Birthday time

M.F.K. Fisher turns 100 on July 3

By
July 3, 2008

July 3 arrives just before a much better-known day, a day full of beer and barbecues. On July 4, there will be burgers, colorful tomato salads, and piles and piles of berries atop sweet shortcakes and pillows of whipped cream. Americana will rule and we will celebrate.

But take a moment to consider July 3. This year, it’s the 100th anniversary of the birth of M.F.K. Fisher, one of our country’s most iconic and celebrated food writers.

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was born on July 3, 1908, in Albion, Michigan. Later, her family traveled west to California, where they settled in the small town of Whittier. Her childhood was filled with ripe peach pie, hot fried-egg sandwiches cooked on the beach, and trips to Los Angeles for dinners in fancy restaurants.

When she was 20 years old, she met Alfred Young Fisher and married him the following summer. Within days, the newlyweds were on a boat bound for France, where Al was entering a doctorate program at the University of Dijon.

Birthday cake for M.F.K. Fisher?

These days it hardly seems exotic to move to France. But in 1929, such travels were rare. The excitement of the voyage was overwhelming, and upon arrival Mary Frances found her life profoundly changed by the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of this new and different country.

During the day, she took art classes and studied French. She wandered the streets of Dijon, buying brioche at patisseries and steaming cups of coffee at cafés. On the weekends, she and Al would go to the movies and munch on chocolate bars or splurge on large and decadent dinners at their favorite restaurant, the Three Pheasants.

Later, she would remark that it was in Dijon that she started to “grow up, to study, to eat and drink, to be me and not what I was expected to be.”

Mary Frances and Al returned to California in 1932. The Great Depression was in full swing and finding work was difficult. Never a passionate couple, their marriage began to deteriorate under pressure. In 1934, Mary Frances fell in love with Dillwyn Parrish, an artist who recognized her talent and encouraged her creativity. Her first book, a collection of short essays called Serve it Forth, was published in 1938, followed by Consider the Oyster, The Gastronomical Me, and the wartime How to Cook a Wolf (all later collected in The Art of Eating).

M.F.K. Fisher wrote vividly and sensuously, bringing each taste to life with exquisite detail. She had a genuine appreciation for even the simplest of meals made exceedingly well — fresh peas plucked from the garden and tossed onto a plate, the perfect glass of wine on a hot summer afternoon. Her impact on the food-and-wine world is undeniable. In her later years, she became known as a legend — but the title rankled her. M.F.K. Fisher became the patron saint of foodies without really trying; it was simply who she was.

So pause briefly this holiday weekend in honor of Fisher. Perch your plate on your knees, stare at the piles of juicy, home-cooked food, and take a bite. Notice how good it tastes, how the flavors meld, how the sun shines, how the laughter of children seems to explode just like the fireworks. Taste, really taste. For M.F.K. Fisher, this was what life was all about.

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