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Savoring a Birthday With M. F. K. Fisher

Times Restaurant Editor

“Are you still writing restaurant reviews?” Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher asks a visitor.

The occasion is her 80th birthday party, held Saturday in this Northern California town, and the woman who has been called “the most interesting philosopher of food now practicing in our country” (Clifton Fadiman) and “our greatest food writer” (Shana Alexander) has made an infrequent foray from her ranch.

On this occasion, Craig Claiborne (former food editor of the New York Times) calls her “a national treasure” and wine-maker Robert Mondavi toasts her by saying “you’ve raised the image of food and wine in this country.”

Meanwhile, M.F.K. Fisher will sit there with a slightly bemused expression on her face; when all the toasts are over, she will respond with a dry “very nice.”

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Although this author of 30 books has by now, gotten used to being called one of America’s greatest living writers, she has said of herself, “I used to say that by the time I was 50, I would have written a good book. And I got to be 50 so I raised the ante to 55. Then I took a good look at myself and I said, ‘Never.’ I don’t like to read the stuff I’ve written. Never have, never will.”

Few people share that opinion. As Americans have become increasingly interested in eating, more and more of them have discovered M.F.K. Fisher either through her books or her many magazine pieces, particularly for the New Yorker. Among people interested in food, Fisher has attained something close to cult status; when a restaurant in San Francisco’s East Bay announced that Fisher would attend the dinner in her honor, people from all over California plunked down $100 for the privilege of meeting her. Said Claiborne, who flew in from New York, “I’d go anywhere for this lady.”

Generally, Fisher prefers to stay in her snug Sonoma bungalow and let the world come to her. And come they do, to sit and look out over the tawny hills as they sip wine and share lunch with the one American who really seems to understand what appetite is all about.

In “How to Cook a Wolf” (which is not a cookbook), written during World War II, Fisher wrote, “I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war’s fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy and ever-increasing enjoyment. And with our gastronomical growth will come, inevitably, knowledge and perception of a hundred other things, but mainly of ourselves.”

Fisher seems to know herself quite well. Although she isn’t thrilled with her age--"Promise me never to be 80,” she tells one friend at the party, “it doesn’t feel good"--her sense of humor and her forthright manner remain unimpaired. When one speaker asks the assembled guests, “Did you know that she was a gag writer in Hollywood?” Fisher leans over and says to her dinner partner, “Yes, for Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. That job didn’t last very long.”

Fisher once told me about the first gag she wrote. “My producer said, ‘I want you to do a 3-minute gag line.’ So I trotted across the lot, went into my office and dictated it to my secretary. She typed it up and got a messenger and sent it to the producer. He looked at it and said, ‘This is impossible. Pure plagiarism. Nobody could write this in a half hour.’ ” The gag was rejected. Fisher’s business manager told her that she had worked too fast. “It should have taken two weeks,” he told her. “Then they would have accepted it immediately.”

Hollywood’s loss was the food world’s gain; Fisher left gags to write “The Gastronomical Me,” a book about love and food and dignity. It is a book that makes you wish you could have been alive and well and eating in France in the ‘30s, but even more, a book that makes you wonder how sensibly you are living in the ‘80s. I once asked Fisher what she ate when she was alone and she replied, “Good stuff. You just can’t slug out a TV dinner, you know. One has to do it with a certain amount of pizazz.”

At 80, Fisher is still living her life with a certain amount of pizazz. Although she rarely leaves home, Fisher still writes every day and her latest book, “Dubious Honors,” was recently published by Northpoint Press.

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Asked why she agreed to leave her ranch to come to this particular dinner, she mumbles something about friends coming from all over to celebrate. But one suspects that there is a degree of bravado in the gesture; ensconced in a wheelchair, Fisher surveys the assembled guests with satisfaction, and when she leaves, she gives a jaunty wave of the cane. She seems pleased to be able to demonstrate that she is alive and well and getting around.

And still very sharp. Thinking about her greeting, I suddenly recall something she said to me 10 years ago. After a long talk, she turned to me and said, “You can’t continue to be a restaurant critic, you know, unless you’re the ambitious kind of person who is willing to walk on your grandmother’s grave.”


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