The following obituary, written by Molly O'Neill, was published in the New York Times (Section A, Page 18 of the National edition) on June 24, 1992. It is a concise and well-written overview of M.F.K. Fisher, her life and her work.
M.F.K. Fisher, Writer on the Art of Food and the Taste of Living, Is Dead at 83
M. F. K. Fisher, the writer whose artful personal essays about food created a genre, died on Monday at her home on the Bouverie Ranch in Glen Ellen, Calif. She was 83 years old.
She died after a long battle with Parkinson's disease, her daughter Kennedy Wright said.
In a career spanning more than 60 years, Mrs. Fisher wrote hundreds of stories for The New Yorker, as well as 15* books of essays and reminiscences. She produced the enduring English translation of Brillat-Savarin's book "The Physiology of Taste," as well as a novel, a screenplay, a book for children and dozens of travelogues. While other food writers limited their writing to the particulars of individual dishes or expositions of the details of cuisine, Mrs. Fisher used food as a cultural metaphor.
Ignored for Years
Her subject matter, she said in an interview in 1990, "caused serious writers and critics to dismiss me for many, many years. It was woman's stuff, a trifle." But she was not deterred. In 1943 she wrote in her book "The Gastronomical Me": "People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don't you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do. They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft."
"The easiest answer is to say that, like most humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it."
In 1963, W. H. Auden called her "America's greatest writer." In a review of "As They Were," (Alfred A. Knopf, 1982) for The New York Times Book Review, Raymond Sokolov wrote, "In a properly run culture, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher would be recognized as one of the great writers this country has produced in this century."
'On the Outside Looking In'
Mrs. Fisher's work has been steadily re-collected and re-released and her books sell briskly. "M. F. K.", an hourlong documentary by a California film maker, Barbara Wornum, released in 1992, is a comprehensive view of Mrs. Fisher. Ms. Wornum followed Mrs. Fisher for four years, she said, because the single mother and writer "is the most poetic voice of the working woman in the 20th century."
Mrs. Fisher was the first child of Rex Kennedy, a small-town newspaper owner, and his wife, Edith. Mrs. Fisher wrote of her entrance into the world: "I began in Albion, Mich., and was born there on July 3, 1908, in a heat wave. I leapt forth only a few minutes before midnight, in a supreme effort from my mother, whose husband had assured her that I would be named Independencia if I arrived on the Fourth."
She had two younger sisters, Anne, who died in 1965, and Norah, and a brother, David, who died in 1942. Before she entered kindergarten, Mrs. Fisher's father purchased The Whittier News, a newspaper in Whittier, a predominantly Quaker town near Los Angeles, where the Kennedy clan grew up "on the outside looking in," she said. She was an Episcopalian, and, she said, was never invited to the home of a Quaker.
"Episcopalians were the third world in Whittier," she said in a recent interview. "I wrote a book about my childhood, and I wanted to call it 'Child of an Inner Ghetto.' "
Instead, the book, which was published in 1970, was called "Among Friends." On its cover, a sepia-toned family photograph shows Edith Kennedy, tall, hatted and veiled, looking into the distance, her arm protecting a pouting Anne. Mary Frances stood alone, biting her full, lower lip, staring at the camera. "I was a haughty child," she told an interviewer.
Lessons From the Family Cook
She was removed enough to become a keen observer, and her sharp blue eyes remained pinned on significant moments of communion. She described herself, a well-loved little girl, by depicting a meal that her mother once served: "deep rich, floating puddles of hot cocoa for supper, with buttered toast sogging deliciously in them."
Her tastes and her eye for nuance continued to sharpen through adolescence. Apprenticing with the family cook, she became accomplished in the kitchen.
She also became, she said, "an insatiable reader and scribbler." After brief sojourns at Illinois College, Whittier College, Occidental College and the University of California at Los Angeles, she married a doctoral student, Alfred Fisher, in 1929 and moved to Dijon, France, where he would complete his doctorate in literature.
A beauty and an enchantress, Mrs. Fisher was photographed by Man Ray, but by her own lights, she said, "I wasn't so pretty that I didn't have to do something else." She said she "spent hours in my kitchen cooking for people, trying to blast their safe, tidy little lives with a tureen of hot borscht and some garlic-toast and salad, instead of the fruit cocktail, fish, meat, vegetable, salad, dessert and coffee they tuck daintily away seven times a week."
Her writing had the same ornery passion, the same impetuous urge to soothe her readers while shaking their souls. Her first book, "Serve it Forth," published by Harper Brothers in 1937, took America by the shoulders and said, "Look, if you have to eat to live, you may as well enjoy it." The theme was repeated in "Consider the Oyster," which was published by Duell, Sloan & Pearce in 1941:
"An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life. Indeed, his chance to live at all is slim, and if he should survive the arrows of his own outrageous fortune and in the two weeks of his carefree youth find a clean smooth place to fix on, the years afterwards are full of stress, passion and danger. . . ."
