Reviews — From the March 2016 issue

The Hunger Artist

The appetites of M.F.K. Fisher

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Discussed in this essay:

The Arrangement, by Ashley Warlick. Viking. 320 pages. $26.

The Theoretical Foot, by M.F.K. Fisher. Counterpoint. 304 pages. $25.

“I have eaten several strange things since I was twelve, and I shall be glad to taste broiled locusts and swallow a live fish. But unless I change very much, I shall never be able to eat a slug.” The only person who could have written these words was M.F.K. Fisher. There is a subtle energy to her writing, the atmosphere of which has never been replicated, though many have tried. Was anyone ever so delightfully confident of herself on the page? Each time you return to Fisher’s food writing — she published more than thirty books during a career spanning five and a half decades — the prose exhilarates anew. She proved that non-fiction can be as personal and true as fiction, if not more so. Her voice is as clean and decisive as scissors snipping chives, and the relish is all her own: she is, as one of her books announced, the “Gastronomical Me.”

It is surprising, therefore, to discover that Fisher believed she was writing not for herself but for someone else. “I have to write towards somebody I love,” she said to Ruth Reichl, then a young freelance writer who interviewed her for a 1981 Ms. magazine article. The interview took place in Last House, on Bouverie Ranch near Sonoma, California, which was indeed Fisher’s last house — she lived there from 1971 until her death, in 1992, at the age of eighty-three. The great food writer — now silver-haired — prepared a modest lunch of split-pea soup and answered most of Reichl’s questions about her writing with “Did I say that?” or “I don’t know.” But when Reichl asked if she wrote for herself, she looked horrified. The answer was an unequivocal no. “It’s like kissing yourself, don’t you think?”

M.F.K. Fisher, photographer unknown. Courtesy Widener Library, Harvard University

M.F.K. Fisher, photographer unknown. Courtesy Widener Library, Harvard University

She knew that there was something shocking about her own hunger, and the ease with which she both displayed and satisfied it. That ease was the opposite of how Americans — especially women — were expected to behave toward food. Fisher once noted how upset it made people to see her alone in a restaurant, wearing lipstick and freely ordering good wines and anything else she fancied. Such faith in her own tastes and company made others anxious:

Women are puzzled, which they hate to be, and jealous of the way I am served, with such agreeable courtesy, and of what I am eating and drinking, which is almost never the sort of thing they order for themselves. And men are puzzled too, in a more personal way. I anger them as males.

Those of us who love M.F.K. Fisher above all other food writers can sympathize with this. We watch in wonder at her goddamned self-assurance. W. H. Auden once said, “I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose.” She does not soften her views to suit our tastes but serves them forth — as the title of her first book has it — in the certitude that what she is feeding us is good.

When Serve It Forth was published, in 1937, Fisher hoped for riches — “to hell with esteem,” as she wrote to a friend. Instead, the book enjoyed critical success without huge sales. The New York Times pronounced it “unique.” Fisher was only twenty-nine and yet she writes as though there is nothing she doesn’t know, including medieval recipes for swan and the best drinks to have when you are about to die. “Now I am going to write a book,” she announces in the introduction. “It will be about eating and about what to eat and about people who eat.” Serve It Forth is about all that, but it also covers her gnawing childhood hunger, an ancient Roman fish sauce, and a French butcher named César. It is about marriage and friendship and “the worst apricot tarts that ever sogged and stuck in the throat.” Throughout, there is a miraculous air of brightness, like a salad sprinkled with slivers of orange rind (one of the many delicacies to which she introduces us).

Many authors whisper, as though to a diary, or chat, as though to a friend, but Fisher communicates with the heady directness of a lover. She writes to confide her secret delights and to impress someone with her mastery of the table. That someone was the person she named Chexbres in her writing, an allusion to a small Swiss village near the house where they once lived together. His real name was Dillwyn Parrish, though his friends all called him Tim.

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is the author, most recently, of First Bite: How We Learn to Eat (Basic Books).

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