Passable People: MFK Fisher

It was a friend who told me about her.

“If you’re serious about food, you need to read MFK Fisher”.

I had never heard of her. It was 2004, and I had just started reading about food, but had yet to read anything other than cookbooks. I took the recommendation and went to my library and picked up “The Gastronomical Me” (You can read an excerpt of it here). The opening paragraph is of a memory she had, of eating and making jam with her grandmother, specifically the foam that rose and was skimmed from the top of a pot of strawberry jam.

This was a world I knew. Every late summer, my mother and father would make preserve upon preserve. There would be bottled peaches in light syrup, apple sauce to be canned, wild blueberries to be sorted and piles of salt used for making pickles. By taking herself into her childhood, she brought me to mine.

Born in Michigan in 1908, Fisher spent a large part of her formative years in California. It was there that she met her first husband, Alfred Fisher, in 1929. They soon moved Dijon, France, and travelled though much of Europe. It was during this time that Fisher learned about French food, in all its intricacies and nuances. In 1937, Fisher published the first of her many books, called “Serve It Forth”, a collection of essays and culinary explorations. A few years later, she published what is one of her most famous books, “Consider The Oyster”, an entire treatise, love song and homage to the humble bivalve. In 1943, she published “How To Cook A Wolf”, a book on eating, dining and cooking during wartime. She went on to publish several books, wrote for Gourmet during their early years, and kept putting out books until her death in 1992, at the age of 83.

With the recent onslaught of celebrity chefs, restaurants and cookbooks being flung at us, it seems like Fisher is a welcome respite. Simple, direct and enthusiastic, without succumbing to hyperbole – a common thing these days – Fisher’s stories are not just of food, but of the people making them, serving them and eating them. She was quoted as saying, “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 the others do?” . . . The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry.”

In writing about that hunger, she speaks of all those things and more. For that, I am eternally grateful.