1 Maunris

Mfk Fisher Essays

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, the real-life subject of Ashley Warlick’s new historical fictionThe Arrangement, wrote about food in words both terse and luxurious. Alongside the foodstuffs and glassfuls, she also cataloged the people, rooms, and worlds surrounding the plates set before her. To MFK Fisher, everything became a feast: a platter of oysters, one introductory bivalve apiece, unveiled at a girls’ school dining hall; a mysteriously unfurled banquet of a dozen dishes and two bottles of wine at a pit-stop lunch for one; and memories of a cook from Fisher’s childhood in terms so tantalizing and palate-awakening that not until the end of the essay does the reader realize no food has appeared in its pages, save for a few bites of pie dough sprinkled with seeds.

MFK Fisher changed the face of American dining, not through cooking instructions but through writing. She’s a food writer’s food writer, subtly influencing the best among us through sentences shaped by sensuality and a steely discernment. She taught us to see food as a sum total. She scrutinized her dining companions as closely as the plates on the table. Interactions with the food, whether emotional or mannered, were as crucial as the tastes being savored. In essence, meals with MFK Fisher were dynamic compositions of both the food and the people eating the food.

Warlick’s The Arrangement captures the early days of MFK Fisher, whose hunger for life is as hearty and complex as it is for food, at a time when she is slowly separating from her first husband and growing closer to her second. Given Fisher’s way with words, her own real-life musings can serve as wonderful accompaniments to Warlick’s novel. Here, to sharpen your appetite for both her essays and Warlick’s impassioned recreation, is the world according to MFK Fisher in 8 sumptuous quotes.

1. “There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk. And that is my answer, when people ask me: Why do you write about hunger, and not wars or love?” (Introduction toThe Gastronomical Me)

2. “But when we drove into Le Pâquis in the first shy sunlight, we shed our city clothes and bathed and put on dungarees again, and hurried down into the garden. We had been away too long.

We grew beautiful salads, a dozen different kind, and several herbs. There were shallots and onion and garlic, and I braided them into long silky ropes, and hung them over the rafters in the attic. In one of the cellars we stored cabbages and apples and tomatoes and other things on slatted shelves, or in bins. And all the time we ate what we were growing.” (“The Measure of My Powers”, fromThe Gastronomical Me)

3. “I tasted the last sweet nugget of trout, the one nearest the blued tail, and poked somnolently at the minute while billiard balls that had been eyes. Fate could not harm me, I remembered winily, for I had indeed dined to today, and dined well. Now for a leaf of crisp salad and I’d be on my way.” (“Define This Word,” fromThe Gastronomical Me)

4. “Another thing that makes daily, hourly thought about wherewithals endurable us to be able to share it with someone else. That does not mean, and I say it emphatically, sharing the fuss and bother and fretting. It means being companionable with another human who understands, perhaps without any talking at all, what problems of basic nourishment confront you. Once such a relationship is established, your black thoughts vanish, and how to make a pot of stew last three more meals seems less a nightmare than a form of sensual entertainment.” (“How to Be Cheerful Though Starving,” fromHow to Cook a Wolf)

5. “Probably the best stew I ever ate was at the Doylestown Inn. It may have been so good because I was escaped from a long ride, cold enough to make my eyeballs hurt. Maybe it was because I was pleased by the narrow dark room and the Dutch farmers sitting quietly at the bar and the smell of the places, clean and masculine. I was happy to be there for those reasons and because I had long waited for the day, eager from tales I had heard. So the stew tasted better than any I had ever eaten, because of all that and because it was so good anyway.” (“A Supper to Sleep On,” fromConsider the Oyster)

6. “Myself, I have read so many recipes in the past thirty years or so, for both love and hunger, that I can and mostly do separate the good ones from the bad at a glance. What is more, I have followed so many of them, both actually and in my culinary brain, that I unconsciously reword and reorganize most of them, and am rebuffed and made suspicious by anything clumsy in them.” (“Q Is for Quantity,” fromAn Alphabet for Gourmets)

7. “The truth is that most bereaved souls crave nourishment more tangible than prayers: they want a steak. What is more, they need a steak. Preferably they need it rare, grilled, heavily salted, for that way is is most easily digested, and most quickly turned into the glandular whip their tired adrenals cry out for.” (“S is for Sad,” fromAn Alphabet for Gourmets)

8. “For those who must have some ‘shapeless nothing in a dish,’ war or no war, at the end of every nighttime meal, the easiest and cheapest (and most pitying) answer is the boxed ready-prepared gelatine dessert. It is well advertised and even well thought of in some circles. Therefore let us dismiss both it and its admirers from our thoughts.

