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Colette at the table: M F K Fisher

posted on 21 Jun 2017

Colette at the table: M F K Fisher 

To describe MFK Fisher as a food writer is partially accurate but also misleading. Where she really shone was as a memoirist whose subject was sometimes food but more frequently and more typically human appetites. She is a strange, unrepeatable cross between Colette and Hemingway – like Colette, a terse, imperious sensualist who could write about almost anything that engaged her attention and who revealed herself frankly and sometimes shockingly in her work (but only so far and only as she wished); and like Hemingway, a ruthless self-mythologising prose stylist who when she wrote about food was really (as she said of herself) writing about “love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it…and the richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied…it is all one.”

Born in 1908, Fisher died in 1992. She lived variously in Dijon, Strasbourg, Vevey, California and Provence. Her final years were spent in Glen Ellen, California, in a house she designed herself and which a friend had built for her on his ranch. She called the house The Last House, because this is what she intended it to be.

Fisher comes from a golden age of American reportage, when assured writers could develop a style gradually and hone it in numerous assignments for equally numerous magazines and papers. She first began to write as a teenager when she hammered out human interest pieces for The Albion Evening Recorder, the local paper her father co-owned. And these journalistic skills never left her. She wrote swiftly and fluently and avoided dullness like the plague. Her characters are richly and humanely drawn in all their eccentricities and frailties, her writing about food and places never less than deeply sensuous, and her revelations about her own rackety and one suspects somewhat bohemian life are always fascinating – even when not especially attractive.

While her descriptive writing is a joy, I do not always find her a sympathetic character. There is some underlying sense of self-entitlement, an unquestioning assumption which she never quite manages to overcome that the world is organised for the comfort and enjoyment of people like her. And while she writes in an apparently unguarded way of herself, Fisher only ever reveals as much as suits her purposes. Was she wealthy? Her writing (at least in the earlier work) suggests not, and yet later she seemed able to swap continents and houses and lovers as only the rich can – and perhaps those who have mastered the ability of living a rich lifestyle while not necessarily having a great deal of their own money. This is the aspect I like least about her, but I continue to read her because in the best of her work you can drop into the marvellous, evocative vignettes and memories at almost any point and be swept along by the ravishing prose and the charm and nostalgia of the vanished largely pre-war world she describes.

In the late-80s and 90s there was something of a cult of MFK Fisher but today she has fallen out of fashion. It isn’t difficult to see why. Although the popularity of cookery books and programmes is at an all-time high, food (especially the actual cooking of food) has become a largely visual culture, a spectator sport driven by an army of celebrity chefs-cum-TV stars-cum-brands. And Fisher is first and foremost and solely a writer – and moreover an essayist/memoirist/reporter with a challengingly rich and sometimes even baroque prose style. Her books require some effort of the reader and offer acquired rather than immediate pleasures. Frankly, it would be hard to be more out of step with today’s foodie culture than Fisher is.

And yet interest in her work never quite disappears. The Gastronomical Me, one of her best and most autobiographical books (despite the awful title) has just been reissued by Daunt Publishing and has a marvellous introduction by Bee Nilson. Perhaps her time is coming round again? Certainly, there is no current writer that I can think of who offers quite what Mary Fisher does.

 

Alun Severn

June 2017