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M. F. K. Fisher

By James Merrill

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was born in Michigan in 1908, and moved at the age of four, with her parents and younger sister, to Whittier, California. She went to France very young, newly married to Alfred Fisher, and stayed for three years. The pattern of displacement and return—not to mention that of marriage—continued for the next couple of decades. Separated from her third husband, she was now one of our most distinguished single mothers, with daughters to raise and a series of charming and original books to go on writing. The first of these appeared through the good offices of the well-known novelist Anne Parrish, sister of the man who would become her second and best-loved husband, Dillwyn Parrish. Her next two or three books, which should bring her complete works to at least twenty volumes, will no doubt be posthumous, for she rarely stopped writing—or entertaining—until her death early last year in her beloved California.

Asked why she wrote so much about food instead of “the really important subjects, like the struggle for power and security,” she replied: “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it … and it is all one. Her principal excursion into fiction—starring an irresistible anti-self, heartless and freedom-loving as Carmen, who coolly walks away from the lives she has fed on and ruined—illustrates, for all its verve, the good sense behind Mrs. Fisher’s oblique approach.

W. H. Auden, who loved to surprise people with his opinions, wrote that “in a properly run culture, [she] would be recognized as one of the great writers this country has produced in this century.” Be that as it may, she is perhaps the closest we’ll ever come, in America, to that archetypal European literary woman—one thinks of Colette or Karen Blixen—in whom the aristocratic pleasures of travel and the table, of conversation and memory and love, are balanced by a store of peasant wisdom. She translated The Physiology of Taste by Brillat-Savarin, but also published a book of folk remedies, and knew the workings of a French town as if she had been born and raised there. She wrote a screenplay, children’s books, travelogues. It is this wide human perspective that sets her apart, even as a writer about food. The first dish we hear of her preparing, at age ten, are “Hindu eggs” so full of curry (for surely one couldn’t have too much of a good thing) that she and her little sister are found sitting on the edge of the bathtub, feet in cool water, their blistered mouths full of mineral oil. In later life she will describe dining with a recent widower who,  in his bereavement, has taught himself how to cook. It is a meal of terminal ghastliness—meat from a tin, muscatel mixed with lemon soda and served in jelly glasses—but her host is so proud of his achievement that our heroine, too, manages to enjoy every mouthful, and calls it one of the best dinners she’s ever eaten. Auden would have approved.

In between these extremes of self-indulgence and self-sacrifice will have come hours—hundreds or thousands of hours—whose delights a reader can share without heartburn or apoplexy. Let M. F. K. Fisher have the last word: “But gradually, over the measured progress of the courses and the impressive changing beauty of the wines, snobberies and even politics dwindled in our hearts, and the wit and the laughing awareness that is France made all of us alive.”

Read by William Gaddis at the Institute Dinner Meeting on November 4, 1992.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters