A Return to M.F.K. Fisher
by Leo Racicot
(A presentation and panel discussion for the "Feast for The Eyes: Gastronomy in Fine Print Symposium," 24-5 October, 2014, San Francisco, California)
I cannot and would never speak for Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher but I think she might well be horrified by the idea that she invented the food memoir, or invented anything, for that matter, or that she is High Priestess presiding over the high wave wall of the food revolution presently washing over our world. To these accolades, I can see her shrug her pretty shoulder and say, "Ho Hum."
She, herself, might point out to us that as far back in history as the late fifth and early fourth centuries, Xenophon's Memorabilia of his teacher, Socrates, makes many mentions of that great and noble soul engaged in rapturous, gustatory communion with his followers. And to draw a more modern illustration, Elizabeth Robins Pennell first looked to combine reminiscence with recipes in two books: The Feasts of Autolycus (subtitled The Delights of Delicate Eating) and My Cookery Books.
Let us say, then, that M.F.K. Fisher popularized the food memoir. She would be okay with me saying that, I hope.
Certainly, her intent was to write the best sentences her mind and spirit could create and she succeeded in that, for sure, don't you agree? And how could any writer coming after her not aspire to such a lofty goal and many since, have and do, emulating her in manner and method. Forgive me if I cannot be objective about my dear, dear friend but her reach, I feel, is galactic and her ideal can be seen in works as diverse as those by Peter Mayle and Calvin Trillin, Gabrielle Hamilton and Adam Gopnik, Laurie Colwin, Ruth Reichl and Ntozake Shange. Hundreds of others too numerous to mention here...
Thanks to Mary Frances, it no longer seemed unnatural to dine out alone, or to travel the world by steam tramper accompanied by no one but your Own Good Self. Robed in the mythical magic of words -- some passages wonderful beyond any description I can give of them -- she opened our American minds and taste buds to meals that consisted of more than a lonely hamburger and a baked potato on a plate, some canned corn, carrots, peas, beets, the occasional Sunday roast. She made eating voluptuous. She was voluptuous.
From an early age, a rebellion against insipid salad dressings, breakfast farina and other flavor-challenged staples of the American table set her on a path of Discovery, of Self-Discovery. "If you don't get on the bike", she wrote in one of her many letters to me, "you won't fail but you won't have the wild ride either."
Never much for formal schooling, she made a habit of transferring out -- from Bishop's in La Jolla to Harker's School for Girls, Palo Alto, on to Illinois College and Occidental College, all in the hope of finding herself and what it was in Life she was meant to do.
She found it when an early marriage to Professor Al Fisher took them to Dijon, France where Al was to teach. There, the first seeds of who Mary Frances would become were planted and where, throughout the years, she would reap the wild harvest of her marvelous mind.
A writer of reminiscence, she was the first to distill her life (and the lives of those she met) through the prism of food. Food, like music or a smile -- that Universal Communicator, that Comforter, that strong, curative rope that holds us all together.
"I have no idea where the essays that became Serve It Forth came from. They seemed to come to me from somewhere outside myself", she wrote me in 1982. They (and she) evolved into unique treatises, food salutes -- those marvelous, curious concoctions of taste, recipes, interior thoughts and feelings, needs and desires she so deftly catalogued in treasures such as Here Let Us Feast, How To Cook a Wolf, With Bold Knife and Fork, also two of my favorites: A Cordiall Water and As They Were and of course, the classic collection, The Art of Eating, all combined together into a delicious pan of memory and reflection, an experiment in autobiography and cookery that succeeded.
I have spent so much time in the years since Mary Frances journeyed on, speaking and writing about her, that I had quite forgotten what a memorable adventure it is to read her. Recently, I took myself on a Wednesday to the Rare Books Room of the Boston Public Library. There, in the quiet of a rainy afternoon, alone, I opened a beautiful, limited edition Yolla Bolly Press did of Two Kitchens in Provence and sat perfectly enraptured as I made my way through them. Boy, could she write!
