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Secret Recipe

A biographer faces a unique challenge in the subject of MFK Fisher, who wrote and rewrote her own life as it went along.

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Before the Food Network, before salsa could be found in diners and Krispy Kremes north of the Mason-Dixon Line, before Ruth Reichl and Anthony Bourdain, Big Night and Babette's Feast, nouvelle cuisine and organic produce, the Silver Palate and the Moosewood, and long, long before America discovered it wasn't supposed to like Wonder Bread, writer M.F.K. Fisher published her first book praising the pleasures of the table. Before any of us lived in an America that took food seriously, Fisher wrote fierce, brilliant prose about the dignity and importance of human hungers. "She spit Puritan restraint out like a dull wine," declared Molly O'Neill in the New York Times in 1990. The subject of her 24 or 25 books (it's hard to pin down an exact number with so much anthologizing and reprinting) was Fisher herself; food was her door into the world of memory, emotion, and experience.

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, who died in 1992 at the age of 83, is regarded by her fans as a kind of sage, a wise and farseeing "poet of the appetites" (to use John Updike's description). Her prose took many forms: straight memoirs, a novel, travel books about Aix-en-Provence and Marseilles, an anthology of feast scenes from literature, an idiosyncratic wartime book of cooking advice and essays (How to Cook a Wolf), a book of essays and stories about aging, a collection of folk remedies, and the definitive translation of Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's The Physiology of Taste.

The heart of her oeuvre, though, is the five books (including Wolf) that were collected in 1954 in The Art of Eating, which takes its title from the often quoted Brillat-Savarin aphorism "Only wise men know the art of eating." That anthology in turn has as its center her masterpiece The Gastronomical Me, a series of first-person essays--about her childhood in California, her life in Dijon as a young newlywed, her travels by ship to Europe, life with her second husband. She described transformative moments stopping on a desert car ride to eat a warm peach pie with cool cream ("it was still cold, probably because we all knew the stream it had lain in") and cooking fresh-picked peas on a Swiss mountainside. She wrote about being served potatoes for the first time as the center of a meal, rather than pushed to the side in traditional American fashion. And her foreword contains 300 words of the 20th century's best prose justifying her interest in food writing. (She actually hated being called a "food writer," instead saying that she "wrote about eating.") Her most often quoted piece of writing, it includes this line:

"When I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it...and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied...and it is all one." Anne Lamott has described Fisher as "a kind of miniaturist," but despite her anchoring in the physical world, she was not always chasing the small moment. She was not cozy. Fisher wrote in grand, elliptical prose about life's biggest issues, with food and meals as the "glass-headed pins" on her personal map.

She is also a cult writer, despite her visibility. Readers either know every word she wrote or are not quite sure who she is. Much of her work appeared first in popular magazines like the New Yorker, House Beautiful, and Gourmet, but collections of those pieces have not stayed in print. She sailed through her publishing life with the highest of book-jacket praise--"I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose" (W.H. Auden); "She writes about food as others do about love, but rather better" (Clifton Fadiman)--but until recently, by virtue of their sheer unclassifiability, her books were still hard to find in stores. (One must start at minimum in the cookbook, travel, biography, and essay sections.)

In the last two decades of her life, as issues of gastronomy in this country changed, public appreciation for her grew. "Few people have stirred my culinary feelings deep down and provoked me the way M.F.K. Fisher has," says Alice Waters in Conversations With M.F.K. Fisher. Fisher's profile got higher with the publication in 1968 of The Cooking of Provincial France, the first book in Time-Life's "Foods of the World" series, and with her childhood memoir Among Friends in 1971. Starting in the 1970s and continuing until her death, numerous writers made pilgrimages to Fisher's house in Glen Ellen, California, and published stories about the experience.

