Beauty and the Feast
The majesty of Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher set the gold standard for culinary literature. Her books about a life lived against a backdrop of cooking and eating – published from the late 1930s onwards – prompted a giant of English poetry, WH Auden, to hail her in 1963 as the best living prose writer in America.
As an illuminator of the human condition, MFK Fisher used food as a vehicle in a way that, a generation later, another literary-leviathan, Cormac McCarthy, (All The Pretty Horses, No Country For Old Men) used brutal adversity to praise and condemn the lives we live.
I’d like to think that Auden’s accolade was because MFK understood the life-encompassing religion of good food, the devoted faith of those that underpin it – from farmers to servers – and the knowing appreciation of those who savour it. Her prose is muscled with a poetic potency that can startle tears from your eyes.
What also startles me is that she is such a little-acknowledged beacon on the then much darker road to women being accepted not just as equal to men but commonly as their betters.
Beyond knowing what she wanted her life to be and striving, often with limited success, to get it, Fisher paved the way – for women – to change the western world’s culinary dogmas as both paying diners and home cooks. Influential bearers of Fisher’s enlightening torch include the likes of Julia Child, Elizabeth David, Ruth Reichl, Prue Leith, Alice Walters, Delia Smith, Madhur Jaffrey, Nigella Lawson and, of course, the inimitable Felicity Cloake.
Food of life
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was not a food writer. She didn’t write books of recipes, she wrote about the people and places that revolved around them. Her five-book collection, The Art of Eating, is riven with a fiercely independent voice that must have been provocatively strong meat to most readers in the ’30s and ’40s.
That’s especially so because it’s a determined-to-be-heard woman’s voice. And heard in a world that was then so male-dominated that it’s hard today to grasp the significance of such a pervasive dismissal of women.
Writing in an era when any commentary on food was considered a woman’s trifling thing, she was a deliberate, anti-establishment provocateur. She particularly liked dining alone in restaurants. Why? Because she enjoyed knowing what she liked to eat and drink as much as she enjoyed the affronted (male) and often envious (female) eyebrows she knew would be raised amongst her fellow diners.
“And all those reasons, and probably a thousand others, like the way I wear my hair and what shade my lipstick is, make people look strangely at me, resentfully, with a kind of hurt bafflement, when I dine alone,” she wrote in The Gastronomical Me (1943).
It’s clear that she could certainly turn heads. Aside from praising her writing and its influence, The New York Times’ obituary of MFK in June 1992 described her as a beauty and an enchantress. It’s a description given weight by the fact that Emmanuel Radnitzk, aka Man Ray, photographed her repeatedly.
There are recipes, lots of them, in those five books. One is all about oysters and another about economy-cooking during wartime. But the recipes are mostly incidental to the merits of making and eating them and the story behind them.
Increasingly, that story is MFK’s visceral, defiant commentary on becoming a self-accepting adult. It grows to become a story about head-over-heels happiness – the kind that makes your heart skip because your life is running on distilled sunshine. It’s also a story about the decay of that sunshine, how illness ends still-vibrant love and the way death’s shadow tracks us all from the day we are born.
And yet despite that shadow – maybe because of it – she’s a celebratory advocate for the good fun, good food, good drink, good friends and good physical and emotional loving that drove her fractured, imperfect life. Her bravery – yes, bravery – was to serve forth that advocacy as acutely as she saw and felt it.
“If time, so fleeting, must like humans die, let it be filled with good food and good talk, and then embalmed in the perfumes of conviviality,” Fisher wrote in Serve it Forth (1937).
She lived and travelled a lot outside California, mainly in France but also Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Mexico. Throughout her commentary on these places, their people and, of course, the food, there’s a growing theme, “If people don’t like me, they can leave me alone.”
She wasn’t trying to define anything – her readers and critics did that for her. She was writing, for money, about herself, and the way she saw her world. I happen to love her view. And if you don’t, that’s fine, you can leave her alone.
Josh Ozersky, who died aged just 47 in 2015, was an acclaimed American food writer and founder of the Meatopia food festivals that revel in meat-eating. He didn’t know MFK and he didn’t like what she wrote. For an aspirant iconoclast, liking her would have been too mainstream. Just wouldn’t have fit with being so aggressively normal.
The “big boys” of American food journalism in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s – Craig Claiborne, Clifton Fadiman and James Beard – did know her. And they praised to the heavens her writing and how she described its philosophy.
“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,” wrote Fisher in The Gastronomical Me (1943).
Ozersky at least knew this about a real iconoclast: “Whether you enjoy her work or not, there is no doubt that she more or less invented first-person food writing as we know it today.”
Enjoyment of simplicity
MFK was a great fan of simple eating. That’s not to say she was against highly sophisticated and often incredibly bizarre dishes. How’s this for her 1930s experience of Burgundy-bizarre? Little game birds – snipes – that had been “hung so long they fell from their hooks, to be roasted then on cushions of toast softened with the paste of their rotted innards and fine brandy”. You don’t see that at your local bistro.
“We must eat. If, in the face of that dread fact, we can find other nourishment, and tolerance and compassion for it, we’ll be no less full of human dignity,” she wrote in The Gastronomical Me.
A dozen oysters might be as simple as you can get, but there’s nothing humdrum about them. An Omelette and a Glass of Wine was the title Elizabeth David chose for her collected “food essays” extolling the virtues of simplicity. Says a lot, that title.
Women still lead the way
If MFK wrote the book on why to cook and eat, then the fab Felicity Cloake – a big Fisher fan – is writing the book on how to cook and eat.
Her regular column in The Guardian, “How to cook the perfect…” is a list-topping resource for a home cook’s queries on the world’s great dishes. Got to be the ultimate online guide for anybody who enjoys cooking and knows why it’s a game of never-ending learning.
A winning recipe: take half-a-dozen chef’s versions and mix till perfect
From arrabbiata to zabaglione, Cloake has now perfected more dishes that you can wave a whisk at. For each one, she explains the results of her cooking maybe six recipes from a variety of famous chefs – some still with us, some not. She then distils her discoveries into a single, definitive version. Simply a brilliant idea that’s exceptionally well executed – with a big dash of humour.
What’s so appealing about her writing is that she’s straightforwardly practical and positively encouraging. Her style is so conversational it’s as if she’s a long-time friend leaning against the wall, glass in hand, in your kitchen. There she is, happily chatting away about the dish in question, saying these are the pros, these the cons, and popping in lots of little insights into why they are what they are.
It’s all so relaxed that it’s easy to forget that Cloake has spent hours and hours cooking each of the recipes from the chefs she’s chosen to trial – so she seriously knows what she’s talking about. But, the fact that she’s so un-precious about all that effort, is, rather perversely, precisely why she is so genuinely precious.
Another nice touch is that she apparently has an ad-hoc “panel” of tasters drawn from friends and perhaps colleagues whose opinions are typically included in her commentary on the results of each version.
Without a doubt, if there is one living culinary writer I could have join a six-person dinner, brunch, supper or lunch at my place, it would be Felicity Cloake. (Among the guests would be a similar scribe, but luckily, she’s already a long-time pal.)
If there’s any trace of a self-improving cook in you, Cloake will have you rushing to the stovetop. Here’s a taster of what to expect. Want to know why milk (yep, milk) is a key ingredient in a Bolognese sauce? Felicity explains the reason and its effect. Follow her perfected recipe and you’ll never think of it again as spag bol. Neither will anyone you serve it to. DM
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