M.F.K. Fisher

RUTH REICHL, TIMES FOOD EDITOR

". . . the most interesting philosopher of food now practicing in our country."

--Clifton Fadiman

"She writes about fleeting tastes and feasts vividly, excitingly, sensuously, exquisitely."

--James Beard

"M.F.K. Fisher is our greatest food writer because she puts food in the mouth, the mind and the imagination all at the same time."

-- Shana Alexander

"I do not consider myself a food writer."

--M.F.K. Fisher

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher lies in her bed, propped up on pillows, eating oysters.

At 84, it is one of the few sensual pleasures left to the woman whose impeccable prose introduced two generations of Americans to what she called the "Art of Eating." Her genius has been her absolute insistence that life's small moments are the important ones. "People ask me," she wrote, in the most-quoted passage from her 30 books, "why do you write about food, and eating and drinking?" The answer: "There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk."

Fisher's own body has, at this moment, betrayed her. Her voice has been reduced to an almost inaudible whisper, her hands cannot write much more than a signature, and her eyes no longer permit her to read. Movement is difficult. If any of this bothers her, she would not deign to show it; she is as imposing now as she was when I interviewed her for the first time 15 years ago.

"But how will you talk to her?" people have asked with alarm. These days her many visitors (Cyra McFadden was here yesterday; Alice Waters will be here the day after tomorrow) tend to come in packs and, in entertaining one another, entertain their hostess. What I found is that conversation is no problem: M.F.K. Fisher is still so intense that she virtually wills you to understand her whispers.

"Please don't whisper" is almost the first thing she says. Visitors unconsciously lower their own voices until they are no louder than hers. But Fisher will not suffer condescension. The sounds are soft on her Sonoma ranch: Occasionally a beeper gives out a peremptory honk, and there is the swish of cars moving on the road below, but the loudest noises are the quiet murmur of the television in the nurse's bedroom next door, the radio's gay, if slightly incongruous, tinkle in the living room and the thunk of the cats as they land on Fisher's bed. Into this silence her whispered command has the effect of a shout.

Things are awkward at first. She begins by putting down the oyster, sipping on a mysterious pink drink and talking--if these all-but-inaudible mouthings can be called talk--about the two new books she has just published. These are "The Boss Dog," stories about life in Aix-en-Provence in the '50s with her two young daughters that make you wish, with all your heart, that you could have been there with her, and "Long Ago in France," a compilation of stories from the '30s when Fisher was young, in love and living in Dijon.

She accepts congratulations for her election--just announced--to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She says--as she always does to people who ask--that she does not consider herself a writer. (Asked which of her own books is her favorite, she has always taken the most modest route and chosen "The Philosophy of Taste": "I didn't write that, you know. Brillat-Savarin did. I just translated it," she says for what must be the hundredth time.)

Fisher goes on to say that she is working on three new books, dictating every morning when her voice is strongest. "Writing is just like dope," she says. "I have to get my fix every day." She gestures off toward the corner of the room, where there are stacks of boxes, overflowing with papers. "There are thousands of pages. It's impossible to put into order," she says with a little sniff of disdain, as if this were something of which she were vaguely ashamed.

"I've always written naturally," she says now, as if that minimized her accomplishment. "It was just something I did." She insists that writing is so much a part of her that even her children Anne and Kennedy, to whom she refers as "nice girls," never thought of her as a writer.

Can this be true? I wonder, leaving Fisher's bedroom to allow her to rest for a while. I wander around the living room/kitchen--looking at the art. On the door is a 1953 poster of Aix-en-Provence and on the wall by the refrigerator some canvases done by Fisher's second husband, unframed. There are lots of books--art books, a life of Isabella d'Este, "Little Women," some Sylvia Plath, a copy of "Mrs. Bridge." There are a few cookbooks, too--signed from James and Julia and Craig. The only copies of her own books I can find are the ones in fancy bindings that publishers bestow upon their authors at Christmas. I find a copy of "The Gastronomical Me," and as I sit down to read it, the smaller of the two calicos jumps onto my lap.

Fisher's prose is so good, so strong, that in seconds I am with her in France--just married and falling in love with food. Later I will ask, "Why did you marry so young?" and she will reply, "To get the hell away from home."

Fisher's books are mostly autobiographical; her millions of readers know that she was brought up in Whittier, and that her father, Rex Kennedy, ran a newspaper. They know that she married a man named Al Fisher (who later became the dean of English at Smith College) and went with him to study in France. And that from 1929 to 1939 she seemed to bounce back and forth between France and California and cook and eat and drink a lot of really wonderful food and wine and somehow get divorced and married again. But let her tell it.

"Paris was everything that I had dreamed, the late September when we first went there. It should always be seen, the first time, with the eyes of childhood, or of love. I was almost 21, but much younger than girls are now, I think. And I was wrapped in a passionate mist."

