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[Reviews]

The Hunger Artist

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The appetites of M.F.K. Fisher

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.

To understand Fisher’s voice, especially in her early writing, you need to know that she was writing away from one love and toward another. The “we” of Serve It Forth refers to Mary Frances (the K was for Kennedy, her family name) and her husband, Al Fisher, the dependable but introspective academic with whom she lived in Dijon while he studied for his doctorate. Mary Frances had met Al in the library at UCLA. He was a recent graduate, and she was trying to make up credits over the summer after flunking her first semester of college. At twenty, she was already a seasoned writer, having turned out quick pieces for her father’s newspaper, the Whittier News. But she only found her true subjects — French food and herself — when she married Al and moved to France.

With Al, Mary Frances first discovered airy potato soufflé and musty gingerbread that smelled of “honey, cow dung, clove.” For Al she bought cauliflowers, cooking them in heavy cream and Gruyère in a wide casserole. In her writing, the relationship with Al anchors almost all of her happy memories of France and its magical ways of eating. “We lived, once, above a little pastry shop.” “We drank too much” tea with a “homesick Turkish lawyer.” “We smelled Dijon mustard, especially at the corner where Grey-Poupon flaunts little pots of it.”

But the “you” for whom Fisher parades these memories is someone different. The Fishers met Tim and Gigi Parrish in the early 1930s. Al and Mary Frances had run out of money and returned from Dijon to California, where they lived in her parents’ beach house in Laguna. The Parrishes were neighbors. Gigi was a glamorous film actress for Samuel Goldwyn, and Tim — who was much older than Gigi, with whom he had fallen in love while tutoring her when she was only thirteen — was an artist from a moneyed family. A fidgety, creative extrovert, he owned a tea salon, and his interests ranged from illustrating children’s books to writing screenplays and novels. To the Fishers, who were going slightly crazy with boredom and frustration after having left France behind, the company of the Parrishes was a tonic.

Tim and Gigi came often to dinner, and after everyone had eaten, Mary Frances would share snippets of the culinary essays she was working on. Al encouraged her in these writings, but the person who seemed most amused was Tim. She later described him as someone who could “draw out anything creative in other people.” A curious form of seduction started to take place on the page. Once Parrish became part of her life, Fisher stopped writing in her journal and instead poured her best self into food essays aimed at Tim. She wrote her first gastronomic articles (which would later become Serve It Forth) with the cozy security that she was still loved by Al, but they were spiced with the excitement and urgency that came from trying to please someone new.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before someone fictionalized this strange modus vivendi. The Arrangement, by Ashley Warlick, turns the story of the Fisher–Parrish ménage into a romantic novel. In the opening scene, Tim and Mary Frances (who has just published her first essay) are drinking cold Gibsons at a California restaurant, on the brink of an affair. Warlick presents this as the moment that Mary Frances became M.F.K.:

Tim raised his glass. “To Mary Frances Fisher. Her first publication.”

“M.F.K. Fisher. It’s M.F.K. Fisher.”

“Really.”

Tim and Mary Frances fell in love, and Gigi left for someone else. But there remained a triangle, in which Al played the third party for a surprisingly long time. He turned a blind eye when his wife traveled with Tim and his mother for months in Europe, with Mary Frances supposedly meant to be a companion for the elderly Mrs. Parrish. Then Tim invited Mary Frances and Al to come live with him at Le Paquis, his house in Switzerland. Sometimes Al and Tim drank beer together in the evenings, sometimes Al popped out in the morning to buy brioche for breakfast; Mary Frances cooked meals for them all, using vegetables from the kitchen garden. On visits, her parents noticed that Tim seemed to be a close friend, but they did not spot anything amiss.

Yet all the while, the love affair between Tim and Mary Frances continued. The setup sounds exhausting. As Fisher wrote in 1937, “I wanted love, but I was tired of it, wearied by its involutions, convolutions, its complex intraplexities.” In her writing, she turned from the messiness of love to the reassuring certainty of food. She recorded in an essay that she kept whispering the words “flagons and apples” to herself. It was a reference to the Song of Solomon: “Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.”

It is brave to write a fictional account of one of the twentieth century’s most distinguished prose stylists. In the scenes involving food, it feels as though Warlick might pull it off. She has absorbed Fisher’s knack for vivid, sensual descriptions and imagines her cooking dishes such as a stew of eggplant or “a mortar of green pounded herbs.” While Al is away, she eats solitary meals of shad roe on toast or celery hearts with “a quick yellow mayonnaise.” On Fisher’s return to Dijon with Tim, Warlick pictures her tipping back half a dozen oysters and “a short cold beer,” the “rattle of Dijonnaise around her like the beat of wings in a coop.”

Food is one thing; it is quite another to conjure the personality who eats it. The problem with The Arrangement is that Warlick’s Mary Frances never really feels like the poised, intelligent Fisher we think we know so intimately. How could she, when she is characterized in a different, and much more conventional, register? The absence of the real M.F.K. feels particularly acute in those sections that overlap with her writing. In “The Standing and the Waiting,” one of the most memorable chapters in Serve It Forth, Mary Frances returns to Aux Trois Faisans, her and Al’s favorite restaurant in Dijon, but this time, six years later, she visits with Chexbres. “Would the dishes be as exciting, as satisfying? Would the wine still be the best wine?” Fisher wonders. She quickly sees that things have changed. The tablecloth is stained, and Charles, once the “perfect waiter,” is now drunk and spilling the soup. Slowly the evening improves. They sip marc (which tastes “like smouldering fire”) and talk of architecture. At the end of the meal, they discover that Charles was let go that morning, and that theirs was the last meal he would ever serve. “Chexbres took my hand gently, and pointed to the roofs, coloured tiles, Burgundian, drained of their colour now, but plainly patterned. I began to cry.”

