Food Studies and M.F.K. Fisher

Marika Christofides is Associate Acquisitions Editor for Anthropology and Food Studies at the University of Illinois Press. 

As a publishing professional, I don’t read outside of work nearly as much as I used to. But every time I do discover a new book or writer that I love, it can feel like discovering the power of literature all over again. That happened to me this past summer with M.F.K. Fisher. Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher is one of America’s preeminent food writers: the 27-or-so books she authored between 1937 and her passing in 1992 offer meditations on life, love, and hunger which are sometimes compared to and even said to surpass Ernest Hemingway’s writings during the first part of this time period. Not only that, but she is famous as the first writer to use food as a cultural metaphor in an era when food was seen as unworthy of thought or comment, essentially inventing modern food writing and its many sub-genres. Newly minted as the Press’s acquiring editor in food studies, I thought I should learn more about her. So I picked up The Art of Eating, a collection of her five most popular books – “Serve it Forth,” “Consider the Oyster,” “How to Cook a Wolf,” “The Gastronomical Me,” and “An Alphabet for Gourmets” – and took it on vacation with me.

I thought I wouldn’t like this book. I grew up in a food-obsessed household, where my mom kept an impressive collection of fancy cookbooks and Saveurs that I think may have dated from before I was born. I used to read them for fun, so I was no stranger to what I thought I recognized as a particularly stuffy kind of food writing: nostalgic for a European agricultural past, prescriptive about the purity of ingredients and the authenticity of recipes, insistent that *good* food “must” cost a lot of time and money.

Instead, The Art of Eating – and particularly “Serve it Forth” – reminded me of something that it’s easy to forget: food is more than just food. In Serve it Forth, Fisher interpolates essays that capture pivotal moments in her life through food, with essays that use culinary history to reflect on culture at large. A story about trying to impress a new romantic partner by taking him to a favorite Paris haunt after several years absence, only to find that the place has changed hands and her favorite waiter is an old drunk on the verge of being fired, is followed by a (hilarious) narrative of the fall of Rome through culinary excess. Her writing has a melancholy quality combined with a wry, matter-of-fact sense of humor that I really appreciated.

In one of my favorite chapters, “Borderland,” she describes a personal food ritual from her time in Strasbourg: “In the morning in the soft, sultry chamber, sit in the window peeling tangerines, three or four. Peel them gently; do not bruise them, as you watch soldiers pour past and past the corner and over the canal towards the watched Rhine. Separate each plump little pregnant crescent. If you find the Kiss, the secret section, save it for Al.” At the time that she was writing Serve it Forth, Fisher and her first husband Al had already separated. Fisher uses her share of “must”s, and she gives detailed instructions for how to enjoy a proper dinner party (as it turns out, you can’t invite more than six people). But “Serve if Forth” isn’t so much about The Good Life as it is about food as the stuff that our relationships—to ourselves and to each other—are made of.

About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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