M.F.K. Fisher is pretty much the perfect writer in my eyes. I mean, come on! She writes exquisite prose about food. I've owned Joan Reardon's biography of M.F.K. Fisher for a while, and in keeping with my current obsession with biographies, I pulled this from the bookshelf of doom (where I can never find the book that I want, however, I usually find something that I want to read). I devoured it in two days. The stories that rivet me the most are the ones that I have some connection with. Books set in the Bay Area where I grew up and continue to live immediately have an "in."
I had just finished cooking school when M.F.K. Fisher's star went supernova. As an industry insider, I had a few chuckles over several veiled references to people in the food business who, although not named, were rather obvious if you were part of that culture and I was. It was a heady time. The Bay Area was truly at the forefront of the food revolution that sent people back to farmer's markets for organic lettuce and the local butcher counters featured free range chickens and Nimian Ranch beef and Peet's owned coffee and restaurants were theater. When I wasn't working (when wasn't I working?), I was eating out. There was Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower and Mark Miller and a host of other people who were rewriting food in America, and M.F.K. Fisher was the intellectual doyenne of them all. I had friends who were a lot braver than me and made pilgrimages to Glen Ellen, California, to have lunch with her. I adored her as a writer before I became a chef, as my love of language is on par with my love for the table.
This book reminded me of another biography of a strong, independent woman whose relationships were the proverbial nightmare and who was often the lone woman in a field of men, and that is Martha Gellhorn's biography. Both women struggled mightily with doubts regarding their writing, but whose editors probably had permanent ulcers from trying to "edit" them. Both of them had strengths that were regarded by others (and themselves) as weaknesses. Gellhorn was acknowledged as one of the premier war journalists of the twentieth century, and yet she despaired because she could never write a really good novel. Fisher's prose has been acknowledged as having few peers, and yet those around her kept pushing her to stop writing those "food" books and write novels. In old age, both women held "court" with younger admirers (indeed, this is almost shockingly identical). Gellhorn had her "chaps" and Fisher had her "foodies." And both shared a certain--how shall I put this--oh, hell, I'm just going to say it: both women had a real, bone-deep selfishness that perhaps was the flame to the fire of their art. I don't know. I just know that both of their lives were punctuated with fractured relationships, and both of them had extremely problematic relationships with their children. They were both exceptionally nomadic with a similar schizophrenic need for isolation and community. When they were isolated, they wanted company. When they had company, they longed to be alone. They spent a great deal of their life escaping their life.
Anyway, Reardon does a very fine job of capturing the elusive Mary Frances. We follow her palate from the orchards of Whittier to the cobble-stoned streets of Dijon to the brutal beauty of the California desert to the mustard-dotted fields of the Napa Valley to her last place, a ranch in Sonoma. It's fascinating watching a woman so in tune with the simple beauty of food and her surroundings that she turns the minutia of a simple meal into a verbal feast. Equally fascinating, I shuddered as I read about her yanking her children from this country to the next, refusing to give them the grounded childhood that she had had. It's clear from her letters that she really didn't want children who had child-like needs. She wanted mini-adults to ooh and ahh with her as they traipsed over France. It's a little mind-boggling that she was shocked that both children were often behind grade, because she had no compunction about taking them out of school and shoving them into whatever school she could find for three months here, four months there.
If we have the less than stellar mother, we also have the writer whose turn of phrase leaves me breathless. Reardon does a marvelous job of charting the trajectory of the aimless girl, Mary Frances, who becomes the formidable writer, M.F.K. Fisher. Reardon doesn't excuse Mary Frances, but neither does she hold back from giving Mary Frances her due. The chapters written of her first two marriages are especially fine, creating a solid sense of her growing strength as a writer. Highly recommended read.