Mary Frances! I’ve heard so much about you!

MFK

I had been told wonderful things about MFK Fisher (1908-1992, full name Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher), but had never had a chance to read the work of the brightest shining light in American food writing. I had been looking for her books in the English-language bookstores I frequent, but they never seemed to have them in stock and since I wasn’t sure which one I wanted, I didn’t wish to have them ordered for me.

Just last week though, I stopped by Galignani on the rue de Rivoli, went straight to the section I had been pointed to on a previous visit, and with a jolt of excitement discovered a selection of five. There was just one copy of each so I pulled them all out from the shelf, lest another customer snidely took one before I had time to examine each of them properly.

After an intense session of picking up, leafing through, putting down and picking up again, the finalists were announced: The Gastronomical Me (food memories from 1912 to 1941, from California to Mexico by way of Dijon) and An Alphabet for Gourmets, which compiles 26 of her essays and instantly won me over with the first chapter I read standing in the store: “A is for dining Alone”.

Unable to decide between the two, I did what any sensible book lover would do and bought both, even though the price tags very clearly stated: “1 arm + 1 leg”. (The cost of imported books in Paris is one of my pet peeves, so I suggest we not go there.) Now I can’t wait to finish the book I’m currently reading and immerse myself into Mary Frances’ world — but one problem remains: which one will I start with?

Galignani
224 rue de Rivoli
75001 Paris
01 42 60 76 07

  • http://www.livejournal.com/users/yonmei Yonmei

    Oh, you lucky person, to have M.F.K.Fisher before you unread! I first read her years ago, and find that many of her anecdotes stay with me, remembered as if told to me by a friend – until I find myself sharing one with another friend who has also read Fisher and can finish the story for me.

    Enjoy.

  • http://www.mustardzone.com/blog Anna

    Hi Clotilde,
    I love your writing and your Blog.
    My first M.F.K. Fisher read was “Long Ago In France : The Years In Dijon” since I’m currently living in Dijon. I recommend that one but since you don’t have that yet, I’d start with “An Alphabet for Gourmets”. I can let you borrow “LAIF” if your’e ever in Dijon and want to meet for lunch!

  • http://www.writersbloc.biz writersbloc gal

    MFK Fisher is so wonderful. I found the complete works in a used bookstore once and felt so fortunate. Enjoy the reading – MFK Fisher is quite a treat and is bound to leave you hungry each time you put the book down.

  • http://chezpim.typepad.com Pim

    This is great Clotilde, you will love her.

    happy reading!
    Pim

  • http://hanging-fire.net Karin

    I think it’s in “The Gastronomical Me” that she writes about a hotel restaurant in Mexico, and the contrast between the awful, bland food served to the guests and the wonderfully restorative food that the staff ate. I love just about everything M.F.K. Fisher ever wrote, but that particular passage is probably my absolute favourite. Enjoy the books!

  • http://www.offthebone.net Diana

    Hi Clotilde -
    Gastronomical Me is an amazing, amazing book, with many lovely essays. I’m not quite as fond of the Alphabet Gourmet, although the general quality of Fisher’s writing is so high that it doesn’t make much of a difference. If you have a chance – and a library nearby, perhaps – you should also check out “How to Cook a Woolf” – a very interesting collection of essays on cooking in wartime Europe – utterly practical and humorous and sometimes quite poignant, but completely non-manipulative.
    Enjoy!
    Diana

  • http://jroller.com/page/zohar Zohar
  • Joan

    Zohar…you beat me to it! my post was going to be amazon-based as well..Clotilde you might enjoy “MFK Fisher a Life in Letters:Correspondence 1929-1991″ ..go into the new/used section you’ll find one for $1.60…OH ANDDDDDDDD “A Welcoming Life:the MFK Fisher Scrapbook”..full of photos from her life..again in the new/used section…no arms and legs to be lost here…:-) I’ve a treasured video of a documentary on her ~ now when I read her words I can HEAR her…so distinctive so so distinctive..

  • http://www.winosandfoodies.typepad.com/ Barbara

    Clotilde – how amazing you should write about Mary Frances today. Just this morning I have been cleaning out the drawers of my desk and came across the correspondence I shared with her in the last few years of her life. I had asked her how I should address her and she insisted I call her Mary Frances and her words were “I hate(underlined) M.F.K., although I seem increasingly to be stuck with it.” I had forgotten this and I myself always refer to her as MFK. Perhaps we should all make a pact to refer to her in the future as Mary Frances.

    For your interest and I quote from a letter I received from her secretary after her death “Mary Frances died peacefully at home, mid-afternoon on the 22nd June (1992), with her sisiter Norah, daughter Kennedy, and three good friends by her bedside.”

