Consider the Food Writer
Because the future of the art means
(please!) leaving M.F.K. Fisher behind
M.F.K. Fisher, the most influential of all American food writers, can’t be blamed for the wreck she made of her chosen field. It wasn’t her fault. Strong-minded and fearless, she was and is a heroine to many of the people who afterward controlled American food writing in print. Everyone has to eat, but to write about food for money in America, you have to fit in a very narrow place, and that place is a chalk outline of MFK Fisher.
Which is a problem.
Fisher’s merits as a writer are beside the point. I personally find her work to be dull, monotonous, and eventually stupefying, like the endless chatter of some lady you sit next to on a bus. But whatever. Whether you enjoy her work or not, there is no doubt that she more or less invented first-person food writing as we know it today. Fisher swept away the bombast and pomposity of nineteenth-century epicurean food writing, a decadent, rotting edifice already crumbling under its own weight. She had what few writers have, a distinctive style, and like her contemporary, Ernest Hemingway, whom she in many ways resembled (though not physically), it was as much a moral as a literary one. Her writing is wise, in a superficial way, but not especially reflective; for that reason, she is at her best when generating brief, self-contained observations. Fisher is a surpassingly quotable writer. Like her hero Brillat-Savarin, she tends to think in epigrams. A few examples, out of hundreds just like them, will suffice.
“All men are hungry. They always have been. They must eat, and when they deny themselves the pleasures of carrying out that need, they are cutting off part of their possible fullness, their natural realization of life, whether they are poor or rich.”
―How to Cook a Wolf
“Dining partners, regardless of gender, social standing, or the years they’ve lived, should be chosen for their ability to eat — and drink! — with the right mixture of abandon and restraint. They should enjoy food, and look upon its preparation and its degustation as one of the human arts.”
—Serve It Forth
“I am more modest now, but I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.”
—The Art of Eating
As a writer, Fisher belongs, I think, to that cold class of mid-century authors whose voices, once thought profound, have now receded into an indistinct din: Edmund Wilson, V.S. Naipaul, Susan Sontag, Paul Goodman, et al. All are fine writers, whose work continues to give pleasure to exactly nobody, and whose ideas, once evaporated out from their elegant prose, differ little from what you’ve heard a lot of smart people say in conversation. Their reputations, like that of all writers, depended entirely on the willingness of their audiences to take them seriously. Now that both are six feet deep, their works are the sole property of the cultural historians who are now their only readers.
Fisher ought to have joined them, but things worked out differently. In the sixties, as David Kamp and other writers have reminded us, a “food revolution” came over American culture. One way in which middle- and upper-class baby boomers defined themselves was by the pleasure they took in eating. Not for them the gray victuals of the their Depression Era parents; no, they were children of the postwar world, with easy access to France and a bold willingness to embrace the exotic. (It helped that nearly everything was exotic; James Beard got credit for liking garlic, which had struck a previous generation of epicures as ghetto.)
A print media then at its zenith of power began to recruit writers and editors to serve it. Predictably, given the times, they were mostly women, along with a few “bachelors” thrown in, and more importantly, they almost always belonged to the upper class.
Not all were aristocrats like Elizabeth David (daughter of a British viscount), Julia Child (heiress to a paper fortune), or Judith Jones, Child’s influential editor, herself a New England WASP of spotless pedigree. Some, like Craig Claiborne, the New York Times’s all-powerful food editor, came from seedier backgrounds, but these left no trace on their tastes or the company they kept. All were alike card-carrying members of the upper bourgeoise, and their target readers, then as now, were people just like them, or people who wanted to be just like them. And there was nobody either wanted to be like more than M.F.K. Fisher.
The elevation of the rootless, bohemian Fisher to a sacred place within this culture might seem to be a strange fit, until you think about it for a second. The homemakers who powered the food revolution in the ’70s and ’80s were, as a rule, tethered to their families and homes; of course they would idolize Fisher. Few women have ever enjoyed, and fewer still enjoyed so gracefully, the almost complete independence Fisher did throughout her life. She could travel anywhere she wanted whenever she felt like it. She began and ended relationships as she saw fit. She was indifferent, not only to the idiotic gender conventions of the time, but to all social opinion, including the opinion of other women. Bourgeois morality was a rumor to her.
