This is a post about the late M.F.K. Fisher, a renowned food writer of the first order. If you’re not interested in the biographical part, skip down to the bottom and at least read the indented paragraphs, quoted from one of her books, about How To Un-Seduce [a man]. I found the quote very witty.
Some of you who are considerably younger than I may not have ever heard of M.F.K. Fisher. Her full name was Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, and just “Fisher” to her friends. She was born in 1908 and died in 1992 from Parkinson’s Disease. What she was, was a venerable food writer of a couple of generations back. I own most of her food related books (well, almost all her books are food related but there are some I don’t own and a few that aren’t really essays about food). She was more a writer than a cook, although she certainly was a good cook in her own right. Photo credit unknown.
M.F.K. Fisher didn’t work in restaurants, but wrote books for herself (including an English translation of Brillat-Savarin’s tome), for magazines (both food and travel) and lived in many places around the world – mostly France – before finally, in her later years, settling in Glen Ellen, California (wine country, a few miles north of Sonoma). She was married three times. The first time (Al Fisher) to a man who, some years later, developed intimacy issues (both physical and relationship types, so she was quoted as saying many years later), so when she had an affair with someone else he was hurt, but he couldn’t do or say much about it. She divorced him and married the other man (Dillwyn Parrish). They had many good years together, but while living in France he developed a very debilitating illness and eventually commit suicide in 1941. She wrote more books and some movie dramas. In 1944 she had a child and never revealed the father’s name. Later on she met and after a whirlwind romance married yet another man (Donald Friede), but that marriage didn’t last. She spent the rest of her days without any further husbands, but I suspect she wasn’t lonely for companionship. She continued to write clear into her 80’s. I tried to research anything I could about her daughter, but didn’t find sufficient info.
In the late 1980’s I recall reading an article in one of the food magazines (either Gourmet or Bon Appetit) about Fisher’s retirement. I’d read a couple of her books at that time and really liked her writing style. About then I began looking for her books in used book stores. She writes prose but with a lot of food relationship stories and with lots of food jargon thrown in. Her essays graced the pages of numerous magazines, many of them not food related. Sometimes her essays included a recipe; sometimes not. In any case, as I looked at the 1980’s photos of her in this article, in her charming-looking little house in Glen Ellen, I remember the writer was particularly taken with Fisher, and happily shared a light lunch with her. And particularly how he savored the fresh fruit she served for dessert (one of her favorite things for dessert anytime). I wished that I could have met her – especially since she died just a few years later.
So, you wonder where this story is going? Well, I got an email from one of my readers (thank you, Donna) who told me about a marinade she has used for years, but originally was from M.F.K. Fisher. (More on that in another post – I’m going to have to try it and then I’ll tell that story.) She told me which book, and I was surprised to find that I did have the book, but had never read it. In doing so – after reading the chapter about the marinade – I kept going. And came across such a hilarious couple of paragraphs I decided I should share it with all of you.
It’s in her book, An Alphabet for Gourmets. Or, if you’re interested in the book, you might try reading the 5 best of M.F.K. Fisher, contained in the compendium The Art of Eating (the other 4 books are: How to Cook a Wolf, Consider the Oyster, Serve it Forth, The Gastronomical Me). Used copies are very inexpensive if you’re so inclined. Anyway, in the Alphabet book she writes in her chapter called W is for Wanton, about the art of using food for seduction. And she tells one story after another, including one about what she would serve if she were trying to seduce a man. But the one that tickled my funny bone was the section about what she would serve to a man if she were trying to stem, or totally deflate desire (she suggests among others to serve kidneys, okra or avocado, for example), or as she suggests the title at the end of it, HOW TO UN-SEDUCE. Here it is:
[This is the preface to this small bit of the essay, which you need to read to set the stage for the paragraphs that follow]: I myself, imagining one man I would like to woo, can easily invent a menu that would floor him like a stunned ox, and turn him, no matter how unwittingly on his part, into a slumberous lump of masculine inactivity. It is based on what I already know of his physical reactions, as any such plan must be.
I would serve one too many martinis, that is, about three. Then while his appetite raged, thus whipped with alcohol, I would have generous, rich, salty Italian hors d’oeuvres: prosciutto, little chilled marinated shrimps, olives stuffed with anchovy, spiced and pickled tomatoes – things that would lead him on. Next would come something he no longer wanted, but could not resist, something like a ragout of venison, or squabs stuffed with mushrooms and wild rice, and plenty of red wine, sure danger after the cocktails and the highly salted appetizers. I would waste no time on a salad, unless perhaps a freakish rich one treacherously containing truffles and new potatoes. The dessert would be cold, superficially refreshing and tempting, but venomous: a chilled bowl of figs soaked in kirsch, with heavy cream. There would be a small bottle of a Sauterne, sly and icy, or a judicious bit of champagne, and then a small cup of coffee so black and bitter that my victim could not down it, even therapeutically.
All of this would be beautiful fare in itself and in another part of time and space. Here and now it would be sure poison – given the right man. I would, to put it mildly, rest inviolate.
What a hideous plan [she writes]. . . . . M.F.K. Fisher in The Alphabet for Gourmets
Can you see why I enjoy reading her words? She had a true gift of writing, a delightful wit, a gift of story-telling, a gift for the turn of phrase and particularly the judicious use of words. Most of the above biographical information about M.F.K. Fisher came from wikipedia. Another source I used (from Harvard University) had some different information, including a different birth date of her daughter which said she was Friede’s. The daughter had several children, so hopefully the author’s gene will have been preserved and will reappear sometime. And again, the image I used at top, obviously one taken at her home in Glen Ellen in her library or maybe her living room, has no credit because I couldn’t find one, although I saw similar images on the web credited to the New York Times. Over the years I’ve learned something about myself – that when I read a book (and enjoy/love it) I’m intrigued with the how and why. How did the author come to write it, why did he/she write it. Where did he/she write it. You know, that kind of thing. So finding the different birth date of her daughter and the fact that her birth certificate did not include Friede’s name was intriguing. More factlets worth pursuing if I were a true researcher. Anyway, to sum up, I’m a great admirer of M.F.K. Fisher and I need to read all of her most well-known books for sure!