    Her ashes were scattered at the waterfall in Bouverie Audubon Preserve in Sonoma. The link below will take you to the webpage for days the Preserve is open to the public.
    http://www.egret.org/events.html

    I consider myself so fortunate to have enjoyed a written friendship with her.

    Enjoy your read.

  • Rosemary

    I just had to leave you a comment, Clotilde. You are just getting to know Mary Frances, and you have such a treat in store for you. I would read “The Gastronomical Me” first. I also loved “Long Ago in France”, one of her later books, but written about her very first experiences in France. Just dive in, you are going to have a wonderful time!

  • Shelli

    I’m so glad you’ve finally met MFK Fisher. I remember talking about her with you at the C&Z birthday party, and I think you and she will get along very well. Luckily, there’s quite a lot of her work to read.

  • Eve

    Clotilde,

    I part from the majority and suggest you read the alphabet before TGMe. TGMe is very interesting, but if it is your first MFKF, you may get a bit fed up with our Mary Frances.

    Is no one else troubled that she switches husbands halfway through with no explanation?
    Eve

  • http://www.cheapcooking.com/blog Ellen

    At some point, you might enjoy Poet of the Appetites : The Lives and Loves of M.F.K. Fisher by Joan Reardon. I’m now re-reading The Gastronomical Me with some background biographical information that adds to the enjoyment. “Poet” was one of the most enjoyable biographies I’ve read in a long time.

  • Frances

    My favorite edition of MFK Fisher, The Art of Eating, has 5 five books in one, for those who can’t get enough: http://www.amazon.fr/exec/obidos/ASIN/0764542613/qid=1108525183/sr=1-4/ref=sr_1_8_4/171-9019484-8097057
    Also, MFK Fisher wrote The Cooking of Provincial France (1968) with Julia Child as consultant for the Time-Life series, which is interesting on several levels beyond the recipes, some of which I still love. Barbara, thanks for the information about Bouverie Audubon Preserve in Sonoma; I shall visit this summer.

  • joan

    I agree with Ellen…”Poet of the Appetites” was a fine enjoyable reading experience..

  • http://oct16.diary-x.com heather

    hey,

    I saw the introduction of “chocolate & zucchini” on realone site. I’m from China, and curious about western food. =P It’s a really nice place.

    Happy Chinese New Year!

    Heather

  • http://weblogs.thingsasian.com/tablogs/page/cheiter Celeste

    Regarding M.F.K. Fisher, I’ve only read ‘Not Now But Now’. So all these wonderful comments about her other works make me want to head straight for the library and check out everything she ever wrote. Especially since I live just 30 minutes’ drive from Sonoma.

  • June

    Try finding books through Amazon or Ebay… much cheaper and some terrific deals at times. It’s saved me lots now living in the UK.

  • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

    About Amazon! Yes, I am aware that such a thing exists! :) What I didn’t know is how wide their selection of books in English is, I may give it a try next time.

    But to me, nothing beats the actual, real-life bookstore experience, with shelves and “new releases” tables and sales attendants. I like to see and touch and leaf through my books before I buy them, and it was especially helpful in this case, since I didn’t know which one I wanted.

    Of course, I could check out the books in the store and then go home and order from Amazon, but that wouldn’t be very fair to the bookstore…

  • http://mangolisa.blogspot.com Lisa

    Clotilde,
    I am in your spot – I live in a country where the prices for books in English is daylight robbery! since I used to live in Paris, I know exactly how much books cost in Paree – in Holland they are more (more VAT). In fact after the conversion of currencies, VAT, postage+handling – it is much cheaper (sometimes as much as 50 percent when the items are on discount) to buy from amazon.com or amazon.uk.
    There is another option for MFK Fischer and books out of print – it is to ebay – I got a lot of gems there ;-) and Ebay is worldwide too.
    Viva la internet!

  • Penny

    I recall a lovely story by Mary Frances about a walking journey in France. She stopped for a meal at a small restaurant with a commanding server. She expected a light repast and was served a supremely perfect meal of many courses. The server insisted she eat every bit. And she enjoyed every bit. The trout, if I recall correctly, was captured moments before cooking. Anyone remember the name of this story and what book it is in? It was a supreme, sublime foodie-adventure story.

  • http://www.mustardzone.com/blog Anna

    Use Amazon.com instead of Amazon.fr. You can “virtually” look at many of the books. You can zoom in on the front and back covers and read excerpts too. It’s pretty close to a real book store experience (though I also like the table of new releases).

