Reading: M.F.K. Fisher, the greatest of them all

Quite a few people have pointed out that the title (and the subheading) of this site are quotes from M.F.K. Fisher, one of my favorite authors period, not limited to just food-genre writing. I've neglected to give her the proper attributions however. Here they are, finally:

The title "I was just really very hungry" is taken from the title of one of her travel essays, "I Was Really Very Hungry", which is included in As They Were.

The subtitle is paraphrased from the forward to the autobiographical The Gastronomical Me, which is included in the anthology The Art of Eating.

I first discovered M.F.K. Fisher, or Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, when the aforementioned essay I Was Really Very Hungry was included in an anthology of food essays. (I'm afraid I can't remember the title of that anthology, and it seems to have disappeared into lent-book-land.) It recounts a visit she made to a small restaraurant somewhere in France, and it's funny, observative, and full of the delights of delcious eating all at the same time. I didn't actually jump and try to collect her books immediately for some reason though. A couple of years later, as I was praising another book, The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten, to someone, who said emphatically that "noone can touch M.F.K. Fisher when it comes to food writing". I had to find out if that was true.

She was right. From the moment I started reading The Gastronomical Me, I was mesmerized. Mary Frances Fisher thinks about, and relates to, food in the way that I do, but certainly expressed her thoughts and feelings about it much better. The full quote from which the subtitle of this site is taken from expresses it best:

People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating, and drinking? Why don't you write about the struggle for power and security and about love, the way others do?

They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft.

The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. 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 warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it...and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied...and it is all one.

Writing about, and thinking about, food to the extent that "foodies" such as I do is almost pornographic in this day and age, perhaps even more so than it was in M.F.K. Fisher's time. I sometimes feel that food, and the consumption of it, is something too decadent and frivolous to think about. (That's one reason why I split off this food blog from my main site - which is more serious, talking about the usual subjects for me, like computers and CSS and stuff.)

As a woman, I feel especially that food is almost a taboo subject in some ways. An overweight woman is probably the most ostracised type of human being in most socities these d ays. As a woman, you're supposed to keep your body as thin as possible, consuming as few calories as possible. Each bite of something "not allowed" has a furtive feel to it: will that extra swirl of cream over my pie be compensated for by a few more minutes on the treadmill? Fans of classic American sitcoms may remember the classic line uttered by Rhoda in the Mary Tyler Moore show, as she took a piece of chocolate: "I don't know why I bother putting it into my mouth. I might as well apply it directly to my hips".

Another side of the food equation is that the preparation of it, for family, children, and others, often becomes a chore and burden. As much as I love food and cooking, when I am preoccupied with daily life it's a bother to even think about it.

But a few hours with Mary Frances as your companion and you realize again how comforting, and joyous, food can be, and how it ties you to warm (and other) memories, to family and loves of the present and past.

The other aspect of Mary Frances that I love is her cool detachedness and elegance, even while writing about the most intimate experiences such as the painful deterioration of her second husband (and love of her life). When one writes, be it for a humble weblog or anything higher, one can't help showing your private parts, methorically speaking. Personal experience often forms the nucleus of a writer's 'material'. But the degree to how you show the private parts, and how you show them, is quite a difficult line. For myself, my goal is to do it the way Mary Frances did it - with objectivity, passion, and never quite revealing all.

M.F.K. Fisher reading list

Be aware that a lot of M.F.K. Fisher books are collections of her essays, and so you will find some overlap of the odd essay here or there. Start with the first one, and progress further if you fall in love with her writing.

  • The Art of Eating is really five books in one. It contains the following works: Serve It Forth, Consider The Oyster, How To Cook A Wolf, The Gastronomical Me, and An Alphabet For Gourmets. Of these, the last two are by far the best in my opinion, though the rest are great also. I would read the books contained here in the following order: start with The Gastronomical Me, then take a lighthearted break with How To Cook A Wolf, go to An Alphabet for Gourmets, then finish up with the more heavily "historical" Serve It Forth and the rather light Consider The Oyster. If you can only get one M.F.K. Fisher this one is it.
  • Two Towns in Provence, recounts her time spent living in Provence with her two little daughters. A must for any Francophile.
  • As They Were, collected essays of an autobiographical nature.
  • Among Friends, recounting her early days in Whittier, California. Less food, more autobiography.
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Reading: M.F.K. Fisher, the greatest of them all

I too find myself in awe of M.F.K. Fisher and her style--thanks for giving me a chance to think about her this morning! She has been a huge inspiration for me in terms of not being afraid to let myself and my life come through in my (food) writing, because for me--as it clearly was for her--food is not just about what's on the plate, but also about the context, who you were with, what you were talking about, etc. It's a very complex and multi-layered sort of pleasure.

