MFK Fisher’s “The Gastronomical Me”

On my night table sat two new books, purchased–somewhat irresponsibly–in hardcover: “Heat” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” My rule about hardcover is this: only buy something in hardcover if you’re going to read it right away. Well I read the first few chapters of “Heat,” thoroughly enjoyed them but felt that because it was based on an article I’d read several times (a profile of Mario Batali which appeared in The New Yorker a few years ago and which immediately became one of my favorite pieces of food journalism) the book didn’t feel very fresh. It felt like yesterday’s leftovers whipped into something new and delicious but still–at its core–leftovers. And then “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which everyone is raving over, is crisply written and smart and brainy but, as I turned the pages, it felt too nutritious, too good for me, too “this will improve my understanding of food” as opposed to something sexy, seductive and naughty. What was I craving? What did I need? A soft female voice called from the other room, the room where I keep my food books on a wobbly bookshelf. I followed the sound, the deep resonant voice and when I found its source, I knew this was what I needed, precisely the kind of book I need to read right now in my life: MFK Fisher’s “The Gastronomical Me.”

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher is an artist, a true artist, a craftsman with words who can tell a story so deftly that it sears itself into your brain permanently: her memories become your memories, her stories become your stories and suddenly you can’t remember if it was her grandmother or your grandmother who made jams in the kitchen, when you were young, while you watched and tasted the strawberry froth left over in the bowl. Was that you or Mary Frances on a cruise ship sailing back from Europe with Germans on board saluting Hitler as the waiter brings out dinner?

There’s a dream magic to this book–it’s so careful and smart and yet loose and funny in a way that only a real artist can make it. And the stories! These stories are unforgettable. Whether pulling her sister out of a convent to take her out for beer or riding a train into Austria with a political prisoner on board who makes a run for his life with deadly results, this is not a food book: it’s an action movie, it’s a poem, it’s a celebration and yet a deeply honest account of a human life. And, my God, what a life. To have lived a week in MFK’s shoes would fill many of our lifetimes.

There’s no snobbery to this book, there’s only honesty. It’s a very hard book to write about because it’s so personal. It submerges you into the mind of a profoundly intelligent, deeply passionate person and if you’re lucky enough to spend time there, you’ll come out changed, with your vision clearer and your lust for living (and eating) enhanced. And as it goes back on the shelf in the other room and I return to those books on my nightstand (which have been trumped by a book on 9/11, “The Looming Tower,” which feels like a responsible thing to read these days), I know that her voice might still call to me, beckoning me to return to the soft embrace of her prose, the cool snap of her humor, the clear tonic of her imagery. And though many books will grace my nightstand as I get older, one thing’s for sure: there will always be room on there for Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher.

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13 comments

  1. Great post, AG. I felt the same way you did about “Heat.” Felt like reheated leftovers: good ones, but leftovers just the same.

    If you haven’t already read it, I also recommend “My Life in France” by Julia Child. It’s positively charming, and it also reminded me how much we all miss her.

  2. Well said.

    I first read this book in college as part of a class on autobiographies. It was by far the hardest book to describe to others.

    It is an autobiography, but it reads/feels like a witty dream-like novel. One of the most enjoyable reads I ever had.

  3. This book is on my to-read pile. After your review, I’ll definitely pick it up next. Thanks!

  4. Have you read her biography yet? Poet of the Senses. You would NOT have wanted to live her life. She practically killed herself in the service of her family and friends. And as many times as she fell in love, even with Chexbres it was more an act of nascissism than anything else.

    Not that I don’t love her writing. She was the James

    Joyce of food writing. But her cokplexities deserve some respect too.

    GREAT blog you’ve got here.

  5. MFK Fisher was lucky to have lived when she did: a naive time, ignorant of the effect of man’s imprint on nature. Eating well has become much more complex. People who live to eat have a lot of issues to deal with that are very serious, indeed. Are our food choices contributing to global warming? Water scarcity? Worker exploitation? I’m not a left-wing whacko, but I worry about these issues. It’s not just about finding the best local food anymore.

