Fisher, M. F. K.

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FISHER, M. F. K. Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher (19081992) wrote twenty-three books and hundreds of articles in which cuisine was virtually always her metaphor of choice. Many of her works included recipes, and she is often characterized as a food writer; this description, however, underestimates her powers as a highly creative author and a keen observer. She wrote of human hungers in the deepest sense. Fisher recognized the rich psychological, social, and cultural meaning of cuisine, identifying food, security, and love as fundamental and intertwined needs. Memorable meals eaten, rich wines and liqueurs imbibed, and the company she kept are equally important in her often highly personalized writing.

Born in Albion, Michigan, but raised in Whittier, California, from the age of four, Mary Frances Kennedy was the eldest of four children. At the age of nine she began experimenting in the kitchen and preparing meals. She wrote that food preparation brought recognition from her family, as well as proof of her own ontological being. Her father, Rex Kennedy, owned and published the local newspaper. Whittier was a conservative Quaker town, and the Kennedys, Episcopalian. Their religion prevented their complete assimilation into the community; thus, Mary Frances grew up with a perspective akin to an ethnographer: never fully part of the local culture, but with a defined role to play in it. She developed a discerning eye and used it to interpret others' lives while remaining removed from them.

At age twenty-one, the author married Alfred Young Fisher, the first of her three husbands. He received a graduate fellowship to study in France, and Mary Frances accompanied him, choosing to study art at the University of Dijon. The next three years proved formative as she became fluent in French and was introduced to regional cuisines. Although she was not to consider herself a writer for some years, she was a passionate correspondent throughout her life. Her expertise as a wordsmith was already apparent in her letters home from France (Barr et al., 1997).

Fisher's permanent home was California, but she passed numerous extended periods in France. Her writing reflects these distinct parts of the world. She also owned a home and a vineyard in Switzerland with her second husband, Dillwyn Parrish. She frequently wrote of her trans-Atlantic journeys by ocean liner and train travels within Europe. These accounts included descriptions of dining rooms and dining cars, the cuisine, its preparation, and its service. The journeys became symbolic of transitions in her life, as in one of her most compelling works, The Gastronomical Me (1943).

Fisher wrote in a broad range of genres including fiction, nonfiction, journalism, screenplay, poetry, and children's literature. Although her writing includes two novels, she excelled at essays. While many of her writings were based on events in her own life, she fictionalized these first-person narratives, transcending the boundaries of autobiography.

Fisher had a bold character; she was strikingly independent and she spun a worldly mystique around her tales. After divorcing Donald Friede, her third husband, she raised two daughters as a single parent. Her worldly panache convinced many readers that she was wealthy. In reality, her commitment to writing meant that she often struggled to make ends meet, earning less from her books than her published essays, which included a two-year series for the New Yorker, compiled afterward in With Bold Knife and Fork.

Among Fisher's greatest contributions was the translation of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's The Physiology ofTaste. The early-nineteenth-century book of French manners is a masterpiece of droll commentary. Fisher's achievement lies not only in a masterful translation, but in her witty notations, equal to Brillat-Savarin's original, self-effacing, humorous style.

Fisher generously mentored young writers and had significant impact on Jeannette Ferrary and Anne Lamott. She was a close friend of both James Beard and Julia Child; the three visited, corresponded, and influenced one another. She advised and befriended restaurateurs including Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. Fisher favored fresh and local foods; she called them honest. Her approach had a significant impact on the evolution of California cuisine in the last quarter of the twentieth century. She passed her last years in the California wine country, and the region became the subject of some of her work.

W. H. Auden stated that had M. F. K. Fisher's subject been anything other than food, she would have been appreciated as the United States's finest twentieth-century author. Her books were widely translated and repeatedly republished. She made French cuisine and culture accessible, opening the doors of western European gastronomy to North Americans and other readers worldwide; her work reflects the sense of place she felt on two continents. Fisher received numerous literary prizes, including a lifetime achievement award from the James Beard Foundation. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1991.

See also Beard, James; Brillat-Savarin, Anthelme; Gastronomy; Metaphor, Food as; United States: California and the Far West.


Barr, Nora K., Marsha Moran, and Patrick Moran, eds. M. F. K. Fisher: A Life in Letters: Correspondence 19291991. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1997.

Brillat-Savarin, Jean Anthelme. The Physiology of Taste, or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy. Translated by M. F. K. Fisher. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1997.

Fisher, M. F. K. The Art of Eating. Contains Serve It Forth, Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, The Gastronomical Me, An Alphabet for Gourmets. New York: 1990 [1954].

Fisher, M. F. K. Two Towns in Provence. Contains Map of Another Town and A Considerable Town. New York: Vintage, 1983.

Fisher, M. F. K. With Bold Knife and Fork. New York: Putnam, 1969.

Susan L. F. Isaacs