  • jerusha

    i will add, clotilde, that i think you would LOVE an American, slightly more contemporary (though sadly, she has already passed away) food writer named Laurie Colwin. i think i have loved your blog because you two have a funny bone in common. if you have trouble finding her books, please let me know. sending you some would be a small repayment for this delightful blog i get to read every day!

  • http://sabbathmeals.typepad.com balabusta

    I just reread The Gastronomical Me. MFK definitely does explain how she switched husbands part way through! She left her first husband for her second husband and scandalized her family, and then her second husband died of a horrible disease. (And then there was her third husband!) I was always more interested in her story than in what she ate…except maybe for the story about the fresh peas from her garden in Switzerland. That was the first time I realized that butter had terroir.

    She was a beautiful woman. I bought the book A Welcoming Life: The M.F.K. Fisher Scrapbook by Dominique Gioia on remainder. Seeing the photographs helped me to place her in time and space.

  • Jennifer

    Salut Clotilde — Will be curious to hear your thoughts on your reading! Of the two books, “The Gastronomical Me” might be the best introduction to her work, but in every volume, it seems, there’s a luscious, memorable bit of writing. She writes so clearly; some of her most tantalizing descriptions are of simple flavors or experiences, which I think is a mark of exceptional talent. Like her depiction of clementine slices, chilled in snow…

    If you ever stumble across her story called “The Standing and the Waiting” (a reference to Milton), snap it up. It’s especially evocative and moving.

    Congratulations on your NPR story, and happy reading!

  • http://www.carablack.com Cara Black

    what a marvellous thing when you discover her! love the anecdotes and stories people are sharing.
    I’m re-reading Two Towns in Provence which contains Map of Another Town and A Considerable Town (a celebration of Aix and Marseilles) more of a memoir but of course, food.

  • http://www.microfamous.blogspot.com KellyLove

    As a writer, I have aspired most of my life to the greatness of MFK’s “how to boil an egg.” A better essay is difficult to find. Every time I get all tied up in my own work, I just remember the simplicity of that piece and it reins me right back in.

  • Corey

    Hi Clotilde, I am a newcomer to your site and just had to leave a note thanking you for putting up such a great resource for all of us to enjoy. There is so much here to read that I will surely be playing catch up for some time to come.

  • Caroline

    I’ve loved reading this string, and calling up all these gorgeous remembered stories: remember the truite au bleu? remember the fresh peas shaken with butter? remember the mexican waiters?

    All the remembering reminds me of a story in Lydia Davis’s book Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, in which a Chinese student confesses that his most memorable experience is his wife going to Beijing and eating duck there. He didn’t go, but she did, and she told him about it, and he remembers going there better than anything else… Looks like he isn’t the only one whose favorite food memory is vicarious…

    As for my own favorite: Clotilde, read “The Measure of My Powers” in The Gastronomical Me. It’s the truest telling I know about grief, and it also features a transcendant sandwich.

    With affection and admiration–

    –ck

  • Jennifer

    Oh yes! Remember the heated clementine or orange slices she put in the snow on her windowsill, giving them an icy shell… I can’t place where I read that, but I’ve always remembered it and dreamed of trying it!

  • http://fingerineverypie.typepad.com Julie

    I often wish there were more of Mary Frances to read — although I haven’t yet read the collection of letters that Joan mentions. After my first reading of “The Gastronomical Me” I also wanted to know more of her story, since although the switch of husbands is clear, the why and how of it is never really explained. A few summers ago I found a book called “From the Journals of MFK Fisher”. You really get a full sense of her inner life, ups and downs — the private person rather than the public.

    Penny, the story you mention is in The Gastronomical Me, titled “Define This Word”. It was also anthologized in “Travelers’ Tales: France”, where it’s called “I Was Really Very Hungry.”

    Thanks for this thread, Clotilde — I’ve pulled my copy of “The Art of Eating” (which includes 5 of Mary Frances’ books) off the shelf, and I can see it’s time for a re-visit…

  • http://www.winosandfoodies.typepad.com/ Barbara

    I’ve been dipping into The Art of Eating today and reread Define This Word – a delighttful story. My favourite though is the one Jennifer mentions about the tangerine segments. It is a short piece titled Borderland in Serve It Forth. Everytime I eat mandarins I think of how Mary Frances ate her tangerine segments. It doesn’t snow here so unfortunately I can’t try it .

  • Deana

    I’m also on the M.F.K. Fisher love train. My introduction was The Art of Eating. There’s a seriously good gingerbread recipe in there that makes my knees go weak. And her writing works for me too. Really gets me to a good place and a good mood. And inspired.