And most liberating of all—after the money, of course—was that boundless sense of self-worth which is the birthright of all talented people raised in loving and supportive homes.
Her oracular style proceeds, I suspect, from a lifetime of speaking expansively to listeners whom, I am guessing, shared her justly high opinion of herself. Certainly she couldn’t be said to have lacked confidence. Being outrageous good-looking didn’t hurt, either—she was, on top of being rich and smart, so gorgeous that Man Ray once photographed her for his own pleasure. Fisher had it all, and she knew it.
One consequence of this aplomb was a brusque, unearned authority, a poised and worldly tone masks the utter banality of Fisher’s observations. Her essays float right by, leaving behind a cloud that intoxicated many, and nobody more than home cooks with artistic aspirations and a lot of time on their hands, whom Fisher’s pseudo-gnomic nostrums stirred like a cobalt Kitchen-Aid mixer set on low. And now, over 20 years after her death, Fisher’s style continues to dominate, define, and constrain the conventions of food writing. That voice—wise, self-possessed, vaguely sensual—is the default voice for belles lettres food writing. It varies slightly—sometimes brassy, as with Ruth Reichl (Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table); sometimes mawkish, as with Kim Sunee (Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love, and the Search for Home); sometimes spunky-sensitive, like Amanda Hesser (Cooking For Mr. Latte); and sometimes unbearably pretentious, as with the odious Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love). But for all their superficial differences, all these books have certain unmistakable commonalities, DNA traceable to a single common ancestor.
And they have something else in common, too. They are without exception written by rich people, or people who would be rich if they didn’t have to pay for private school. All grope for depth, reaching reflexively for tropes that are now de rigeur. The author will find in some plate of pie a memory of mother and, later, in the act of their own eating, a universal experience that binds us all together. Somewhere in there will always be found some fond memory of a picturesque past or exotic land, some unforgotten tomato or miraculous couscous that still reverberates, even today, and underscores the persistence of the past and the brotherhood of man.
Why read this stuff at all? That’s what I don’t get. Why not just read Fisher, and take this treacle at cask strength? “Now the hills are cut through with superhighways, and I can’t say whether we sat that night in Mint Canyon or Bouquet, and the three of us are in some ways even more than twenty-five years older than we were then. And still the warm round peach pie and the cool yellow cream we ate together that August night live in our hearts’ palates, succulent, secret, delicious.” Fisher was at least an original, the first and the best of her tribe. Her admirers depart far from her spirit by so slavishly emulating her—and even farther by imposing that style on the rest of the world.
Fisherism, as I think of it, is now so ubiquitous, so inescapable, that not even its most slavish emulators even recognize it at this point. Fisherism is, not to put too fine a point on it, a straight-up form of cultural hegemony. If you have any doubt about how encompassing its conventions are, go look at the all-too-accurately named M.F.K. Fisher Writing Award given by the James Beard Foundation every year, or the pages of Best American Food Writing, or the essays in the New Yorker’s annual “Food Issue.” It is most visibly to be found in the pages, glossy and tactile, of the few remaining magazines that actually pay writers. Which is especially galling. Thanks to a cruel but ancient paradox, the writers to whom it comes most easily, and who therefore write it best, tend not to need the money too badly.
Such people tend to be edited, in my experience, by women, and women of their own class, many of whom move back and forth easily across the editor/writer membrane as easily as regulators and lobbyists in Washington. Such insularity, which borders on the incestuous, would seem to belong to an older time, the years of print’s ascendancy. And so it does. And you know why? Because that ascendancy never ended. The internet, which was supposed to have dealt it a fatal blow, became instead its slave and talent pool. Write anything you want on your blog or your Tumblr; nobody will hear of you, and you won’t see a penny, until some important person in the magazine world knows your name. That’s the sad secret of writing for the web, in food as in so many other fields. Even in the mid-’90s, when the internet was already encompassing the culture as a whole, its voices barely registered on the mandarins of the print media world. Julie Powell’s bloodless blogging struck them as raw and daring, the same way that any chef who played rock music in their dining room seemed an enfant terrible.
