How to be a foreigner – and why MFK Fisher is such an inspirational food writer

The scorpion, by the way, was in our rented apartment in Uzès in Provence. Fortunately it was dead when we found it. But that’s another story.

I discovered MFK (Mary Frances Kennedy) Fisher by chance when I was reading about Julia Child, the famous American food writer and author of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking . This enormous 2 volume opus became hugely influential in the US after the first volume was published in 1961 but when it was later published in the UK, Elizabeth David had already pretty much seized the narrative. I’d never even heard of MFK Fisher until very recently, and if you share my abject ignorance on her work then I’d recommend the book “Provence 1970” written by her great nephew Luke Barr, who also directed an excellent biographical film which is available on YouTube. In his book he writes about one summer when Fisher, Julia Child, and James Beard were all in Provence at the same time and talked cooked and ate together regularly. Richard Olney and Elizabeth David were also in and out of France at the time but it seems that they thought that as a cookery writer, Fisher was a bit of an imposter – they were absolutely wrong in the sense that Fisher could write them both into a cocked hat. David, of course, introduced the whole mediterranean food culture to the UK and for that she claims the laurels, but she was by no means the only one. Before David, Patience Gray was the better selling food writer, and remains one of my favourites. Each one of them brought something important to the table, as it were, and between them they changed the course of culinary history of both America and the UK.

So how can these writers, publishing so long ago, ( Fisher was born in 1908) still seem so critically important? In my view that’s a daft thought because Fisher is every bit as alive and relevant today as RL Stevenson, whose “Travels with a Donkey in the Cevenne” is as fresh and modern today as it was when first published. They all have something to say about being human, and Fisher across 25 books and countless magazine and newspaper articles, not to mention television appearances seems set to become closer to my heart than any of the others. She writes like a 21st century woman; she’s a forensic analyst of human cultures and as always Richard Olney and Elizabeth David – in their rather bitchy way – had something of the truth. She wasn’t such a great cook but she was a brilliantly perceptive eater. When you read her accounts of living in Aix, Arles and Marseilles – especially if you’ve spent time there; and when you read about her youthful life in Dijon with her first husband you feel that even as a foreigner she managed to see behind the triumphs, evasions and stubborn conservatism of the French culinary scene of her day.

Her life wasn’t all wine and roses, and yes, she had money which enabled her extensive travels in Europe, but her first marriage ended when she met the love of her life who was suffering from a terrible illness that took him away after only very few years. A third long term relationship was distant and dwindled away after the birth of her two daughters; and so she brought them up as a single mother. There were other relationships about which she remained discreetly silent. As I said earlier a surprisingly modern life for a woman born in 1908.

And she wrote like an angel. Madame would tell you, if you met her, that my enthusiasm for a book can be measured in the amount of time I spend reading passages aloud to her. Reading together in bed at the Potwell Inn can be a surprisingly noisy and competitive business. “Two Towns in Provence” in the chapter “The Foreigner” would serve more than adequately as a set text for a graduate course in anthropology – it’s just laugh out loud funny as she deals with an arrogant French lunchtime host who wastes no opportunity to compare unfavourably American food with French cuisine. MFK’s response – sending a coffin shaped basket of flowers, ending the acquaintance forever with a funeral gift – is one I’ll treasure and perhaps even borrow if the need ever arises. Here’s another taster:

There are myriad facets to invisibility, and not all of them reflect comfort or security. Often I have been in pain, in my chosen role of The Stranger. Just as often I have counted on being so, and was not. Learning to be invisible has, of course, some moments worse than others. Perhaps I felt them most fiercely during the first months of my stay in Aix in 1954. I was alone in Europe for the first time in my life really; always before I had been the companion of some- one well loved, who knew more than I did about everything, even things like tickets and monies. I had been younger, too, and full of confidence. Now I was single, with two small daughters, and a world war and some private battles had come between the two women of myself, so that I felt fumbling and occasionally even frightened.

Perhaps it was a little like learning to walk again: I must try hard to trust my weakened muscles, my halting tongue, and most of all the dulled wits in my graying head, so that my children would not suspect me and lose confidence.

MFK Fisher “Two Towns in Provence”

Of the writers I’ve mentioned only Patience Gray comes close in her understanding of the whole culture through its food. Where Olney and David were always difficult and insecure in spite of their fame, Fisher was obviously a writer who didn’t need to be liked. “This is what I found” – I can imagine her saying – “and if you don’t like it you can shove it!”. Her editors must have despaired at her unashamed openness. She had an erotic connection to food and life and it perfuses all her writing. I beg you to explore this body of work. The only book I haven’t enjoyed is a bit of a potboiler called “How to feed a wolf” which was commissioned to meet a market for a severely rationed wartime food supply. I sensed her heart wasn’t in it but her celebrity never paid the bills and she was a proper writer!

