MFK Fisher and Me

This essay is part of a new feature, Food Writer Friday, which highlights a significant food writer and explores the ways they have shaped us as writers, thinkers and cooks. Tag us online with #foodwriterfriday to share your greatest influences.

My love affair with MFK Fisher ended the day Julia Child died. On August 13, 2004, I was cooking dinner for some of my students. I mentioned Julia Child’s death and the students, 30 years my junior and African American, regarded me with the “so, what’s the big deal” stare.  

I talked about demystifying French techniques, seasonality and making the most of ingredients.

“People have always cooked that way,” said one student, “they were poor, they had to.” 

I was blindsided, shocked into awareness. Embarrassed to realize that my fascination with France, French style and French food was part and parcel of the white, upper-middle class cocoon in which I grew up and came of age in. I kept Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The volumes of Fisher’s memoirs, on the other hand, had to go.

For quite some time, I wondered about my quick and irrevocable decision. I thought back to 1989 when my passion for Fisher peaked. I had recently left my pressure cooker of a career, had two young children and was living in a New England suburb. But in my mind, I was living in the South of France, sipping rosé as I concocted meals that Fisher might have eaten during her stay in Dijon. In a desperate attempt to rebuild a vision of myself as an artist I was taking drawing and painting classes at a nearby museum. 

Illustration by Lucey Bowen.

Illustration by Lucey Bowen.

In response to a design assignment I created an homage—illustrations and a book cover based on imagery from Fisher’s writings—everything from the trout bleu, to the SS Normandie nd the kimono she used as a bedspread at Last House, the home in St. Helena, California where she spent her final decades. 

Fisher died the year before my family moved to the Bay Area which, in my mind, was as close to Southern France as I could get. My passion for Fisher seemed to rise and fall in direct disproportion to the hurried release of reprinted books and publications that proceeded her death, but it was rekindled by several biographies. My heart beat faster in 2012 when Anne Zimmerman published M.F.K. Fisher, The Passionate Years. I swooned again in 2014 when Luke Barr published his Provence, 1970. 

By then, I was (sort of) following Fisher’s footsteps, writing about food. Specifically, I was delving into the early history of Gourmet magazine and trying to understand its prejudices, tracing the magazine’s trajectory from its initial contributor, Lucius Beebe, whose imperious food snobbery and European bias defined the magazine as an indispensable aspirational Baedecker for the upwardly mobile, to Ruth Reichl, whose class bias remained but whose worldview ranged wider. 

Don’t get me wrong. Reichl goes full-on MFK Fisher in her food-haiku tweets and is, herself, nearly a prisoner of the updated, Fisher-like persona she created. However, during her reign at Gourmet, Reichl delivered a greater diversity of writers and cuisines, a depth of exhaustive reportage and broader concerns about food justice, food deserts and food adulterants to the image to which so many aspire toward. 

As I researched Gourmet, I became increasingly annoyed with Fisher. But why? Was it the person? The style of writing? The narrow range of her palate? Her lifestyle? The endless recycling of her early work? 

Illustration by Lucey Bowen.

Illustration by Lucey Bowen.

For starters, how can anyone eat and drink so well and not get fat? Did Fisher eat slowly? I knew someone who ate that way. She came home from her work as a librarian, poured a glass of sherry, cooked dinner and ate with a kind of fastidious thoroughness. She was a good cook who grew, canned and froze her own vegetables. She was also an alcoholic. She was my mother.  

My mother’s food, especially her Bolognese sauce was delicious, long-simmered, tinged with oregano. I could not get enough of it. I once decimated a potful while it was still on the stove. I devour. The restraint I perceived in Fisher’s physical appetite, as opposed to the sexualized appetite she evoked on the page, pissed me off. 

And there was Fisher’s gender bias. Oh, she was charming in all company but she reserved her full-Geisha for men. So did my mother

Fisher suffered a horrific tragedy, the suicide of her first husband, the love of her life. So did my mother. Her son, my younger brother, was killed in an automobile accident that my father caused. The marriage did not survive. 