In Warlick’s novel, this profoundly elegiac piece of writing about the passage of time is turned into a workaday date night. The drama of Charles’s dismissal takes second billing to dull love talk between Mary Frances and Tim. When she becomes sad after the meal, “Tim gathered her in his arms, pressing her cheek to his. ‘My dear. It’s okay,’ ” he says, to which she replies, “But, Tim. I wanted this so much. And now there’s nothing.” It’s hard to imagine the real Fisher talking in such a wooden fashion.

Then again, even Fisher struggled to write about her relationship with Tim in fiction. The Theoretical Foot, her long-lost novel, which was begun in 1938 and remained unpublished for nearly eight decades, should be a thrilling proposition. In the book, Mary Frances Fisher has become Sara Porter, an elegant woman who is a wonderful cook. Tim Garton is her lover, a man with a fine, “goat-like” face whom everyone seems to admire. Though they are in love, they are still married to other people back in America. They host a group of friends at their beautiful Swiss farmhouse (clearly modeled on Le Paquis) in late summer. These include Honor and Daniel Tennant, two college students based on Fisher’s siblings, Norah and David Kennedy; Joe Kelly, a Rhodes scholar, and his girlfriend, Sue, another young American couple; and Lucy Pendleton, a small-minded painter who casts judgment on everyone else in the house. Finally, there is Nan Garton Temple, a poet, who is excessively close to her younger brother. Nan was identifiable as Anne Parrish, a children’s author. On reading the manuscript, Anne took offense, and Fisher decided against publication. A couple of years later, she changed her mind, but her publisher rejected the manuscript.

The novel has a curious structure. The uneventful story of the houseguests is interspersed with six mysterious and seemingly unconnected passages in which a man’s leg is amputated and he suffers hallucinatory pain. These passages make sense only if you know how Tim Parrish’s story ended. In the autumn of 1938, after a night of dancing at Le Paquis, he experienced terrible pain in one of his legs. The cause was Buerger’s disease, a condition that leads to thrombosis of the blood vessels. Two weeks later, his leg was amputated. He and Mary Frances eventually sold Le Paquis and moved to California. In 1941, after the disease progressed further, Tim shot himself.

When Fisher wrote her novel, she and Tim were dealing with the aftermath of his amputation. They had been suddenly dislocated from the happy, sybaritic life of food and love and cultured conversation that they had been enjoying at Le Paquis. In the novel, Fisher seems unable or unwilling to connect the drama of the leg with the houseguests. Perhaps the intention was for those passages to function as a memento mori, like the mosaics of skeletons that reminded diners in Pompeii that all feasts must come to an end.

In the novel’s main story, the characters have a series of emotional crises and they eat a series of lovely meals, which culminate in a feast of pigeon:

They ate little roasted cold pigeons and dug into a magnificent aspic all atremble with carrots and radishes and slices of cucumber cut like stars and moons. . . . The wine was rich and ripe and slid warmly down their various throats in different ways.

In passages such as these, Fisher is as sensuous and wise as we expect her to be. Her writing gives hunger a luminous exactness.

What she is not so good at, surprisingly, considering the psychological acuity of her food writing, is inhabiting the inner lives of her characters. Here is how she imagines the thought processes of Daniel, who is based on her younger brother: “Tim Garton was a real man, that was it. That was why Tim was probably the most important person in the world.” This is Nan: “I, Nan Garton, the bird woman, the frail spirit who lives on one almond and a sliver of ripe peach, am starved!” The only character who really comes alive is the dreadful Lucy Pendleton, whose story allows Fisher to explore the emotional potency of eating. After days of attempting to deny herself food and subsist on black coffee, and feeling disapproval toward those with less self-control, Lucy breaks into the pantry and gorges on mayonnaise and toast sticks, “ravenously dipping them into the thick rich yellow sauce and eating them in big untidy bites.”

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Theoretical Foot is that Fisher makes no attempt to present the thoughts of the character she based on herself. We are told many things about Sara in the course of the novel: that she is beautiful and self-possessed, that she washes salad, that she has green eyes, that she dances languorously, that she hates necklaces, that she “loved passionately,” that she makes all clothes look elegant, that she exclaims with pleasure when Tim opens a bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin from 1929. But we are never given access to Sara’s mind. She remains as hidden as the kernel in an apricot stone.

The main virtue of this disappointing novel is to remind us again of the astonishing achievement of M.F.K. Fisher’s culinary works. In her biography of Fisher, An Extravagant Hunger, Anne Zimmerman noted that the essays were prized for “tales so indulgent, they read like fiction.” In fact, the voice that Fisher achieved was far more intimate and declarative than most fiction, including her own. Nothing very special happened when she wrote about herself and Tim with the omniscience of a narrator. It was her “I” that had such power, the “I” who spoke to her lover of her private joy in peeling tangerines and roasting them on paper on a hot radiator in Strasbourg and saving the “secret section” at the heart for Al. She was blowing kisses at Tim, but we are the lucky ones who catch them.

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

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March 2016