The years since her death have seen the publication of Fisher's letters, the last of her journals, a photo scrapbook, and an anthology of her writing with an introduction by Reichl. There is now a category for "food memoirs" at some bookstores. (Reichl's best-selling books of these species, Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me With Apples, owe a direct debt to Fisher; the former is either an homage to or rip-off of The Gastronomical Me, and the latter's title borrows from the same Bible verse as the title of Fisher's second book of journal writings.) There are plans for a 50th-anniversary reissue of The Art of Eating and for a collection of her unpublished works. And does the presence of How to Cook a Wolf on Kim Basinger's nightstand in L.A. Confidential hint at the possibility of a movie about Fisher?

Paradoxically, the woman who led thousands of fans to rhapsodize about and catalog the particulars of her personal life managed, in a sea of seemingly confessional prose, to stay out of sight. Her writing style makes incidents that probably happened only once seem as if they took place on a regular basis, and yet the largest events in Fisher's life can be hazy--even, sometimes, in her journals: her second husband's suicide, her brother's suicide, the complications of her third marriage, her relationship with her sister, to whom she was quite close. She never divulged the identity of the father of her first daughter, Anna, conceived during her time as a Hollywood screenwriter. Fisher's greatest appeal was her oblique style, her talent for creating her own mythology. But once infected with the feverish and joyful burden of Fisher fandom, it's not long before one starts to feel what seems like a traitorous itch: the desire for facts and context, a longing to have the masterful gaps Fisher fashioned filled in.

Park Ridge native and Lake Forest resident Joan Reardon has been working on Fisher's biography for at least 13 years. Reardon, whose business card reads among other things "culinary historian" and who was a the judge at this year's James Beard Foundation cookbook competition, was a longtime English professor at Barat College specializing in contemporary women's literature. Also a certified patissiere, she came to food writing through what she described in an interview as an "evolving commitment to women's work."

In 1984 Parnassus Imprints published Reardon's book Oysters: A Culinary Celebration (rereleased in 2000 by Lyons Press). While working on it she lived part-time near Boston. She began using the Schlesinger Library Culinary Collection at Harvard, which includes the papers of both Fisher and Julia Child. She also joined several organizations: the New England Women's Culinary Guild, the Culinary Historians of Boston, the Boston chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food. Through those associations she met Child, and in 1983 she struck up a correspondence with Fisher, whose writing she'd first encountered when it was solicited for a literary journal at Barat and whose book Consider the Oyster she calls "the best book on oysters, ever."

When her own oyster book was finished, Reardon decided to write a book about the women she'd begun to know while researching it. Celebrating the Pleasures of the Table, published in 1994, traced the influences of France and California on Fisher, Child, and Alice Waters--as well as their influences on each other and on the food world. It was out of that book that the Fisher biography grew.

Originally to be titled "Poet of the Appetites" (Reardon says the new title "isn't there yet"), the biography is scheduled to come out in 2004. Reardon is also writing the introduction to the reissue of The Art of Eating and working on the upcoming anthology of unpublished Fisher works.

Earlier this month Reardon took time from revising the biography to present notes on it at an event hosted by the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff chapter of the American Association of University Women. There, in a slightly musty church basement, where an endearing attempt at a Fisheresque jug-of-wine, loaf-of-bread menu was served on Styrofoam plates to a modest audience, Reardon talked about Fisher's Chicago connections (among other things, her uncle and father played football under Amos Alonzo Stagg at the University of Chicago) and about the biography that has the potential to rattle the food world. There have been hints at the complexity of the Fisher mystique: Fisher's younger daughter Kennedy, who (according to a story in Diablo magazine) "remembers reading her mother's books and realizing her mother embellished a lot," has said, "My mother always made our life bigger than it was." Actress Gloria Stuart, a friend of Fisher's from the 30s, noted in her autobiography that Fisher "wrote about life as she remembered it--or as it suited her fancy. And fanciful she could be." Fisher herself admitted, "I do, and I did, have a way of saying things so that people think I'm--not exaggerating, not lying, but not telling the truth. But I am."

