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MFK Fisher’s Legacy of Culinary Literature

MFK_Fisher_TypewriterFew writers have made the same mark on American culinary literature as MFK Fisher. Her fresh perspective and inventive prose have made Fisher a favorite among collectors of food literature. It should come as no surprise that Fisher led a colorful life full of travel and adventure.

Fisher was born on July 3, 1908 in Albion, Michigan. Her father, Rex, was convinced that she would be an Independence Day baby and planned to name her Independencia. Horrified by that possibility, her mother convinced the doctor to help her “speed things up” so that the baby would arrive before July 4.

Rex was co-owner of the Albion Evening Record with his brother Walter, but in 1911 he sold his interest and moved the family West. He hoped to settle in California and run a fruit or citrus orchard. That endeavor didn’t pan out, so the family settled in Whittier, California and Rex ran the local newspaper. It was a primarily Quaker community, but Fisher was raised in the Episcopal Church.

Meanwhile, Fisher’s maternal grandmother moved in with the family. She was a Campbellite who believed in bland overcooked food and followed the recommendations of Dr. William Keith Kellogg at the Battle Creek Sanitarium. Despite her love for mediocre cuisine, Fisher’s grandmother still inspired Fisher’s earliest food memory, of the “grayish-pink fuzz my grandmother skipped off a spitting kettle of strawberry jam.”

Another early food influence was family friend “Aunt” Gwen Nettleship. The Nettleships were English medical missionaries who preferred tents to houses. They lived on a property at Laguna Beach, and the Fishers would often visit there. Fisher fondly recalled evenings spent cooking food outside and “decided at the age of nine that one of the best ways to grow p is to eat and talk quietly with good people.”

MFK_FisherFisher had always been an indifferent student, often skipping classes. Her informal education played a much more central role in her future as a writer. The family had an exceptional home library, and Fisher’s mother provided a steady supply of reading material. Fisher also began working for her father as a stringer at a relatively young age, sometimes drafting as many as fifteen stories per day.

Fisher’s first year of college didn’t go well, so she found herself taking summer courses at UCLA so that she could get into Occidental College the following year. At UCLA, she met Alfred “Al” Fisher. Fisher would attend Occidental for one year and then marry Al on September 5, 1929. The couple moved to Dijon, France, where Al began working on his doctorate. Their first home didn’t have its own kitchen; they ate dinner with their landlords, the parsimonious Ollagniers. For their three-month anniversary, the Fishers went to a local restaurant called Aux Trois Faisans. Fisher got a lesson on wine from the sommelier there and became quite endeared to her waiter, Charles. Soon the couple moved to an apartment above a pastry shop. It had a tiny kitchen–only five feet by three feet–and two burner hot plates.

After Al finished his doctorate, the couple moved around France before running out of money and returning to California. They arrived at the height of the Great Depression. First they moved in with Fisher’s family, and then they settled in a cabin on the Nettleship property, which Rex had built after purchasing the land. Shortly thereafter, Fisher published her first piece, Pacific Village, in the February 1935 issue of Westways magazine. She also worked part-time in a card shop and spent her spare time researching old cookbooks at the local public library.

The Fishers spent plenty of time with Dillwyn Parrish and his wife. As the Fishers’ marriage failed, Fisher felt a new interest in Dillwyn Parrish. With her husband’s permission, Fisher went to France with Parrish. They even went back to Aux Trois Faisans. Fisher’s encounter with beloved waiter Charles would inspire her The Standing and the Waiting. Around the same time, Serve it Forth was published, but Fisher was disappointed with sales. In 1936, Parrish invited the Fishers to start an art colony with him at Le Paquis in Veves, Switzerland. They agreed. Predictably, the Fishers separated in 1937, and Al returned to the States to teach at Smith College.

Fisher settled down with Parrish. The two undertook a light romantic novel, writing alternating chapters. Touch and Go was published under the shared pseudonym Victoria Berne. When Parrish was diagnosed with an incurable and painful disease, the couple returned to California, and Fisher purchased 90 acres of land. They called the property Bareacres because it was relatively desolate. Parrish found little respite from his illness; the only pain medication that worked was illegal in the United States. Fisher even wrote to President Roosevelt, pleading for a lift on the drug’s ban. Ultimately Parrish could not tolerate the pain and inevitability of multiple amputations in his future. He committed suicide on August 6, 1941.

Though her time at Bareacres had been difficult, Fisher still remained productive. She wrote three books. The first, a novel called  The Theoretical Foot,  was rejected by publishers because it was too transparently autobiographical. The next was Daniel Among the Women, Fisher’s attempt to revise a draft by Parrish. That also went unpublished. But Consider the Oyster impressed Fisher’s publishers. The book included not only recipes for oyster dishes, but also a history of the oyster and an entertaining section on the love life of oysters.

In 1942, Fisher published How to Cook a Wolf. Her timing couldn’t have been better. The World War II food shortages had reached their peak, and housewives around the country were eager for tips to maximize their resources. Fisher offered pointers on maintaining a balanced diet, stretching ingredients, eating during blackouts, and even dealing with sleeplessness. The book earned Fisher a feature in Look magazine’s July 1942 issue.