Blogs were, and are, for them merely a developmental league, a place from which to pluck promising novices.
My own success as as a food writer, which was as unexpected to me as it was to everybody else, was an accident: I was hired to blog about restaurants because I had a distinctive voice and got around a lot. A few weird people like me slipped into the food establishment more or less by accident; Kat Kinsman of CNN, for whom I used to write at Slashfood, is another one. But while we came out of the murky web world of the early aughts, we are the sole survivors, stragglers who were lucky enough to get inside the doors before they shut again, this time forever.
Which is really unfortunate. The web held out the promise of desperately needed intellectual diversity. Like the zines and alternative weeklies that were its forerunners, the web gives a home to all those people in the world who have neither good taste nor big kitchens nor any investment whatsoever in the work of a patrician idol. For example, here are some things you won’t find in contemporary mainstream food writing:
- compulsive overeating, obesity, diabetes, GI problems outside of designer allergies;
- the interaction of food with alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, amphetamines, hallucinogens, narcotics, or prescription medications;
- junk food, fast food, fried food, supermarkets, food courts, non-Neapolitan pizza, convenience stores, diners, chain restaurants, boxed food, canned food, frozen food, and cheap Chinese of the non-nostalgic kind;
- fatness and its consequences, including but not limited to stained clothing, shortness of breath, sexual frustration, meat sweats, gout, bunched and blousy clothes from shitty stores, frequent trips to the bathroom, infrequent trips to the bathroom, and other prosaic, unseemly daily humiliations;
The exclusion of so much of life strikes me as strange, given the assertion by Fisherites, made time and again, that the one thing we all have in common is our need for food, and so on. If Fisherism can be said to have a single credo, that surely has to be it. And it’s so not true! “Like most humans,” Fisher writes in The Gastronomic Me, “I am hungry…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.”
Really? I can. I bet a lot of other people can, too. Like some if not most humans, I often experienced food as a substitute for love, and never experienced security at all. My own formative encounters with food had exactly no connection to the seasons, to romance, to good times or for that matter bad ones. I self-medicated with it, like so many sad or stressed or ghetto-type people do, and the food was the kind that came in big flat boxes or buckets made of stiffened paper.
I’ve read moving and resonant accounts of eating, scenes that rang true from my own experience and that of other dirtbags like me. But I’ve never read them in a glossy food magazine, nor can I think of a single one that ever got nominated for an award.
They are for the most part not to be in Saveur or Bon Appetit or Food & Wine, nor even in edgier organs like Gastronomica, The Art of Eating, or the Edible magazines. And it goes without saying that you won’t find them in lifestyle publications. Instead, you find them in books outside the food shelf, like Anya Von Bremzen’s mordant and unsentimental Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, or Nigel Slater’s Toast, or even just an honest book from the humor shelf, the ghetto of any bookstore, like comedian Jim Gaffigan’s Food: A Love Story. Some of them are good and some are bad, but none of them sound like M.F.K. Fisher, and hence not like each other.
The food revolution, it turned out, was like every other revolution, merely replacing one oligarchy with another. We swapped in James Beard for Lucius Beebe, Julia Child for Clementine Paddleford, M.F.K. Fisher for Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. But, outside, there remains an immense, seething, varied, noisy, conflicted, confused, unclassifiable population of people who eat, and cook, and for whom food isn’t a source of community—at least not yet. They can all be heard, but they can’t get published or paid. They are invisible and unviable, but their voices matter. There is no doubt in my mind that if Fisher were alive, she would champion them.
But she isn’t, and her legacy suffocates us, immobilizes 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.