  6. There’s a new collection of her writings coming out this fall called A STEW OR A STORY. It has some real gems. MFK got her start in magazines, and this book collects fifty-seven pieces, including two short non-food stories that are wonderful. But my favorite is the recipe for coffee that she quotes:

    Fresh as the springtime

    Black as death

    Strong as a long-gone lover’s arms,

    And hot as hell.

  7. Hi Everyone, I am new to this site and look forward to following interesting discussions. Forgive me for barging right in about this topic. Don’t want to sound like a know it all or offend anyone on my first post.But MFK is to womderful to resist.

    It’s wonderful to read your comments on MFK and one of my favorite books by her. I was incredibly fortunate to have her in my life for the last five of hers. She was an amazing woman. One night my husband and I took her out to dinner and watched as this beautiful, slightly tipsy, 80 year old woman (with eyebrows drawn on cattywompus after she burned them off in a culinary fire) literally wrap a 20 year old waiter around her finger. I watched her do it with my own son at another dinner. Neither of them saw what was coming! But after, Rob’s views of food and eating and dining with others was never the same. Before we left she asked the men at the table to go outside and catch her some tree frogs to go in her pond. Apparently she had done this before as she knew they would be just outside the back wall of the restaurant. For some reason, they had not come this year. The staff kindly gave her a glass and we covered it with a napkin,then rushed the 1/4 mile to her home and let them go in the pond. Perfectly normal for her. A treasured lesson in the wealth of fun,good food and sacred time spent slowly at table.

    To all of you who responded, I heartily encourage you to check out all her books. (As They Were) is another favorite. They are all different and all show different aspects of her, or at least her version of what she wanted the public to know.I don’t think anyone really knew Mary Frances, except perhaps, her sister, Nora. Hers are books to read and then read again.

    A note of encouragement for pikawicca. Mary Frances was very much an environmentalist before we had a word for it. She had seen the orange groves of So. Cal. destroyed for housing and roads and felt the loss deeply. She would often carry her own bag to the grocer, buy bulk grains and so forth. I don’t recall ever reading that she had a garden, but she relished receiving vegetables and fruits from others during the summer. She would buy locally,and in season. These things she did instinctively.

    I am looking forward to this, sounds like a great place to chat.

  8. I first discovered MFK Fisher for myself in the 1970s, when I purchased a softcover(!) collection of five of her books, which included the Gastronomical Me. I fell in love with her writing and still hope to attempt some of the recipes she dropped so casually into her narrative. I still can remember her story of eating freshly picked peas cooked with lettuce (I believe in France), as well as her tale of making curry as a teenager. Her autobiography of growing up in Whittier, CA is delightful. PS-I recently saw a re-issue of the 5-book collection in hardcover in a local bookstore.

  9. I love MFKF too. Her writing is absolutely transportive. I also recommend the new Julia Child biography if you don’t have it. I feel similarly about her as MFK in that she led such an exciting, adventurous life on top of all the amazing food achievements. The whole book is in her voice and I loved reading it so much, I want to start again.

  10. Another dedicated MFKF reader who rereads them all. A lot of my life runs on philosophies garnered from her (and Edna Lewis) which leads to defining, teasing, expanding flavors.

    I also rub oily hands and then rinse cool because she says it’s good for them– that came from rationing times when you didn’t waste anything. “How to Cook a Wolf.”

    I wish I had had the nerve to live as large as she did.

  11. Another MFK Fisher must read: With Bold Knife and Fork. It’s a time capsule in some ways, with the differences in the food market between the 60’s and now quite evident, but of course the highlights are her prose between the recipes. Phenomenal woman, she.

  12. I agree with you about Heat–been there, done that. I still have that issue of the New Yorker sitting on my side table. It is what a food magazine should be (excellent, provocative writing with just enough art to titillate not saturate). I’ve always hoped that either a) the New Yorker would do one of these at least every year, not so sporadically or b) Conde Nast would create a food magazine based on this model.

  13. What an amazing post and list of comments. I stumbled on it while trying to recall the story of her eating peas (mentioned in several comments)so joyously and simply prepared, but I remember it as taking place in Italy or Switzerland-I just typed mfk fisher peas into a google search and you came up-thanks for reminding me how much I love mfk too

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