That same year, Fisher signed a contract with Paramount Studios, where she wrote gags for Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour. Then in 1943, Fisher got pregnant and secluded herself in a boardinghouse. She gave birth to Anne (later Anna), but never revealed the identity of the girl’s father. In 1944, Fisher met publishing executive Donald Friede and the two married right away. She broke her contract with Paramount to move to New York City. Friede’s publishing connections proved beneficial for Fisher, and soon she was writing for magazines like Atlantic Monthly, Vogue, Town and Country, Gourmet, and Today’s Woman.

Following the failure of Friede’s publishing venture, the two returned to Bareacres to write. In 1946, their daughter, Kennedy, was born. Two years later, Fisher’s mother died, so she and Friede moved in with Rex to care for him. Fisher somehow still found time to work, and in Christmas 1949, her translation of Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste was published in a limited edition. By this time, her marriage was falling apart. Fisher was under constant stress, and Friede needed psychiatric treatment for psychosomatic issues. Though Fisher made a great living, the couple still managed to accrue $27,000 in debt. When Fisher’s father died in June 1952, Fisher sold the family ranch and the newspaper Rex had run. She and Friede separated.

MFK_Landscape

Fisher moved to Provence with her daughters. Though she developed a delightful routine, she never felt at home there. So in 1955, she returned to California. Over the next several years, Fisher would use California as her base of operations while traveling frequently. In 1963, she tried something new: teaching at the African-American Piney woods Country Life School in Mississippi. It wasn’t a great fit; Fisher didn’t enjoy the experience, and the school didn’t invite her back.

Despite that detour, Fisher had never stopped food writing. She undertook a series of cookbook reviews for The New Yorker. And in 1966, Time-Life asked Fisher to write The Cooking of Provincial France. She traveled to Paris to conduct research. There, Fisher met Paul and Julia Child, along with James Beard. She was disappointed with the book’s final form because it almost exclusively included restaurant recipes, with no regard for regional nuances in cuisine. Moreover, most of Fisher’s signature prose had been edited out of the book.

In her last years, Fisher established her home base in Glen Ellen, California. She called her home there “Last House.” Fisher continued to travel, returning to France in 1970, 1973, 1976, and 1978. She passed away at home in 1992 , at age 83.

Collectible Books from MFK Fisher

The Standing and the Waiting

Fisher_Standing_WaitingThe Standing and the Waiting is MFK Fisher’s recollection of a trip to Europe in 1935 when she traveled with Dillwyn Parrish and his mother to France aboard the luxury liner “Hansa.” The text served as the centerpiece of Serve it Forth, her first book, published in 1937. This is a particularly heartbreaking story about a return trip to a favorite restaurant which finds her beloved waiter aged and tottering. Vance Gerry was an artist at the Disney Studios in Burbank, CA and an enormous fan of Frank Meynell’s work as well as Curwen Press’s Newsletter. This work is Gerry’s first extensive use of Porchoir in one of his books. Details>>

A Cordiall Water

Fisher_Cordiall_WaterIn A Cordiall Water, Fisher, an all time favorite food writer, enchants the reader with her foray into her collection of “odd and old receipts to cure the ills of people and animals.” Details>>

Aid & Comfort, The Artists Portfolio

Aid_Comfort_Artist_PortfolioAid & Comfort was formed by a group of San Francisco restauratueurs to raise money for people fighting AIDS; a benefit dinner-performance was held June 8, 1987. The Artists Portfolio was conceived as an additional fundraising effort. Fine artists selected current works, restaurants contributed recipes, and authors who write about food contributed recipes and essays. Twenty-three printers gave those recipes and essays shape. All work was donated. Restaurants: Campton Place, Chez Panisse, China Moon Cafe, Fleur de Lys, Fog City Diner, Fournou’s Ovens, Greens at Fort Mason, Hayes Street Grill, The Mandarin, Pierre at Le Meridien, Rosalie’s, Square One, Stars, and Zuni Cafe. Writers: Marion Cunningham, Diana Kennedy, Gerald Asher, James Beard, M. F. K. Fisher, Richard Olney, Angelo Pellegrini, and Calvin Trillin. Artists: Elmer Bischoff, Christopher Brown, Squeak Carnwath, Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Hudson, Oliver Jackson, Deborah Oropallo, Irene Pijoan, Wayne Thiebaud, William Wiley. Details>>

The Art of Eating

Fisher_Art_EatingThe Art of Eating: The Collected Gastronomical Works of MKF Fisher is an invitation to fall into the world of culinary bliss. It includes Serve It Forth, Consider The Oyster, How To Cook A Wolf, The Gastronomical Me, An Alphabet For Gourmets, with an introduction by Clifton Fadiman and delightful illustrations by Leo Manso. Details>>

 Map of Another Town: A Memoir of Provence

Fisher_Map_Another_Town_ProvenceFisher invites us on a journey of the senses through the eyes of an ex-patriate in Map of Anotehr Town. She weaves a spellbinding exploration of every francophile’s dream: Aix-en-Provence. The book is beautifully illustrated with woodcuts from Barbara Westman. Details>>

Here Let Us Feast

Fisher_Here_Let_Us_FeastHere Let Us Feast is a fantastic treatise on feasts, offering a collection of excerpts, sentences, and paragraphs pertaining to “man’s fundamental need to celebrate the high points of life by eating and drinking.” Details>>

 

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This entry was posted on June 13, 2014 by in Collecting Cookbooks, Food and Literature and tagged , , .
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