for survival, or how poor eating habits could and would lead to problems of obesity someday. She was subtle, which was part of her charm, but also what made her food writing so distinct and inviting.

If you read Fisher closely, and then read a food-styled memoir, like Elizabeth Gilbert’s, Eat, Pray, Love, you will quickly realize that the the two are quite different, despite both being privileged traveling the world. Gilbert’s memoir presents is indulgent. She sees food as a way for her to heal, to learn how to pray, and to love again, or whatever. It does not mean she understands food, or the significant role it is playing in her life. In other words, food is just a minor player in the great scheme to improve herself.

Not for Fisher.

Eating was always a way of praying and loving for the poet of the appetites — not some antidote to the anxiety of a mid-life crisis. Just look at passages from the Gastronomical Me, or essays, such as Consider the End, published in Gourmet Magazine in 1951, where she discusses the importance of cooking with children, and how it gives them a life-long skill — that extends beyond the kitchen, exposing them to good taste and culture, and preparing them to have an open palate and mind throughout their life.

Food centers Fisher. It grounds her. It nourishes her. And it informs her writing.

Why?

Well, hunger is hard to ignore, and Fisher, despite her Quaker-town upbringing and Grandmother with a wobbly stomach, never ignored hers. She discovered, at an early age, that food makes one pay attention to the world — a conviction that she never lost — and probably why food became her main subject and why she wrote so prolifically about it.

Towards the end of her life, she wrote about the different periods she spent in Provence, France. Two Towns in Provence, published in 1964, is Fisher at her best — the elusive observer, the poet, and the storyteller.

Often in the sketch of a portrait, the invisible lines that bridge the different strokes of the pencil are what really make it live. This is true in a word picture too. The myriad of undrawn lines are the ones that hold it together—- what the painter and the writer have tried to set down, which is their own vision of a thing: a town, one town, this town. There before us is what one human being has seen of something many others have viewed differently or not seen at all, and the lines held back are perhaps the ones most vital to the whole.

Fisher’s stories were drawn from those invisible lines — those things that could easily be forgotten or brushed away in the zeal for everything new — some undefined undercurrent — whether it was history or culture or the deep pain of losing a loved one. This allowed her to bring into focus aspects of food unexplored or forgotten so that her readers would see that food — was not just food, it was and is everything.

Long live, M.F.K. Fisher.