About a book

If you are one of the very few people who’ve followed this blog from the beginning you’ll know that I’m somewhere near that point on the neurodiversity spectrum where lists become a bit obsessive. You’ll need to be a foodie to get this one –

  • MFK Fisher
  • Serve it Forth – 1937
  • Touch and Go 1939
  • Consider the Oyster 1941
  • How to Cook a Wolf 1942
  • The Gastronomical Me 1942
  • Here Let us Feast: A Book of Banquets 1946
  • Not Now but Now 1947
  • An Alphabet for Gourmets 1949
  • The Physiology of taste. Translation of Brillat-Savarin 1949
  • Elizabeth David – A book of Mediterranean food 1955
  • Elizabeth David – French Country Cooking – 1951
  • Elizabeth David – Italian Food – 1954
  • Elizabeth David – Summer Cooking 1955
  • Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd – Plats du Jour 1957
  • Elizabeth David – French provincial cooking UK 1960, US 1962
  • Simone Beck and Julia Child – Mastering the art of French Cooking Vol 1 US 1961
  • Simone Beck and Julia Child – Mastering the art of French Cooking Vol 2 1970
  • Richard Olney – The French Menu Cookbook 1970
  • James Beard – How to Eat (and Drink) Your Way through a French (and Italian) Menu 1971
  • Richard Olney – Simple French Food 1974
  • Elizabeth David – An Omelette and a Glass of Wine 1984
  • Patience Gray – Honey from a Weed 1987

As I predicted in my last post – well, last posting – “last post” looks a bit funereal – I/we spent this week cooking in the inspirational glow of our lovely Italian meal in Birmingham at the weekend. The kitchen was by now a slum and we had to fit in an extra visit to the gym to head off full porker status. In the midst of all this we were both visited by a non fatal but nasty virus which had us coughing heartily all night, and I decided to redeem the shining hour by reading one of the many random volumes I’ve bought but never read. You can see from the cover photo why this might be – I’d never heard of M F K Fisher but I must have read the abbreviated reviews on the covers “The greatest food writer who has ever lived” – Simon Schama – really ? ……..

But then, I didn’t as much read the book as fall on it. As Monica Furlong once memorably said – “lust is love, overwhelmed by hunger” and this book – aside from providing the first nine entries on my list – exploded my whole idea of what food writing might be and introduced something far more dangerous and lovely. It’s not a book about cooking as much as a book that embraces the whole of the ethos I wrote about in the last posting –

……. but resistance is everything. Loving, carousing, delighting, laughing and feasting; generosity, faith in the future, cooperation and mutual respect are like tank traps to the soulless and mechanised descendants of that miserable bank manager who went after me on the radio.

Dave Pole What would you spend your last £100 on?

At first I found the early chapters slightly irritating; this fortunate young American woman immersing herself in the food and wines of Burgundy, necking off fine wines and fine foods and travelling by freighter between Europe and America in considerable luxury. But her forensic eye and ear for writerly detail – conversations; appearances; dress and a hundred other prescient details captivated me. Here was someone watching France, along with the rest of Europe, drift into the shadow of fascism. Unlike some of her fellow Americans she was far from just a tourist. She noticed things, people like waiters and chefs, railway guards and ships’ crews, the elderly landladies, the street life that sustained pre-war France. Not, then, a book about cooking but a book about eating; the people who prepare food and those who eat it, but especially the manner of their eating – the cultural matrix that enables celebration but conversely sometimes crushes it. It’s a book about love – not the etiolated marriage that was slowly consuming her, but reckless passion that must learn to reckon with terrible loss and yet survive. By halfway through the book I was lost to it and when the last section came I never wanted it to end. It ended, though, as it always had to with a coda of such erotic tenderness I thought I was reading D H Lawrence. My mind was churning with the kind of excitement that could only be discharged by cleaning the kitchen in a mad outbreak of displacement activity. Later, stinking of bleach (psychotherapists may make of that what they will), I threaded my way through the milling crowds at the Bath Christmas Market like a salmon swimming upstream, smiling slightly madly at everyone I passed.

To return to the list, for a moment – until yesterday it began with Elizabeth David when she published “A Book of Mediterranean Food” in 1955. But I knew that the genealogy was incomplete. There’s always a “before”. The list contained all the books I’d read, treasured and worked with over the past 55 years, culminating with Patience Gray’s “Honey from a weed” in 1987. And of course there are dozens more I could have mentioned, many of them published much later and I’ve used them many times – but these were the books that entered my bloodstream. I can plot the genealogy from Elizabeth David to the present day quite easily; it was always the ‘before‘ that eluded me. MFK Fisher is, for me, a newly discovered and irreplaceable step in that before, and it came as no surprise that she was friends with Julia Child whose book taught me and a million other autodidacts to chop an onion.

The common thread that binds these books together is that none of them are recipe books. They are all about France and her whole culture and they brought a wholly new way of understanding and replicating the qualities of the food. Very few books do this – Marcella Hazan and Anna Del Conte but especially Patience Gray do it for Italy; Jane Grigson,Dorothy Hartley and Gillian Ayrton for Britain. I haven’t yet found the writer for Spain and so I cook from memory.

The miracle is the post war transition that came to inflect the best of British and American cooking and prepared the way for the whole seasonal, slow food, local food revolution. There are countless chefs who dance on the thin ice of novelty and rarity and you need a shipping container full of half used condiments to replicate their style. But MFK Fisher understood that cooking, eating and loving are mysteriously connected in a way that no amount of gold leaf can imitate. Better to be well fed every day than amazed twice in a lifetime. Mercifully the message got out and I still have a lot more reading to do.

Postscript

There’s a fine documentary – on MFK Fisher that’s just been released on YouTube – well worth 90 minutes of your time.

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