I am the daughter of a hospital cook. If you’ve experienced much hospital cooking, please don’t hold that against me or my mother. As a cook she had one day off a week-she was up at 5 a.m. to head for work. For twenty three years she worked as a cook, with a seventeen-mile drive to work each way. And when she retired, at last, she lacked ten cents of making five dollars an hour. I can’t begin to tell you how much I admire her. To give you a sense of the sort of woman she is, here’s a story. When she was first married, she and my father raised chickens. One day she drove in the driveway and saw the chickens staggering, their wattles all white. And then she saw something that struck her with horror: a weasel sucking blood from under a chicken’s wing. She ran out of the car, took off one of her high heels, beat the weasel off the chicken with her heel, saved the chicken, and at last gained the respect of her in-laws.My mother cooked very early, as a young child. I too cooked-not as early as she did, but I cooked dinners regularly before I was fourteen. I confess. I cooked with irritation bordering on rage. Until I began to experiment. I made meat loaves of my own invention. Meat loaf with cheese inside, meat loaf with mashed potatoes inside, meat loaf with peppers inside, meat loaf with meat loaf inside. But although I couldn’t claim culinary sophistication, I knew of the great rewards of enjoying a meal, and that’s why I return to M.F.K. Fisher. I’m a reader with an appetite.
As a culinary artist, Fisher enlivened the senses through almost thirty books. Perhaps one day we’ll have great writers of decoupage, crochet and wood burning, but it seems that writing about fulfilling the appetites offers distinct advantages over writing about many other human activities. For one thing, such writing appeals to virtually every sense. Taste, smell, sight, even sound. And touch. It’s so basic as to sound idiotic but we can’t eat without touching our food-it’s not possible.
And I think too that there’s something about the way we make food disappear that suggests a magical transformation for a writer like Fisher. If we’re successful as cooks, we don’t see our creations for long. If we’re successful as animals, we don’t see food in front of us for long either. There’s the pie. Now it’s gone. Where can it be? I seem to have eaten it. That simple fact- that eating is the act of making a substance disappear, of internalizing the external-comes alive for Fisher. A meal is a sequence of fulfillments and, like fictional plot as the novelist Walter Mosley describes it, a meal for Fisher is a “structure of revelations.”
The nature of what she calls her major symbol, her generative device, hunger, is a metaphor of return. We don’t rid ourselves of hunger. Hunger is the guest that always comes back. And while a good meal is like a departure when it surprises us, a good meal may also be deeply realized as a fulfilled expectation. And what is a recipe but a buffer against disorder? A recipe allows us to anticipate, to meld the past into the present, to return to our senses. The poet Robert Hass has something to say about the peculiarly satisfying quality of repeating an experience. He tells us, “The first fact of the world is that it repeats itself. Though predictable is an ugly little word in daily life, in our first experience of it we are clued to the hope of a shapeliness in things. To see that power working on adults, you have to catch them out: the look of foolish happiness on the faces of people who have just sat down to dinner is their knowledge that dinner will be served.”
Let me tell you a story that has nothing to do- you’ll see why, thank goodness-with eating. It’s a story about sea monkeys. If you have never succumbed to the glamour of sea monkeys, I can’t say I pity you. Sea monkeys are relatives of brine shrimp. They’re so small they’re almost invisible. They’re less than the size of a comma. After we bought a packet of sea monkeys, my younger daughter and I started our little colony in an old mason jar filled with water. In a couple of weeks we had the most wonderful sea monkeys. We didn’t even need to use a magnifying glass to see them. We held the jar close to our eyes and watched the monkeys wheeling about. It was very exciting. Too exciting.
I decided I was going to give these sea monkeys the most beautiful new home. I ordered the executive sea monkey set-with a glittering gold rim, a statue of a crowned sea monkey, magnified viewing port holes. My daughter and I followed all directions. We carefully transferred our sea monkeys from their old mason jar into their deluxe executive accommodations. A few days later my daughter cried out, “Mom, where are the sea monkeys?” They were dead. My point here isn’t about sea monkeys, but about the value of simplicity. I should have listened to those sea monkeys. They were thriving in a mason jar. They didn’t need to live like Donald Trump.
Why am I telling you this? I want to underscore how merciful Fisher can be in her injunctions. “The best way to eat is simply, without affectation and adulteration,” she argues. It refreshes and reassures me to think how simple her recipes are. Not all, of course. She has at least one recipe that calls for a calf’s head. But she was able to appreciate not only the most complex meals, but the most basic, as well.
She makes me think of the painter Agnes Martin. Martin’s paintings are remarkable-fine lines that look like graph paper, minute discriminations in shading. Like Fisher, she was another long-lived artist. Martin, who lived to the age of 91, wrote: “The function of the art work is the stimulation of sensibilities, the renewal of memories of moments of perfection.” How often those words apply to Fisher, for even when she writes of terrible losses, those moments are poised against memories of times when the whole of life bursts with promise. Martin tells us “Those who depend upon the intellect are the many. Those who depend upon perception alone are the few.” We could argue that Martin is creating a false dichotomy, that the intellect and perception are braided, but the spirit of Martin’s remark is right. Being attentive to her perceptions, honoring them in writing, was Fisher’s trade and the particular source of her distinctiveness.
There’s a pose in which M.F. K. Fisher is often seen in casual photos from virtually every stage of her life. Whether sitting in a chair or lying on the ground, her hands are behind her head. It’s the universal pose of luxuriating, undefended, unguarded. She seems to be breathing in everything around her. But, of course, writing can’t be done in that particular posture, only the incubation, the gestation of writing can be. When Fisher writes she translates and transforms experience, using words not only to awaken the senses, but to make us experience words themselves as more fully sensuous. I recently heard a speaker declare that writing is not a generally sensual activity-he argued that we tend to move immediately from word to concept-but my own experience and, I suspect, Fisher’s is quite different. Often her words are not transparent windows facing outward. Instead, the words in and of themselves conjure not only sound but color and even tactile sensations. She may loll around in photographs, but her food doesn’t, nor do the words she uses. In her prose, soufflés “sigh voluptuously.” A sugar replica of the cathedral of Milano becomes “a flag flying for the chef, a bulwark all in spun sugar against the breath of corruption.” Beer explodes. “Peaches [shine] like translucent stained glass,” “a big tureen of hot borsht” is capable of “blasting ... safe tidy little lives.” Tea is “strong enough to trot a mouse on.” Trout endure more varieties of fate than villains in an action movie. And for all her delicacy of feeling, Fisher can confess to possessing nothing short of an outrageous appetite. She coins a phrase for her youthful ability to eat: “husky gutted.” She notes falling into a “digestive coma.” And she certainly recognized in those she met the capacities for outsized enjoyment. A Burgundian woman is “almost fanatical about food like a medieval woman possessed by the devil.” Another eats so much “she was like a squirrel, with hidden pouches.”
In her last years, brutalized by Parkinson’s and arthritis and unable to use her fingers to write, her voice reduced to a whisper, Fisher worked with a tape recorder and an assistant, continuing to return to her senses to write her inimitable prose. She told interviewers and claimed often in her prose that when she wrote of food, she wrote of love-and what she called the hunger for love. Her capacity for love was also a capacity to endure the inevitable suffering that attends the loss of those we love. But it is most important to recall that she is one of the writers on the side of happiness. Agnes Martin tells us “what we really want to do is serve happiness.” Those words might have been Fisher’s: she served happiness. Whenever I return to her work, I find again her refusal to forego what satisfaction could be found through food and love. Our store of happiness may always be in danger of being depleted. She remains one of the replenishing artists.