Long before Julia Child and Alice Waters, Anthony Bourdain, Ruth Reichl, or the countless other food writers of the last 50 years, M. F. K. Fisher blazed the path and published 30 essay collections, memoirs or translations of French epicureans.
Generally acknowledged as the progenitor of food writing, Fisher (born Mary Frances Kennedy) established the craft as literary art, beyond recipes and tips. And, although she was born in Michigan, raised in Whittier, Calif., and spent her later years in Sonoma County, her passion for food simmered on the sand at a summer cottage in Laguna Beach from 1919 through the Depression.
Fisher wrote in her memoir “Gastronomical Me” that her interest in food was seeded at the age of 4 when they moved to Whittier, where citrus and walnut trees dotted the landscape and the area was draped in fields of wheat. By the time she was 6, she knew the names of the wines her father poured from nearby San Gabriel and had learned to make jam. Said biographer Anne Zimmerman, that jam became “one of many tastes that created a girl – and then a woman – ruled by hungers large and small.”
Rex Kennedy was the editor and publisher of The Whittier News and the Episcopalian Kennedy’s were treated as outsiders in the Quaker community, so Fisher and her two sisters spent a lot of time with what she dubbed the “high priests and priestesses” of their kitchen – a housemaid, an Asian houseboy, a South African cook, and a homeless handyman named Charles who made butterscotch that she claims never to have been able to replicate. As a teenager, she took on the responsibility of preparing trays of tea and baked goods to serve visitors.
The family began to spend weekends in Laguna Beach where produce was purchased on the Canyon Road and Sundays were devoted to pot-luck dinners with friends or fish-fry’s sweetened with home-made scones and fried corn oysters.
During summer months, Fisher resided at the Laguna cottage near her “Aunt” Gwen Nettleship, the daughter of English medical missionaries, who harvested and steamed mussels over a coal fire or fried fresh-caught rock bass. Fisher wrote of her meals at the beach: “I decided at the age of nine that one of the best ways to grow up is to eat and talk quietly with good people.”
The simplicity of summer meals was a stark contrast to her grandmother’s lifeless plates as well as the grand meals the family enjoyed at restaurants in Los Angeles, all forming a context for Fisher’s discerning palette.
After brief obligatory studies at Occidental College and UCLA, Fisher married Al Fisher and took off with him to France where he pursued a Ph.D while she attended the University in Dijon and studied food and wine with the gourmet proprietor of their pension. Maya Angelou, in a profile written for People magazine in 1983, said, “Her palate learned to appreciate 10-year old pates and roasted birds, which had hung until they were so tender they fell from their hooks…”
On their return to the states in 1932, she settled into the Laguna Beach cabin and published a fictionalized portrait of life in Laguna Beach entitled “Pacific Village” in the magazine Touring Topics, which became Westways. Emboldened by the article’s success, she began to write in earnest, with an emphasis on light-hearted, deeply personal essays that always had at their core meal preparation and dining. Her first book “Serve it Forth” was published in 1937, the same year she divorced Fisher to marry painter Dillwyn Parrish, with whom she fell in love in Laguna Beach. They resided in Switzerland for three years, then in Hemet, Calif., until his death in 1941.
Fisher moved to Mexico for a time where she wrote a series of books that established her reputation and also wrote for The New Yorker and Look magazines, among others, and she had a short stint as a screenwriter in Hollywood. She married publisher Donald Friede and had two daughters before they divorced. She lived in St. Helena in Napa County and back in France before settling in Glen Ellen in Sonoma County in a house she designed and named “Last House” where she past away in 1992 at the age of 83.
Twenty years later, her writing remains the best of the breed, evidenced this year by the publication of collected essays on wine “Musings on Wine and Other Libations” and a new biography “Extravagant Hunger” by Anne Zimmerman. Said poet W. H. Auden in 1963: “I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose.”
Randy Kraft is a freelance writer who previously covered City Hall for the Indy and pens the OC BookBlog for www.ocinsite.com.
Photos from “M.F.K. Fisher Among the Pots and Pans” by Joan Reardon and Amanda Hess
A Taste of Laguna, circa 1919
According to biographer Anne Zimmerman, Aunt Gwen’s fried onion rings, probably made with bacon fat, were a particularly delicious food memory from M. F. K. Fisher’s childhood vacation days in Laguna Beach. Accompanied by a glass of cold milk, Fisher later described the dish as a complete and satisfying meal. Serves 4
4 large sweet onions
1 ½ cups milk
1 ½ cups water
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
Vegetable oil for deep-frying
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees.
Cut the onions into 1/4 inch-thick slices, and separate the slices into
rings. Combine the milk and water in a bowl, add the onion rings, and
soak for 1 hour. Remove the onion rings from the liquid and pat dry.
Mix the egg and buttermilk until blended. Add flour, salt and baking soda and stir until smooth.
Pour oil to a depth of about 3 inches into a deep, heavy pot and heat to
375 degrees. Working in small batches, dip the onion rings into the batter
and carefully slip them into the hot oil. Fry until golden brown, 2 to
3 minutes. Remove and drain on absorbent paper. Keep in the oven until
all the onions are fried. Serve piping hot.
Excerpted from “Pots and Pans” by Anne Zimmerman, Chapter 1.