On Rediscovering M.F.K. Fisher
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? – M.F.K. Fisher
My book club met to discuss The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher recently. I last read Mrs. Fisher when I was quite young, and while I fell in love with her, and all the places she had lived and the food she had eaten, I don’t think I ever really understood her. Or at least I didn’t quite pick up on her subtleties and deeper explorations, and how adept she was at hiding in plain sight.
As a young woman, I admired Mrs. Fisher for her adventuresome lunches in the French countryside and her kitchens in Provence with their larders stocked with just baked bread and over-ripe tomatoes. Now, a little older and wiser, I am struck by how deftly she navigates the tangle of being human. How in writing about the seemingly minor details of daily life, she simply, almost casually, uncovers our unspoken desires, our hidden hungers, sometimes offering up the palatable and unpalatable side-by-side, the true story of what she saw and tasted often only revealed by reading between the lines.
M.F.K. Fisher wrote about her life during the Great Depression and WWII, and yet she never directly comments on these exceptionally influential events. Instead, she narrows her lens on the intimate details of what she ate, and what that said about the people she was with, about their preoccupations and passions and how they coped with the enormous challenges of this time in history.
Cleverly and a little mischievously, she distracts us into thinking she is writing about food and the pleasures of eating. But pick up The Gastronomical Me, one of her most famous food memoirs, and you will also be reading about war, sex, infidelity, homosexuality, poverty, race, violence, feminism, class and privilege, divorce, addiction, love, passion, gender, death, suffering, grief. It’s especially intriguing to discover that she wrote The Gastronomical Me over a period of several months, self-sequestered with a secret, out-of-wedlock pregnancy in 1943.
At times cool, snobbish, and high-strung, she can alienate today’s readers as much as she inspires them. But personally I’m delighted to rediscover my old muse, to uncover a depth and intricacy previously unrecognized. In rereading Mrs. Fisher, I have come to appreciate, especially in this age of confessional, too-much-information bestsellers, how much can be revealed in restraint and in the seemingly mundane act of feeding ourselves.
There is food in the bowl, and more often than not, because of what honesty I have, there is nourishment in the heart, to feed the wilder, more insistent hungers. We must eat. If, in the face of that dread fact, we can find other nourishment, and tolerance and compassion for it, we’ll be no less full of human dignity. — M.F.K. Fisher, The Gastronomical Me
Update: 11/02/2014: I recently volunteered for a wonderful symposium called A Feast for the Eyes. Put on by The Book Club of San Francisco, it was a wonderful two days packed full of individual presentations and panel discussions that examined the relationship between West Coast gastronomy and the world of fine printing, publishing, collecting and writing. I was in heaven.
Of course, M.F.K. Fisher’s contributions were prominently featured, including a panel discussion that revealed her biting humor and no-nonsense opinions of the many guests who traveled like pilgrims to her home in Sonoma County to dine with her in her final years. It was a delight to spend some time with this complicated and masterful (and yes, even controversial) writer and to once again admire her ability to hide in plain sight the more complex and even forbidden nature of our hungers.
→ Read it: The Gastronomical Me, available at Amazon.
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I hope you enjoyed this encore Weekend Meditation, originally posted in February, 2010. I will be posting these vintage posts every Sunday (with the occasional new post, if I can manage!) for the next several months while I focus on writing my first book.