Like Fisher, my father was a writer and, by my early teens, also typing through horrific tragedy. He, like Fisher, summoned enormous productivity in the loneliest and one of the least profitable of careers. When I visited him in New York City, he was subsisting on a saltines, cottage cheese and borscht. 

Illustration by Lucey Bowen.

Illustration by Lucey Bowen.

Unlike Fisher, however, my father didn’t recycle his material ad nauseam. He didn’t allow himself to become an imitation of himself. 

Granted Fisher became a single parent of two children and had, perhaps, even more financial incentive than my father. I don’t begrudge her stream of reprints, collections and retellings. But I couldn’t deny that, for this reader at least, she became too content, too self-satisfied. 

She became the soundtrack for the commodification of an idealized France and its lifestyle, to which women like me, white, middle class and college educated, aspired. A ghost of Fisher keeps my local restaurant, Chez Panisse, thriving, keeps special-issue magazines devoted to a romanticized iteration of life in the southern French provinces rolling off the presses, keeps revisionist chateau-style McMansions sprouting up in wealthy suburbs and keeps French inspired linen, pottery and furniture flying off the shelves at Crate & Barrel. 

The flood of works derived from Fisher’s texts, the latest being a novel, The Arrangement, feed the obsession. To my mind, it’s a narcotic habit that is insular, class, race and gender-biased.

Anne Zimmerman hails Fisher as the greatest food writer of the 20th century, the inventor of the food memoir. My Gourmet immersion showed another candidate, equally prolific: Lillian Langseth-Christiansen. Her memoirs and food writing range from Vienna to India. She was also a gifted designer who studied at Werner Werkstatte and designed the Plaza Hotel’s Persian Room. 

Illustration by Lucey Bowen.

Illustration by Lucey Bowen.

In the 21st century Ruth Reichl and Gourmet’s editorial team delivered a bumper crop of women who wrote about food. To long time contributor Elizabeth Andoh, Gourmet added Naomi Duguid, Fuschia Dunlop and Karen Coates. Each traveled and lived in the corners of the globe that they wrote about. Some traveled alone, some with husband, some with children. Their interests range beyond themselves. They have little interest in self-mythologizing, they are genuinely connected to the people, the places and the broader political and cultural context of food they serve. 

When I was greeted with blank stares from my students the day that Julia Child died, I awoke to the realization that there are more things to write about food than a solipsistic pleasure and nostalgia for a past that never was. I guess that is why I tossed the Fisher books. 

Why, on the other hand, did I keep Child’s books? Because they are useful. 

Child empowers and encourages readers to move beyond fantasy and beyond aspiration. Fisher was content to evoke and repeat. Child, on the other hand, couldn’t stay in an armchair. She remained curious, pro-active, expanding her world—and the readers’ world. 

Fisher was finished decades before she died. Child remained a work in progress until her heart stopped beating. 

For me, the infinite window that food opens into a myriad of worlds is what makes the subject endless, and endlessly fascinating. For me, jumping from the chair into food activism is the great next step. 

As Francis Lam, another of Gourmet’s 21st century food writers noted, there is a dark side to food. Its immense pleasure sparkles, in part, because of the massive shadow that food casts, environmentally, culturally, socially. 

Julia Child chose to look the other way. Toward the end of her life, she loathed the environmentalists and animal rights activists who were, she said, “a conspiracy creating fear of food.”  MFK Fisher, on the other hand, chose not to look at all.

Lucey Bowen writes about culinary and other sorts of history. Trained in Art History and Anthropology, her research interests include a photographic reconnaissance of the Hudson River, Gourmet magazine's coverage of Asia and Asian food from 1941 to 2009 and the intersection of food and landscape in Singapore. Her essay, “Nobody Said to Cook: The Chinese Food of Emily Hahn and Time Life Books,” was awarded Best First Time Presentation at the Oxford Symposium of Food and Cookery in 2015. Lucey will spend the next six months in Lausanne, Switzerland, not too far from MFK Fisher’s storied haunt at Chexbres, above the Lac Leman.