Probably one of the best ends to a supper is nothing at all. If the food has been simple, plentiful, and well prepared; if there has been time to eat it quietly, with a friend or two; if the wine or beer or water has been good; then, more often than not, most people will choose to leave it so, with perhaps a little cup of coffee for their souls’ sake.” (“How to Comfort Sorrow,” fromHow to Cook a Wolf)

Here Let Us Feast: A Book of Banquets

by M.F.K. Fisher

North Point, 323 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Among Friends

by M.F.K. Fisher

North Point, 306 pp., $10.95 (paper)

The Art of Eating: How to Cook a Wolf, Consider the Oyster, Serve it Forth, The Gastronomical Me, An Alphabet for Gourmets

by M.F.K. Fisher

Vintage, 749 pp., $11.95 (paper)

Serve It Forth

by M.F.K. Fisher

North Point, 146 pp., $11.95 (paper)

Consider the Oyster

by M.F.K. Fisher

North Point, 96 pp., $7.95 (paper)

How to Cook a Wolf

by M.F.K. Fisher

North Point, 224 pp., $11.95 (paper)

The Gastronomical Me

by M.F.K. Fisher

North Point, 252 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Sister Age

by M.F.K. Fisher

Vintage, 243 pp., $7.95 (paper)

In 1937 Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher published Serve It Forth, the first of her unclassifiable works on the art of eating, blends of autobiography, culinary history, parable, and cookbook. Serve It Forth, as she tells us in her most recent book of essays, Dubious Honors, was deliberately written and accidentally published; in its idiosyncratic combination of storytelling and recipes she found the matrix for the subsequent books on food that have won her, at the age of eighty-one, a cult of readers ranging from insurance agents to Proust scholars.

All of M.F.K. Fisher’s books—whether they are about Marseilles, like A Considerable Town, or folk medicine, like A Cordiall Water, are largely autobiographical, but nothing animates her memory so much as food. It is the five books written from 1937 to 1949 collected in The Art of Eating that are at the heart of her work: Serve It Forth; Consider The Oyster, a biography of the mollusc as well as a guide to cooking it; How To Cook a Wolf, her reflections on food during the Second World War; the memoirs called The Gastronomical Me; and An Alphabet for Gourmets, a kind of exotic dictionary in which the nuances of words and phrases are traced through the flavors of dishes. (The sense of the word “Exquisite,” for instance, is pursued through “a salad of satiny white endive with large heavily scented Parma violets scattered through it.”)

George Balanchine once said that by bringing a girl on stage, he could show an audience the world. M.F.K. Fisher, in her own way, brings onstage a peach or a brace of quail and shows us history, cities, fantasies, memories, emotions. In her anthology of writing about food and drink, Here Let Us Feast (1946),* she glosses the famous scene in Oliver Twist in which the workhouse orphan asks for more gruel with this recipe for gruel from A Handbook of Cookery for Irish Workhouses:


6 ounces unsifted oatmeal

1 gallon water

Soak meal in lukewarm water 24 hours, press the mixture through a fine sieve, boil until thick. Let stand 15 minutes and serve.

This brutally unseasoned sludge makes us know almost physically the rack and pang of Oliver’s hunger, and the authorities’ contempt for it. Politics, poverty, institutional sadism, and lovelessness are all part of this saltless paste.

M.F.K. Fisher’s books also tell of the drama of hunger, that central force which impels us from conception to death, and teaches us the pattern of much other longing. She sees our approach to food as a kind of behavior, in itself a description of the nuances of character. To juggle with Brillat-Savarin’s famous aphorism, we eat as we are.

She was born in 1908, the first child of parents of Scottish and Irish descent, her mother, Edith, a banker’s daughter; her father, Rex, “born into newspapers,” although…

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