One word of the challenges of writing well about food is getting beyond the ingredients and onto the passion. Of moving your readers beyond the 2 teaspoons of salt and onto the salt of the earth.
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, who died Monday at the age of 83 in northern California, did that. I never met her, I read her.
I read her as an escape. When I should have been worrying about cholesterol, I would read her describe the seductive powers of "souffles that sighed voluptuously at the first prick."
And I read her to steal from her. While doing some research, for instance, I ran across an attractive phrase she used about the lifestyles of oysters. Oysters, she wrote "lead a dreadful but exciting life." That is work worth pilfering. I saved it for oyster season.
Of the two classic routes to food writing, a writer who learns to cook, or a chef who learns to write, she seemed to do both simultaneously.
Born in Albion, Mich., and raised in Whittier, Calif., she was the oldest child of a newspaperman, Rex Kennedy.
At 7 she made her first white sauce, at 11 she read cookbooks, at 26 she sold her first magazine story using her initials to hide her work from her father. Her interest in food seemed to blossom when, as the bride of Allen Young Fisher, the first of her three husbands, she lived in Dijon, a city the locals claim is the gastronomic capital of the world.
Later she returned to California where she wrote essays on eating "to amuse her husband." The work also amused a friend, Dillwyn Parish, who helped get them published in 1937 as her first book, "Serve it Forth." Instead of employing the usual home-economist approach of food, she went beyond listing ingredients. She wrote about emotion and how food made the eaters feel.
Eating her first potato chip, she said, "was one of the keenest gastronomical moments of my life."
She also knew the limits of the powers of a good meal. "It is a waste of good food," she wrote, "to serve it to new lovers."
It was novel stuff, especially for a woman. And for a time M.F.K. Fisher was thought to be a man.
She returned to Europe with her second husband, painter Maxwell Parrish, and their dining experiences at their house near Vevey in Switzerland became the inspiration for more books.
She ended up writing 26 books, including a translation of Brillat-Savarin's "Physiology of Taste." She wrote a novel, "Not Now But NOW," at the urging of her third husband, Donald Friede. Its heroine, Jennie, easily abandoned herself to food and drink. The book was in Mrs. Fisher's words "a commercial turnip."
The titles of many of her works, like "How to Cook a Wolf," had the quick-hitting appeal of a good newspaper headline. Many of her pieces appeared in the New Yorker, and she seemed to have the classic style of the magazine. She had a big windup, a strong voice, was a detailed worker and was long on description. Eating, she believed, was an avenue of self discovery.
Reviewing "A Considerable Town," an account of her time in Marseille, critic Anatole Broyard found some of her writing too "ladylike." James Beard praised her "capacity for the pleasures of the flesh." I agree with both.
After reading one of her passages on potatoes, I licked my lips. I was hungry, and not just for food, but for the sensual ride a good meal delivers. But her recollection, for instance, of eating chocolate on a hillside with a courteous old Frenchman, failed to move me.
Like most food writers, I was fond of her because she gave our field status. She wasn't considered someone who merely wrote about supper. She was an author who wrote about life. She was the first culinary writer to be elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
I liked her because she had taken something simple, the food we eat, and had written about it in deep, interesting ways.
But most of all, I liked her philosophy. Eating a freshly baked potato, she said, "alone or with a fresh jug of rich, cool milk, or a chunk of fresh Gruyere . . . fills the stomach and the soul with a satisfaction that is not easy to attain."
Food is used for many things. Some folks see it as a fashion statement. Others use it as a way to ward off disease and aging. M.F.K. Fisher saw it as one of life's great adventures, and took us along on many pleasant trips.
Thanks for the ride.