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Teaching MFK

Jacqueline Sainsbury - September 10th, 2013

The works of M.F.K. Fisher have become part of the curricula at esteemed universities across the United States. Two academics weigh in on the importance of her work in the canon of food writing and wonder if today's budding writers recognize whose shoulders they stand upon.

Irene Sax
Sax teaches food writing at New York University.

It’s part of the meet-and-greet. During the first session, I ask the class what food writers they read, and almost invariably they answer Ruth Reichl and Michael Pollan. But occasionally a student will mention M.F.K. Fisher. Then everyone smiles and says, “Oh, of course." They know the name, although they haven’t actually read her…

I teach food writing to graduate students in New York University’s Department of Food Studies, and, because I think it’s important that they know whose shoulders they are hoping to stand on, I assign readings from Fisher and A.J. Leibling, Joseph Wechsberg and Calvin Trillin, Elizabeth David, Laurie Colwin, and Jeffrey Steingarten. Just have a taste, I tell them, and if you find you like someone’s work, do search out more.

I pair Fisher with David because they were almost exact contemporaries, because they wrote brilliantly—if very differently—and because they were both great beauties who led rather louche lives. (Pause while I write “louche” on the board and explain that it means “disreputable in an appealing way.”)

Take the chapter “Define This Word” in The Gastronomical Me, where Fisher stops for lunch at a French country restaurant and falls under the power of the waitress, an acolyte to a great chef. On the surface, it’s about a wonderful, if excessive, meal, but underneath there are hints of domination and sensuality, witches and the black mass. It’s a great story and, like most memoirs, it was more or less true. (Pause to discuss the difference between memoir and autobiography.)

At first, most of the students see the assignment as simply the account of an enviable meal. But when the discussion catches fire—which is not always the case—they not only see the subtext but become aware that even a piece so clearly about eating can also be about the whole range of human emotions. That food writing isn’t only about cooking, health, or agriculture, but can also be—as Fisher wrote—about “love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it.”

Do they go on to read more of her work? I don’t know. I can’t imagine what kids who have never known scarcity would think of How to Cook a Wolf, with its methods for surviving World War II’s rationing. And what would a generation that bares all on the Internet make of a writer who puts her divorce and her husband’s death firmly offstage?

I do know what older readers make of it, however, because last year I taught a class on Fisher to a group of senior citizens. It was an exhilarating ride. They knew of her, had read some of her work, and wanted to read more. Best of all, because of their long rich lives, they had no problem at all in understanding that a culinary story can also be about the birth of passion, the coming of war, and the inevitability of loss.

Jeannette Ferrary
Ferrary teaches food writing courses at Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley.

I´m always thrilled to see such interest in M.F.K. Fisher, whom I was so fortunate to meet in 1978, and about whom I wrote the first memoir-biography while she was still alive: M.F.K. Fisher and Me: A Memoir of Food and Friendship. It's still available out there in Internet-landia.

On what would have been her 100th birthday, Gourmet published a piece concerning my amazement when Fisher offered me the opportunity to take any of her books that I wanted, and the surprising treasure I found among them. (Read the article, reprinted below, to find what it was.)

I just finished teaching a course in food writing at Stanford this summer, “Food Writing: From Inspiration to Publication,” and was (as always) fascinated to discover that so many passionately interested would-be food writers have barely even heard of her. I talk about this in the intro to my book and a bit in the article below and would elaborate further, but at the moment I´m in Paris struggling to write this on my friend´s Spanish-French keyboard…

True Confessions by Jeannette Ferrary
This article was originally published in Gourmet, July 2008

It really didn’t look like much. The untitled book had a well-worn black cover and some clippings sticking out here and there. Inside, in scrabbly handwriting, I found the words Table Book, and as I slowly turned the pages, I began to realize the importance of this collection: Arranged by date, they were M. F. K. Fisher’s unexpurgated notes on those who’d come to visit, the food she’d served, the reactions of her guests, and her own reactions to them. The book had been at the bottom of a carton of gleanings from Fisher that had been sitting on my floor for weeks. One day (a few years before she died) she’d asked me to go through her library and take whatever I wanted, so I packed up a few boxes without looking too closely at things. Now, I’d finally cleared my own overburdened bookshelves to make room for Fisher’s trove. I looked again at the book in my hands. From her first published work, in 1937, to her last volume of memoirs, published posthumously in 1995, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher insisted on good, honest food and good, honest writing. That said, she was also famously cryptic and charmingly enigmatic. This book might well have been her only confidant. I sat down immediately and began to read.

“PC a food addict,” Fisher noted in June 1965. He “stopped before dessert—claimed it was the first thing he had eaten for 2 weeks, except bread & water. He is very imitative—limited intelligence but brash.” Another guest “arrives stoned from party—late—no apologies.” Another had the “taste buds of an ostrich.” She was particularly adroit at the art of damning with faint praise. Of lunch with food writer James Villas, she notes, he “ate nothing—hungover? OK interview? Pleasant non-encounter—near miss.” But she also needed only a few words—“Provençal, lush, beautiful”—for a much enjoyed afternoon with Alice Waters and friends. For measuring success, Fisher invoked the classic standard of her friend James Beard: “It was a nice party. Nobody cried. Nobody threw up.”

Nothing seemed to annoy Fisher like fussiness. “Miss E. cannot eat a dozen things … because of a recurrent pain in the gall bladder, or she cannot chew them w/ her double clickers or she is prejudiced against them for unknown but probably racial reasons.” And, if fussiness was reprehensible, nonfussiness was even more irksome: “They will eat anything that is set before them,” she writes of two dinner guests. “They chomp right through, making appreciative noises on schedule.”

But whatever her criticisms of others, sometimes she turned her unflinching eye upon herself—and for good reason, since one year she almost poisoned her entire family at Christmas. “You are now entering tomane [sic] junction,” she wrote of the near-disastrous meal. “In my unreasonable desire to have everything culinary well under control, so that we could all sit around and talk and enjoy the baby and so on … I had blandly advised Bill to stuff the turkey at night, and roast it the next morning. I knew better. I was not thinking. This was dangerous enough, with quantities of raw oysters chopped in the warm dressing and packed into the very perishable carcass, and to compound my idiocy the weather turned very balmy during the night the bird sat on the back porch. A perfect prescription for … mass murder… ” She even imagined a headline: “Noted Gourmet Does In Family.”

Occasionally, Fisher included specifics about how she prepared a dish, as well as any shortcuts she had taken. She seemed to enjoy the fact that no one would ever think her capable of resorting to such “tricks,” because she was, after all, M. F. K. Fisher. “I followed the Rombauer recipe pretty well. Then I added two cans of Campbell’s Cream of Potato, which has the potatoes in little cubes … and as I added the pre-cooked asparagus tips I added about a half-cup of chopped parsely [sic] … all to add to the too-delicate flavor and make it look greener. Excellent! A lowdown trick, but worth it.”

Poring over every menu and marginal note in the book, I eventually worked my way through to October 3, 1977, the date of my very first visit with Fisher. Through squinted, reluctant eyes, I read the menu: “Wafers, chermoula, rolls, salad, lettuce, h.b. eggs, prawns, ww [white wine], coffee, shortbread.” So far, so good. “Very pleasant long lunch, interesting people.” Well, not overly enthusiastic, perhaps, but not too awful. On the other hand, I wonder what she meant by “long”?