"On the one hand, [Fisher] tells all--kind of a confessional element," says Reardon. "On the other hand there are whole gaps, there is a lot of subterfuge. I can't tell you how exasperating it is just to get her chronologically in the right place at the right time." She's still making changes in her 38-page timeline, which has taken years to compile. At the AAUW event, Reardon showed a 1992 video about Fisher, Writer With a Bite. In it Fisher describes--and insists is true--an event in which her nephew overheard Nikita Khrushchev say while looking at the Grand Canyon: "It makes me think about sex." Later Reardon, who has interviewed Fisher's nephew about it, mentioned almost matter-of-factly that the story is "totally false."

Reardon was originally wary about writing the biography. When she first visited Fisher in 1987 to interview her for Pleasures of the Table, the writer asked her, "Oh my dear, why don't you just write about me?" Reardon's first reaction was "no way. I don't ever want to get involved in this. Simply because of the number of places she lived, the number of people in her life, the number of lovers and husbands she had, the number of books she [wrote]." But she continued to research Fisher for Pleasures of the Table.

On that first visit, she wasn't sure if she was going to be there for an afternoon or a few days; she stayed three weeks. A year later she visited Glen Ellen again for two weeks, going through papers and sometimes lurking in the background while Fisher entertained her many visitors. Though she grew to like Fisher--"a very intriguing, sensual woman, who always embroidered the story she was telling"--she also found time spent with her "totally exhausting." When interviewers asked which of the three women in Pleasures of the Table she liked the most, her answer was usually Child.

By the time the "overresearched" Pleasures of the Table came out, Reardon knew she was going to write a biography of one of the three women. She still hadn't decided which when she talked to Noel Riley, who wanted to write about Julia Child. Reardon told Riley to "go ahead and do it...the way you would write about Julia isn't the way I would write about Julia." (The result was Riley's Appetite for Life, published in 1997.) In her own book, Reardon was least happy with the part about Fisher. "Because I felt there was a whole other side to her. [The book] wasn't really looking at her literary contributions...so I had this feeling of shortchanging [her] real value."

Any remaining hesitancy Reardon had about writing the biography evaporated when Fisher died shortly before Pleasures of the Table was published. "A person needs distance from their subject," says Reardon. "People tend to tell you what they think you want to hear." She knew that Fisher had already agreed to work with three previous biographers, then dismissed them. Fisher was very encouraging to people initially, says Reardon, but then would start to feel like her privacy was being violated.

Reardon got to know Fisher's surviving sister, Norah Barr, and last agent (and literary executor) Robert Lescher "very well" and became "very close" to Fisher's daughter Kennedy and to many of "Mary Frances's closest friends." She traveled to all the places Fisher had lived in California (Whittier, Laguna Beach, Hemet) and France (Dijon, Aix-en-Provence, Marseilles). Fisher, who had previously instructed the Schlesinger to keep her papers sealed until 20 years after her death, had released them for Reardon's use before she died. When asked why Fisher--who never reread a thing she wrote and gave an impression of not caring what people thought of her--might've changed her mind, Reardon says, "Why did she encourage people to do videos about her? She was [helping] orchestrate an exhibit at the Napa Historical Society...giving all sorts of materials. She was interested in perpetuity. She kept carbons of every letter she wrote from about the 60s on."

If Reardon was sanguine about compiling the necessary information, separating the storytelling from the facts, she was surprised by how difficult it was to resist the allure of Fisher's prose. "What I did not anticipate was how difficult it was going to be to get outside of that." Reardon has had to fight against a proscribed pattern of refutations: this is how Fisher said it happened, this is what really happened, "which ends up being kind of a boring thing....You can't be caught in that trap. The challenge is to find a way to tell the story without in a sense pretending what she says isn't there." Reardon mentions as an example Fisher's Dijon landladies in The Gastronomical Me, the subjects of some of Fisher's most rounded and evocative prose: "The way she describes those landladies and such is so wonderful"--yet impossible to fact-check.