  • Jennifer

    Barbara, thank you for the lead on the orange segments! It has been years since I read that piece and I hadn’t been able to find it again. Now I’ll make a run for the “Borderland”…

  • linda

    MFK Fisher’s work is literature at its best. She writes of food but it is simply her metaphor for life. Like others, The Gastronomical Me is my personal favorite. Life, love, loneliness, family, sex, death…it’s all in there.

    No has mentioned Stay Me, Oh Comfort Me. It’s a collection of previously unpublished journal entries, letters, etc. that MFKF put together shortly before her death. It fills in a lot of the details of her personal life, especially her second husband’s death. It wouldn’t be a good place to start reading MFK but her long-time fans should definitely hurry to Amazon or their local bookstore.

  • Sifi

    Clotilde- I always enjoy your writing a lot. Thanks. MFKF is one of those writers where you want to hoard some of the books to read later in life. She starts to feel like a friend and you will miss her if you read them all too quickly. Having said this, may I advance a vote for Among Friends? It is about her childhood in Whittier. Two Towns is marvellous..quite memorable. Long Ago in France is a good way to step into her world. Don’t worry if autobiographical details are blurred. She weaves them throughout her work and you will see the whole soon enough. Thank you again.
    –Sifi

  • http://www.ingredientsleuth.blogspot.com Lyn

    Clotilde –

    If you are at all interested in Italy (especially Tuscany), you may enjoy Frances Mayes’ books about her part-time home in Cortona (she is a professor in San Francisco). Under the Tuscan Sun, her first book and the sequel Bella Tuscany, her second, always send my taste buds to watering. The use of local ingredients and food preparation were a huge part of her joy with her newfound Tuscan experience. If you saw the movie, same name as the first book, all I can say is “The books are hundreds of times better!” And she includes recipes!

  • http://www.winosandfoodies.typepad.com/ Barbara

    When I first read Under The Tuscan Sun I delayed reading the last few pages because I didn’t want the book to end. When I finally finished it I turned immediately to page one and started reading it all over again. I have decided to take it on holiday with me next week and reread it. Some years ago I went to a luncheon at which Frances Mayes spoke. Following the lunch everyone rushed to chat with Frances which left her gorgeous husband (The Silver Fox as he is referred to) at the table on his own. My friend and I enjoyed a wonderful converstaion with him about their life in Tuscany.

  • Felicia

    Bonjour, Clotilde!

    Sorry, I caught this thread two weeks after your initial posting–I was attending a conference in beautiful Vancouver, B.C., Canada at the time.

    Anyhow, a couple of years ago I attended a lecture here at the Texas A&M University library, where I work, in which the guest lecturer (I don’t remember his name) mentioned Mary Frances Fisher and, in particular, a title of hers that brought howls of laughter: “How to cook a wolf.” As he explained, she wrote this book not too long after the Second World War, so the memories of food scarcity and rationing were still fresh in people’s minds. The idea behind the title is more like “keeping the wolf from the door” rather than actually cooking wolves (which wouldn’t appeal to most Americans anyway). Our library has 14 of her books but, unfortunately, not that one.

    I enjoy your writing very much. As a librarian I’m also glad to know that even computer-savvy folks use books and libraries. Keep on blogging!

  • Kerrie

    Did anyone see that review of the Gastronomical Me in Gourmet magazine (that once great magazine) last year? It surprised me with its nasty tone (focusing almost exclusively on the “illegitmate” birth of Mary Frances first daughter to the near exclusion of anything else.) Considering that the Editor in Chief of the magazine was befriended by Mary Frances, I found the whole thing pointless andin the absolute worst taste. It confirmed my decision to let my subscription of 12 years lapse.

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  • Sylvia

    Jerusha, I remember reading Laurie Colwin years ago in Gourmet. I must find her books! And Kerrie, I agree Gourmet was a once great magazine. I’m going to let my subscription lapse this year. Clotilde, thank you so very much for your blog. It’s the only one I read regularly for pleasure.

  • Michelle

    Lucky you, Clotilde, to have so much M.F–er, Mary Frances, ahead of you! (Though I’m shocked you haven’t read her yet; you’re such a lovely writer, I thought surely she must have been an influence.) I’d go with “Gastronomical Me” first.

    As for the trout essay someone above mentioned, it’s “I was really very hungry.” I’ve wanted to sample a trout au bleu ever since…

    Thank you for your wonderful site (I, too, am letting my Gourmet subscription lapse; it’s so difficult to find good food writing these days–thank goodness for the few great voices such as yours!) and congratulations on all of your success–it’s much deserved.

    michelle

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