California Authors

 
 

Questar Assessment, Inc. - Educational Assessment Products

M. F. K. Fisher (1908-1992)
by Janice Albert

MFK Fisher residence in St. Helena

Now that she has been gone ten years, we may wonder-how will the legacy of M. F. K. Fisher finally be measured? Will it be her writing about food? Her life as a woman who survived into a fine and self-aware old age? Will she be valued as an exemplar to younger writers, such as Anne Lamott? Or as the chronicler of daily life in a world now gone from all but memory?

Her writing about food stands apart from most such writing in our own twenty-first century, most of which might be published until the title "Food as Chemistry." Fisher did not view food analytically-so many grams of this, so many units of that. Instead, the reader is introduced to food as a source of pleasure, as a welcome addition to the art of enjoying friends and family. Her writing connects modern people to the ancients, and develops the thesis that the art of eating has a long history, one that some cultures cherish and others ignore to their impoverishment.

Published under the title The Art of Eating, five of Fisher's works on food celebrate the art of dining, both in history and in the author's own life. One work in particular deserves mention: "How to Cook a Wolf,' published in 1941 and written to fortify English and Americans who were undergoing extreme shortages of staples such as butter, sugar, and eggs during World War II. While the book contains a few actual recipes, its main text is devoted to the philosophy of eating and to stories of friends whose hospitality was an act of sharing limited provisions with spiritual abundance. One chapter develops the story of an isolated woman living in a "weatherbeaten house on a big weatherbeaten cliff" in Southern California. Her meals were legendary: "sometimes merely strange, or even laughable, and sometimes they sounded like something from a Southern California Twelfthnight." She "had neither health nor companionship to warm her, but she nourished herself and many other people for many years, with the quiet assumption that man's need for food is not a grim obsession, repulsive, disturbing, but a dignified and even enjoyable function." To read Fisher on the subject of eating is to enter a familiar world waiting pleasantly to be rediscovered.

The author was born Mary Frances Kennedy in Albion, Michigan, on July 3, 1908. Her father, a fourth generation newspaper man, moved his family to California in 1911 when Mary Frances was three years old. The Kennedys settled in Whittier, CA, at 115 North Painter Avenue, now part of "Old Town." Living among descendants of the original Quaker settlers, she writes of a happy childhood that was, nevertheless, colored by her sense of not belonging. In her autobiography of those years, Among Friends, Fisher writes "The white children I knew when I was little had no need to be anything but well fed and secure in the best houses in town where they belonged to the best families…. Their ancestors, buried in the Whittier cemetery or along the routes to California, had given up other homes just as solid, positions just as secure, to live their own lives as they saw fit, in a place where they could practice their beliefs unscorned. The settlement they named for their American poet would be theirs, and theirs it was when we came to it."

Marriage to Al Fisher took Mary Frances Kennedy away from Whittier to France, and gave her the name by which we know her: M. F. K. Fisher. This was the first of three marriages, the beginning of a life of travel between homes in France and California, the raising of two daughters on her own, and a final settlement in Northern California, where she could be "near the vineyards" and continue her career as a writer despite growing physical limitations.

While Fisher has written eloquently of her awakening in France to the subject which was to become her main theme-food and its effect on humans in community- it's also clear in retrospect that her life in France introduced her to herself as a woman who might have to learn to live alone, for while her husband was busy with his academic work, he encouraged her to live her own life, even if doing so would keep them apart for months at a time. The marriage ended when she fell in love with Dillwyn Parrish, whom she called Timmy. They were married and returned to the United States in 1940, purchasing ninety acres near the town of Hemet, where she would write and he would paint. Parrish was a victim of a circulatory disease that caused him to lose a leg to amputation and left him in constant pain. In 1941 he committed suicide, leaving Fisher alone in a profoundly new way.

She took a job as a screen writer in Hollywood, but broke her contract and returned to her ranch at Bareacres in order to complete her pregnancy and give birth to her daughter Anne in September 1943. She never revealed the name of this child's father, but went on in 1945 to marry Donald Friede and to bear a second daughter, whom she named Kennedy. Marriage to Friede ended in 1951, and she became a "single Mom" but one with a passion for life and with clear ideas of how she wanted her daughters to grow up. After taking care of her father during his final two years, she moved her family to northern California, but introduced her girls to France during long stays in Aix-en-Provence and Marseilles. Finally, Fisher moved to a house on Oak Street in St. Helena, living another lifetime as a productive, sociable, elderly woman, and writing until the very end from her "Last House" on the Bouverie Ranch near Glen Ellen. Sister Age, her collection of stories from this period, is her reflective work on growing old. Photos of Fisher at Last House show her in the kitchen with James Beard and Julia Child.

Another visitor was Anne Lamott, who has written the introduction to the collection of Fisher's letters, A Life in Letters. "Hers was a face anyone would naturally want in the kitchen, a combination of fresh peach and aged potato," writes Lamott. "You could see the weight and warmth and softness of her cheeks-the tender part a mother would cup in her hands-now grown so old." Lamott, the quintessential Single Mom, writes of Fisher's affection for her own son Sam, and it's a delightful surprise on page 469 of the letters to find one addressed to Lamott herself, beginning "Dear Annie; I think you're absolutely right about having children. I think one of the most amazing and also one of the happiest days of my life was when I found that I was going to have Anna."

Fisher's body of work stands as a record of life as it was lived in the United States and France during the twentieth century. The scarcity of the Depression and the shortages of World War II are there, as well as a record of women's lives as they are no longer lived-a world in which cakes were baked and served regularly, stirred up in a home kitchen from a few ingredients such as sugar, milk, flour.

MFK Fisher's "Last House" in Sonoma County

A world in which people knew the difference between baking soda and baking powder, in which the humble hen's egg had not yet been vilified, and finally in which the whole vocabulary of industrialized cooking (Toaster Ready, Heat 'n Serve, Microwavable) did not exist. Her work covers decades and is steeped in French culture and its effect on her. It records her life and its struggles along with stories of those who helped her. Finally, it comprises a fine record of what cooks think about when they set out to nourish both body and soul.

Back to the author index