And like you, I struggle with feeling that writing about food is somehow too frivolous, too decadent, ridiculous. But ultimately I can't help myself--food is such a unifier, such a simple and readily available way of taking note of and celebrating everyday existence. It resonates with all of us on some level, and it's a profoundly tangible way of sharing ourselves and expressing care and love.

Thanks for your thoughtful post.

Molly | 13 March, 2005 - 23:13

Reading: M.F.K. Fisher, the greatest of them all

I just read The Gastronomical Me--and was so bowled over. How she can write! And she takes in everything--it's food, but it's also history, sociology, travelogue, memoir. Lovely stuff. Thanks for the annotated list of books.

mary g | 15 March, 2005 - 03:10

Reading: M.F.K. Fisher, the greatest of them all

Maki,

After years of meaning to get around to it, I've finally started reading Fisher's works. Beautiful, thoughtful, delicious writing -- I've become a fan.

Have you read any of John Thorne's books such as Serious Pig or Pot on the Fire? He has a very different style, and yet, like Fisher, he writes of food with an intensely personal point of view. He's a delight to read.

Kevin

Kevin | 21 March, 2005 - 20:55

Reading: M.F.K. Fisher, the greatest of them all

Kevin, I've yet to read any of John Thorne's books but I do sometimes visit his website, The Outlaw Cook ( http://www.outlawcook.com ) - it's wonderful. The midnight snack and breakfast diaries are just outrageous.

maki | 22 March, 2005 - 02:48

Reading: M.F.K. Fisher, the greatest of them all

Have you a copy of the Brillat-Savarin book, translated by Fisher? Illustrations are by Thiebaud.

isabel | 24 March, 2005 - 22:56

Reading: M.F.K. Fisher, the greatest of them all

I am reading The Gastronomical Me again, I hope to get my hands on her other books. Thank you for posting about her and your recommendations on which books to read first. :) I really enjoy her style of writing.

stef | 10 May, 2005 - 00:42

Re: Reading: M.F.K. Fisher, the greatest of them all

Hello! I'm happy to have stumbled across your blog. Great stuff! I've only just discovered MFK Fisher, in my quest for the perfect passage to read at my upcoming wedding this August. I love the passage about strawberry jam, and the foreward to the art of eating. Are there any others that stand out as utterly delicious in description/personal/dealing with love+food+family? Anything you could recommend would be fabulous. I'm going out to buy one of her books today. Thanks for the suggestions of where to start.

anon. | 29 April, 2010 - 16:42

Re: Reading: M.F.K. Fisher, the greatest of them all

Hmm...I actually don't think of family love in conjunction with MFK Fisher. She loved food, and she loved being in love I think (she certainly had a couple of passionate love affairs)...and she loved her daughters, but didn't really talk about them in that sort of passionate context. She reserved that kind of writing for food and wine and living in France and that kind of thing! Sorry to not be of much help there... (Keep in mind also, I wrote the original post back in 2003, and since then I've read quite a lot more by and about MFK, and although I still love her writing, she is a way more complex character than I originally thought. It was interesting to read in a bio of Julia Child that Julia, while she admired MFK's writing, thought the way she presented French cuisine as some kind of mystical, unattainable thing that only a true French person understood was complete bunk. ^_^)

maki | 29 April, 2010 - 20:33

authors and readers

Came to this page from your lovely memorial to Katsuyo Kobayashi.

I knew of M.F.K. Fisher from people who knew her, and (this likely will sound odd) that's why I never read her.

Having read your response to some of her works, I think now I will read her after all. It's interesting that as people travel through life, they sort of move closer or further away from authors/musicians/ creators of all sorts... sometimes to complete the circle by growing more distant or more fond yet later.

One note -- I hope it is received kindly, and please forgive me if not -- "foreward" and "forward" have somehow crept into common parlance and even typeface as one of the designations of book frontmatter. The thing truly is properly "forewOrd," and ever more shall be so. :-) Even best-selling authors have made this error in manuscripts I've been hired to edit. I hasten to say it's a modern gaffe, first seen by me in the mid-1990's. Pernicious and spreading, though, and I can't work out quite why but would like to see the back of it for once and all. Please help us eradicate it! :->

Thank you so much for all your writing, dear Maki-san!

*heidi* | 4 February, 2014 - 19:46

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