Spelling out Fisher's life so baldly may burst some bubbles for crazed foodies. "Whether it will alienate people, I have absolutely no idea," says Reardon. "As a writer, she has the right to do whatever she wants, take whatever rights she wants to with things. There is no way you can hold a writer to facts. When she calls something a memoir, it is still being filtered through the creative mind. I don't think you can fault her, but what you can do...is fault her fans, her readers, for that total, willing suspension of disbelief."

Which relates to another reason Reardon wanted to write the biography: she had been unhappy with virtually every article she had seen on her subject, "because they are all of the same Fisher," she says. The aforementioned pilgrimage articles--one of which grew into a short book by Jeannette Ferrary, Between Friends: M.F.K. Fisher and Me--fall into a pattern: the authors worry about what to bring for lunch, wait for pearls of wisdom to fall from Fisher's lips, are self-conscious about longing for such wonderfulness. They're frustrated by Fisher's ability to both seduce them and keep them at arm's length; they're disappointed that her stove is electric instead of gas. Most of these pieces reveal more about the writer than about Fisher. "This is...what M.F.K. Fisher wants you to think she's all about," says Reardon. "I just felt that there was a whole other story to be told."

In the course of her research Reardon says she has become "partial to [Fisher's] three husbands in ways that might surprise her or her readers," as they became more fully fleshed-out human beings. The first was Al Fisher, an English professor at Smith College; the second was writer and painter Dillwyn "Timmy" Parrish, a cousin of illustrator Maxfield Parrish; and the third was Donald Friede, founder of the short-lived but high-profile publishing house Covici-Friede--who Reardon says did not actually first meet Fisher's parents wearing handcuffs, as Fisher apparently told Kennedy. Reardon hints that she'll be writing about the extent to which Fisher pursued Parrish, the love of her life, while still married to Al Fisher, and the extent to which Gigi Parrish, Timmy's previous wife, was the love of his. She confirms that Fisher had a brief affair with her longtime friend, librarian and author Lawrence Clark Powell (which he hints at in a foreword to her letters). And she'll apparently be describing some of the odd diets that Henry Bieler--a Pasadena physician who wrote Food Is Your Best Medicine and to whom Fisher dedicated An Alphabet for Gourmets--had her on: "a mishmash...grated zucchini, raw egg," says Reardon.

Reardon also plans to argue that the isolation Fisher felt growing up Episcopalian among Quakers, as described in Among Friends, was due at least as much to the fact that Fisher's family "separated themselves from the community." She won't be speculating about who Anna's father is. She says it wouldn't be fair to Anna to do so, although she will say the information Gloria Stuart gives on this subject in her autobiography is not correct, as far as she knows.

Although the biographer's possible dramatic disclosures--deaths and affairs and unplanned pregnancies--are pretty standard fare for the genre, it's the potential small revelations that worry a Fisher fanatic. That those transformative moments were spent eating beans, not peas; that they weren't Pernods she and Timmy drank on the Normandie but pink gins; that the incident with Maritza and the grape skins in her navel never happened. But the truth of these things might matter less than readers think. A biography, while perhaps changing our view of her, cannot undercut her power, because the lessons from Fisher about living well--about feeding our hungers kindly in the face of the "dread fact" that we must do so--lie in the end in her gifts as a writer. She had the ability, as T.S. Eliot said about Philip Larkin, to make words do what she wanted.

Reardon seems to agree. "Where are you ever going to find something like the peach pie episode or the peas on the patio of Le Paquis? That's extraordinary writing." She acknowledges that Fisher created a "really weird following," in part due to the way she wore her heart on her sleeve. But she hopes that if the "biography does anything, I hope that it shows that you read M.F.K. Fisher for something other than her life, for something other than autobiography. I would be pleased if that's what the biography accomplishes, to [get readers to] focus on the work."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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