And in "The Gastronomical Me" this is how she described her first serious meal in France:

"We ate the biggest as well as the most exciting meal that either of us had ever had. As I remember, it was not difficult to keep on, to feel a steady avid curiosity. Everything that was brought to the table was so new, so wonderfully cooked, that what might have been with sated palates a gluttonous orgy was, for our fresh ignorance, a constant refreshment. I know that never since have I eaten so much. But that night the kind ghosts of Lucullus and Brillat-Savarin as well as Rabelais and a hundred others stepped in to ease our adventurous bellies, and soothe our tongues. We were immune, safe in a charmed gastronomical circle."

Back in the bedroom, inadvertently whispering again, I show Fisher the book. She looks at the photo on the jacket--a head shot with eyes almost closed and long hair thrown back--and says, "That's rare, you know. They pulled that jacket after the first edition. The picture was considered too sexy."

No wonder, I say, and read her the passage underneath: "He had hung all my favorite pictures, and there was a present for me on the low table, the prettiest Easter present I have ever seen. It was a big tin of Beluga caviar, in the center of a huge pale-yellow plate, the kind sold in the market on saints' days in Vevey, and all around the tin and then the edge of the plate were apple blossoms. I think apple blossoms are perhaps the loveliest flowers in the world, because of their clarity and the mysterious way they spring so delicately from the sturdy darkness of the carved stems, with the tender little green leaves close around them. At least they were the loveliest that night, in the candlelight, in the odd-shaped room so full of things important to me."

"Oh pooh," she snorts, "that's not sexy." She says it as if there must be some unfathomable generational divide between us, if I could find sexiness in a passage such as this. "They put another picture by George Hurell on the cover after that," she muses. "He was a friend. He's been taking pictures of me all my life. He used to come to Laguna Beach and eat with us and take pictures of us because he didn't have any money to pay models. He was a darling little Jewish boy. He lives quite near here now; he came two or three years ago and took a lot more pictures of me."

Fisher stares at the photo for a while, then says, "That wasn't my first book, you know."

Her first book was "Serve It Forth" ("a book about eating, and about what to eat and about people who eat"). Fisher wrote it in one of those times when she was between jaunts to France. "After Al got his doctorate," she reminisces now, "we came back from Dijon and lived in my family's beach shack at Laguna Beach. Today we would have been called far-out hippies, I think, but then we were just victims of the Depression. I was always writing, but I never sold anything. Al was writing the Great American Novel. Then Al got a job in Occidental College. He was earning $650 a year. I got a job in a postcard shop in the afternoon, but every morning I went to the library and worked on the book."

Afterwards, she says, she'd come home and show what she'd written to her husband. "I have to write towards somebody I love. Express myself as that person I love would want me to be. I've never written just for myself. That's like kissing yourself, don't you think?"

Her husband, in turn, showed it to author/painter Dillwyn Parrish, who lived next door. "He picked up little pieces and sent them to his sister Anne, who was a famous writer. She was the one who sent it to a publisher. I didn't even know it had been published until Mother and Father came to Europe in '37 and told me."

This is, of course, more of Fisher's slightly unbelievable modesty. She must, after all, have signed a contract for the book before it was published? "I guess I did," she says dismissively, "I don't remember."

What she does remember is that by the time the book was published she was living with Dillwyn Parrish, who became her second husband. Parrish was the great love of her life, and her most wonderful stories are about being with him in Europe. Fisher unhesitatingly says that of all the times in her life, "I liked being with Timmie (Parrish) the most."

Fisher wrote her third book, "Consider the Oyster," "to amuse Timmie." She pauses. "He died just before I finished it," she whispers. And then asks me to leave so she can rest again.

This time I poke into her cookbooks. ("Food still tastes good, but I don't get much of it," she has just said. "I eat to live now. It doesn't matter much.")

The books are all well used and carefully annotated in her small, precise handwriting. Actually, the meals I remember sharing with Fisher have all been simple ones. Once she made me split pea soup and served it with sourdough bread with sweet butter and fruit compote and two kinds of shortbread cookies. A couple of times there have been salads. Once I brought her some caviar, and I could tell from her comments about liking to eat it best with a spoon that there wasn't enough to please her. Always there has been wine.

Fisher is as unpretentious about wine as she is about food. "Nobody with any humility would consider himself a connoisseur," she once told me. "I know red from white and I think I know good from bad and I know the phonies from the real, and that's about it."

But wine has always been one of her real pleasures. Now Fisher sends the nurse out to press some wine on me. "Mary Frances wants you to know that it's in the refrigerator," she says. And indeed it is--four different kinds of white wine, all local.

"I have almost always lived near vineyards," says Fisher when I go back into the bedroom, wine glass in hand. "That's where I have been happiest."

Where she has been unhappiest is in Los Angeles. "I was horrified when I discovered that you were moving down there," she whispers. "I myself had to get out."

Fisher's Hollywood period was in the mid-'40s, during her third marriage (to publisher Donald Friede). "It was a short, dumb but good marriage," she begins. "We were living in Hollywood mostly, and commuting to the house in Hemet 120 miles away. We had two kids, two houses and a very social life. Life was too hectic." Before long Fisher is painting a picture of herself frantically trying to keep up--and not doing a very good job.

"Then Donald got me into the translation of 'Physiology of Taste.' I did it," she says firmly, "under duress."