She wrote a prose that was as ordered and as smooth as music. She managed to capture on paper her own speaking voice so that to read her words is to hear her, to have her back in the room with me all over again. I was worried, I think, after so many remembered mornings in her thrall, that I would find her work dated, trapped in a literary amber. After all, Serve It Forth, her first collection, is now 77 years old. But her writing stays as vital and as important to the 21st century as it was to the 20th for the simple reason that it addresses universal themes that never age. There is, then, a timeless quality to what she wrote. This timelessness ensures that she will be read by generations to come, used as a model for writers aspiring to greatness. Most of her books today, 22 years after her passage, remain in print. They are published in 13 languages the world over. We have only to go into any good bookshop, scout amazon.com or channel-surf any ten T.V. stations in either direction to see the widespread effects of her work. Yet, amid the many food memoirs, the multitude of food cooking shows, she stands alone, still unique. Don't tell her I said this but maybe, just maybe she is High Priestess of the World Food Revolution, a good kitchen witch stirring her merry, aromatic cauldron, casting her seductive spell.
She started out exploring cookbook recipes and found her voice and her themes in the human recipe. Mary Frances addressed not only physical appetites but all appetites: spiritual, mental, memorial, the hopes and hungers of the soul.
As for me, I feel very blessed to have known Mary Frances, to have talked with her, eaten at her table, exchanged good letters, watched old Woody Allen movies with her chomping on our popcorn. She was my friend.
But more than that, Mary Frances was a mecca for me. I went out to her a reader and came back a writer, or at least someone who realized that words are the fuel for my own creative engine. We will never be M.F.K.Fisher but we can all try, at least, to be good at what we do, if not great. This is what she taught me. Precious were the times she let me help her edit or proofread her latest anthology or essay. It continues to thrill me, too, that she wrote one of her stories about me. It is called The Reunion and is included in the marvelous Sister Age. What a gift! We even began a collaboration on a mystery thriller about a detective, Ingo Adams, and his Eurasian sidekick, Trainee, who set off to retrieve for a wealthy vineyard baron his stolen cache of valuable wines. I still chuckle when I remember Mary said her pseudonym for the book would be 'Edna Rae Gilooly'. I said, "Mary Frances, I'm not sure but didn't we read that is the real-life name of actress, Ellen Burstyn?" to which Mary Frances replied, "Yes, dear, I know. But I can't use the name Ellen Burstyn; it's already been taken."
She then decided my pretend name for our book would be Ricochet Raincoat, a mischievous play on my last name. She got a kick when, ever after, I signed my letters to her 'Ricochet'.
Not a day goes by I do not think of her and miss her. There was nothing ersatz about her and I cannot honestly recall one moment of being with her when she wasn't thoroughly engaged, completely all-seeing and curious, even when the poisons of Parkinson's Disease began to shut her down. Before the very last breath she took in this life, she was still writing...
And how she loved to read! -- B. Traven, Ellery Queen (she got so excited when the latest Ellery Queen Magazine came in the mail). Her own influences were Brillat-Savarin, Escoffier, Marcel Proust and of course, her much, much- loved Colette. And she is an influence for us gathered here. Creativity is, I think, a circle, taking us all, round and round, to and from each other, eternally.
The self-examination of any Life, whether of one's own or of another's, begins with something small. I would rather read about a tiny bowl of homemade soup offered lovingly to a wounded friend, or how a slice of orange glowed translucent in the light of a steamy, winter window, or a piece of cheese eaten with a hot cup of good, strong tea than read about the many sufferings and sorrows that plague our modern world. Mary Frances' autobiographies bring me hope.
I do not know if I will ever write my autobiography. Whenever I begin to, I am reminded of Fran Lebowitz's line, "Your Life story would not make a good book; don't even try." For certain, if I ever do, you can be sure that Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher will be the centerpiece.
All of us maybe feel we have a Proustian extravaganza in our heads, an epic tale to tell. But where to begin? Mary Frances knew what Marcel Proust knew -- that just a little cookie can conjure up whole worlds of memory, longing, loss and love -- Thank you
Leo Racicot is an award-winning essay-memoirist and poet. His most recent publications appear in Gastronomica, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review and The London Review of Books.
Photos Courtesy of The Schlesinger Library Women in History Collection