A taste of M. F. K. Fisher's celebration of life, love and the pleasures of food

January 17, 1993|By Anne Whitehouse

TO BEGIN AGAIN: STORIES AND MEMOIRS 1908-29.

M. F. K. Fisher.

Pantheon.

179 pages. $21.

At her death last June at the age of 84, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was considered by many to be the premier writer on food and gastronomy. Author of 19 books and numerous McCall's and New Yorker articles, Fisher also was the acclaimed translator of "The Physiology of Taste," by 17th-century French gastronome Brillat-Savarin. Her writings demonstrate an interest in culinary customs as well as the art and science of good eating. How and what people eat tell us much about their culture and everyday life. For Fisher, good eating was not necessarily synonymous with elegant or refined eating. Wherever she found it, she celebrated gusto and the myriad pleasures of taste.

"To Begin Again" is a posthumous collection of 21 stories and memories dealing primarily with her childhood in California and the experiences that formed her personality. In "Grandmother's Nervous Stomach," she attributes her interest in gastronomy to her reaction against her maternal grandmother's sensitive stomach and her periodic puritanical cures at "such temples as Battle Creek." "The flatter a thing tasted, the better it was for you, Grandmother believed. And the better it was for you, she believed, the more you should suffer to eat it, thus proving your innate worth as a Christian, a martyr to the flesh but a courageous one." Given her grandmother's example, Fisher writes: "I began to wonder about the meaning of happiness and why and how it seemed to be connected with the open enjoyment of even a badly prepared dish that could be tasted without censure of the tasting."

In "A Few Notes About Aunt Gwen," Fisher finds a counter-example to her grandmother in an eccentric family friend with whom she and her younger sister spent summers at Laguna Beach. In Aunt Gwen's "impossibly ugly and inconvenient" kitchen, she concocted simple and delicious meals that nourished growing children in body and soul. "People who can sit down together in peace and harmony will rise from the meal with renewed strength for the struggle to survive," Fisher writes.

Fisher's father, a Midwestern newspaperman, moved the family from Michigan to the West Coast, eventually settling in Whittier, where he bought the Whittier News in 1911. A number of these memoirs beautifully evoke California in the early years of the century, a landscape that has now been virtually obliterated by development.

Fisher describes the little rivers, now vanished, which "once ran down from the foothills of our part of southern California . . . For most of the time they were invisible or just little trickles into an occasional shallow pool. Their beds were wide and sandy, with willows always growing along them to make the air smell like witch hazel." This idyllic scene is contrasted with Whittier today: "The soft hills have been cut into recklessly, to make holes and cliffs for houses, and native plants like poppies and lupine and holly and sage have been shaved away forever. Houses and stores sprawl clear to the continent's edge, half hidden by mustard-brown smog."

In many of these pieces, Fisher begins with a general observation and rapidly moves to the particular. She often contemplates the negative and positive heritages that, knowingly or not, parents bequeath to their children.

In "The Broken Chain," her thoughts about familial abuse and beatings lead her to recall the one time her father hit her in fury. She was 12 and had mistreated her infant brother. Her mother later confided to her that her father had been beaten regularly by his own father when he was growing up and had sworn never to strike anyone in anger. Provoked by his daughter, he had broken his vow. "I have never been the same," Fisher writes, "still stupid, but never unthinking, because of the invisible chains that can be forged in all of us, without our knowing it."

"The Jackstraws" opens with her thoughts about the regret people feel for missed opportunities, crossed purposes and neglected affections. These musings lead to her specific regret that she did not appreciate her paternal grandfather and his gift to her as a child of a set of hand-whittled jackstraws. She allowed her mother's antagonism to color her attitude toward this grandfather, and she was not capable of recognizing the patient love that he gave her with this home-made gift. "The only salve to this occasional wound -- basically open until death, no matter how small and hidden -- is to admit that there is potential strength in it: not only in recognizing it as such but in accepting the long far ripples of understanding and love that most probably spread out from its beginning," Fisher writes.

At their best, these pieces radiate wisdom and compassion. The poet W. H. Auden once called Fisher "the best prose writer in America." In her essay titled "Style," Fisher confesses she finds it strange that she is acclaimed for her prose style, because she has never tried to develop a certain way of using language but simply tried to be clear and logical. She is certainly one of the most readable and enjoyable of writers. This collection is both an engaging introduction and a moving conclusion to her writings.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer who lives in New York.

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