"Men have enjoyed eating oysters since they were not much more than monkeys, according to the kitchen middens they have left behind them. And thus, in their own one-minded way, they have spent time and thought and money on the problems of how to protect oysters from the suckers and the borers and the starvers, until now it is comparatively easy to eat this two-valved mollusk anywhere, without thought of the dangers it has run in its few years. Its chilly delicate gray body slips into a stew-pan or under a broiler or alive down a red throat, and it is done. Its life has been thoughtless but no less full of danger, and now that it is over we are perhaps the better for it."
Food Sensual and Practical
Her ebullient embrace of the slow, sensual pleasures of the table was matched by her cool acceptance of sudden violence and evil. In a 1942 review of "How to Cook a Wolf," in The New York Herald Tribune, Lewis Gannett wrote that anyone familiar with the writer's earlier work "will recall the faintly Gothic perversity that makes Mrs. Fisher's literature unique."
Mrs. Fisher, on the other hand, saw herself as practical. In "How to Cook a Wolf," for instance, she suggested that when the wolf is at the door, one should invite him and have him for dinner.
She saw little room at the table for caution. In "An Alphabet for Gourmets," (Viking, 1949), she wrote: "A complete lack of caution is perhaps one of the true signs of a real gourmet: he has no need for it, being filled as he is with a God-given and intelligently self-cultivated sense of gastronomical freedom. He not only knows from everything admirable he has read that he will not like Irish whisky with pineapple chilled in honey and vermouth, or a vintage Chambertin with poached lake perch; but every taste bud on both his actual and his spiritual palate wilts in revulsion at such thoughts. He does not serve these or similar combinations, not because he has been told , but because he knows ."
Throughout the 1940's, 50's and 60's, the peripatetic writer and cook lived in California, Switzerland and France, weathered three marriages and reared two daughters. Her marriage to Mr. Fisher ended in divorce in 1937 and that same year she married the painter Dilwyn Parrish, who died after a lingering illness in 1941. Her daughter, Anna, was born in 1943 and in 1945, she married Donald Friede, a literary agent. Her second daughter, Kennedy, was born in 1946, and she divorced Mr. Friede two years later.
In 1952, Mrs. Fisher and her sister, Norah, rented houses on neighboring vineyards in St. Helena, Calif., an area that, with the exceptions of stays in the South of France, would remain home.
In 1971, she moved to Bouverie Ranch in Glen Ellen, where her house of two sprawling rooms became a salon for visiting writers and food worshipers. She made her final trip to Europe in 1978, writing about Marseilles in "A Considerable Town," published that year by Knopf.
Since then, Mrs. Fisher has worked and entertained at Bouverie Ranch. "My life is simple," she said in an interview several years ago. "When I can't write, I read. When I can't read I cook."
Bedridden in recent years, she cooked less and less. But she continued to write. "Sister Age," was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1983. Northpoint Press (which released new editions of many of her earlier books), published "Dubious Honors," a collection of introductions that Mrs. Fisher wrote for others' books. "The Boss Dog," a book for children, was published by Northpoint in 1991.
The Tablet of Her Mind
In an interview in 1991 she said: "I've lost my appetite. But my mind and heart have never been clearer."
Plagued by diminishing sight and crippling arthritis, her voice reduced to a whisper by Parkinson's disease, she spoke of waking up before 4 A.M. and writing stories in her mind for the hours before her secretary came in to take dictation. According to her agent, Robert Lescher, the writer "has been working on a number of manuscripts which will be published posthumously."
"The purpose of living is to get old enough to have something to say." she said last year. "But by that time, your voice doesn't work and your hands won't obey you so it's tough as hell to find a way to say it all."
Mrs. Fisher is survived by her sister, Norah Barr; two daughters, Anna Parrish, of Portland, Ore., and Ms. Wright of Alameda, Calif., and four grandchildren.
A Delicious Meal Of a Bookish Kind
Here are nine of the better-known books written by M.F.K. Fisher over the course of six decades. She wrote a total of 15*.
"The Gastronomical Me" (Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1943), collected essays.
"Here Let Us Feast (Viking, 1946), collected essays.
"Not Now But Now" (Viking, 1947), a novel.
"An Alphabet for Gourmets" (Viking, 1949), collected essays.
"The Physiology of Taste," (Heritage Press, 1949) an English translation of Brillat-Savarin's treatise.
"A Cordiall Water," (Little, Brown, 1961), folk cures.
"A Map of Another Town," (Little, Brown, 1964), reminiscence of years in Aix-en-Provence.
"With Bold Knife and Fork," (Putnam, 1968), collected essays.
"The Cooking of Provencal France," (Time-Life, 1968); Mrs. Fisher served as a consultant with Julia Child and Michael Field.
* A total of 35 books were written and published by M.F.K. Fisher.
Several wonderful books have been written about M.F.K. Fisher detailing her work, her travels and specific periods of her life.