Fisher admits--has always admitted--that she is pleased with the translation. Even before she did it she wrote, "There are two kinds of books about eating: those that try to imitate Brillat-Savarin's and those that try not to." But although the book was immediately acclaimed, Friede was not satisfied; what he really wanted his wife to do was write a novel.

"He thought every writer had one novel in him, but God, no, I'm not a novelist." She grimaces a little. "I wrote my first novel when I was 9. I wrote a chapter a day, and I would tell it to my family after lunch. It was about love, with a nurse , a sailor--all things I didn't know about. They laughed. Finally I realized that they were really laughing at me--and that I was not a novelist."

Pressed into fiction once again, Fisher "tried to choose a woman who was the opposite of me--to be everything I wasn't. It really is just short stories nailed together."

The book, "Not Now But Now," was published in 1947. It didn't sell. The same year, Fisher divorced Friede. "I didn't contest anything. I just wanted the kids. He was delighted."

The two remained friends, and it was Friede ("finally accepting that I could never be a novelist") who came up with the idea of reprinting five of Fisher's books as one volume: "The Art of Eating." "In 1954," says Fisher, with just an edge of bitterness, "he decided that I was through. He wanted me to be a bestseller and I wasn't. So he issued the book. He's very pleased; it's never been out of print."

It's hard now to imagine how Fisher, a single mother with two children and not much money, managed to live on what a free-lance writer makes. She wrote for dozens of publications--Vanity Fair, House Beautiful, Gourmet--articles for which she was never particularly well paid, and for which she never once received an expense check. "They just didn't do it in those days," she says. She wrote for the New Yorker, too--their vaunted generosity amounted to a retainer of $50 a year.

For a while Fisher worked for her father at the newspaper. "When Rex died, he left us some money, and then Donald's mother died and left the kids $200 a month and in 1958 we went to Europe for four years. The money went far in Europe--and I wanted my girls to learn other ways and other languages."

Lots of wonderful books have subsequently come out of those years. But during the '50s themselves, Fisher was so busy writing for magazines that she published no new books. Even in 1961, when she wrote "A Cordiall Water," a book about folk medicine, it was just to fill a pressing financial need: "Anne wanted to go to a party and she needed a dress, so I sent the book off to Little, Brown."

The next year Fisher came back to California, to a big house in St. Helena. But her children were ready to move away--and Fisher soon embarked on the one period of her life that she has never written about.

"Tell me about Mississippi," I plead.

"Let me rest awhile," she replies.

I wander onto the sun porch, a comfortably shabby sort of room filled with weathered furniture and books with curling covers. The cat nuzzles at my ankles, demanding that I sit down and make a lap. She looks sleek and well fed; no wonder. "I wouldn't feed them anything I wouldn't eat myself," Fisher had said earlier.

I grab the copy of "The Gastronomical Me" and begin to read my favorite of her stories. It is the one called "Define This Word," about wandering into a restaurant in a remote French village and falling into the clutches of a waitress so passionate about her work that Fisher fears she is never going to be allowed to leave the restaurant. I reach the part where the chef sends out the dessert: "With a stuffed careful smile on my face and a clear nightmare in my head of trussed wanderers prepared for the altar by this hermit-priest of gastronomy, I listened to the girl's passionate plea for fresh dough. 'You cannot serve old pastry!' the waitress is crying"--when the nurse comes to call me back into the room.

"Mississippi?" I ask. Fisher sighs. "In 1964 the kids were all gone and I thought I'd find out if the South was as bad as I thought. So I went to teach at the Piney Woods School."

Piney Woods was a school for black students; the faculty, says Fisher, was half black and half white. She taught English. "The South was worse than I expected. I didn't go to town at all while I was there."

But why did she go in the first place? Did she plan to write a book, to fight a fight? She looks slightly horrified. "God, no, I wasn't planning on writing anything about it. And I didn't go there to fight anything. I just went."

Fisher smiles a little, remembering. "I found it took six months before the kids would eyeball me. But after six months I was without color, and so were they." She smiles. "I was not invited back," she adds with a certain amount of pride, "because I was a trouble maker." She seems pleased by this, and then abruptly stops talking.

"Did you write anything?" I prod. She nods towards the boxes. Of course, she wrote something; she has written all her life. "It's in there," she says. "Marsha Moran (the woman to whom she dictates her work every day) has all that stuff--she can do what she wants with it. I don't like to talk about it." Clearly the subject is closed.

The nurse walks in just then; she is carrying more oysters. They have been baked with a spinach topping, a sort of Rockefeller preparation. "Eating is difficult for her," she told me earlier, "but anything with oysters, she has no trouble at all."

The nurse puts down the tray. Mary Frances Fisher looks at the oysters with both longing and distaste; they are very large. She smiles up at me and whispers, knowing that the nurse can't hear her: "You know, it's a shame. Most people can't cook very well."

I look at Fisher. I look at the oysters. Suddenly a line from one of Fisher's books flashes through my head. "Oysters," I find myself thinking, "are very unsatisfactory food for labouring men, but will do for the sedentary, and for a supper to sleep on."

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