The Books: Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, ‘Feasting on Life’, by Joan Acocella

On the essays shelf:

Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays by Joan Acocella.

I’m not that much of a foodie, and so I am not familiar with M.F.K. Fisher’s food writing, although everything I have heard makes me want to read more. Joan Acocella wrote this essay for The New Yorker on the occasion of the release of the collected letters of M.F.K. Fisher in 1998. Joan Acocella, in true fashion, makes me care about a writer with whom I am not familiar at all. And she seems able to crack open for me, a novice, what it is that makes Fisher’s writing so compelling, so important. (If there are any Fisher fans out there, I would so love to hear from you about your favorites, and why!)

When asked why she chose to be a food writer, Fisher answered:

It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot think straightly of one without the others. So it happens that when I write about hunger I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love it and the hunger for it … and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied … and it is all one.

Acocella takes us through the details of Fisher’s life. Fisher wrote books, but it wasn’t until the 70s, with the women’s movement and the food revolution that her work really got a wide audience. She became famous. She was, to quote Acocella: “a prophet of the food/sex sacramentalism of the period. Today, six years after her death, her cult still flourishes. Seventeen of her twenty-six books are still, or back, in print, including a few that needn’t be.”

Fisher was a cook from the beginning. She grew up in Whittier, California (at the same time as Richard Nixon), and her father was the editor of the local paper. He also wrote for it and sometimes he had his young teenage daughter sub for writers on vacation, so MFK Fisher was writing sports columns and society columns, and no one knew the difference. She got married young. She started writing for magazines. Her marriage was not happy. She eventually moved back to California after her mother died to take care of her father. There was nearly a 20-year gap in her writing career. Then it started up again in the 60s, and she started publishing food books and cooking books, one after the other after the other.

I was most interested in the analysis Acocella provides below, especially in the paragraph starting with the words “She remained unbroken”, and it is one of the many examples of why I treasure Acocella’s writing. I also think that only a woman would make such a connection, only a woman would look at the bald facts and come to the conclusion she did. I appreciate her depth.

Here is an excerpt.

Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays, ‘Feasting on Life’, by Joan Acocella

She was twenty-one. She was a writer already, she just didn’t know it.

Nor, beyond letter-writing, did she try it until about five years later, when she began to think of leaving Al. She knew she would need money, so she started writing magazine pieces. Soon she fell in love with a friend, Dillwyn Parrish, a painter from a family of painters. (Maxfield Parrish was a cousin of his.) She went off to live with him in Switzerland, and now she discovered something: sex. As comes out very gradually in the letters, this was not part of her relationship with Al. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he was “frightened and repelled by the actual physical act of love.” With Parrish it was different. He uncorked her. They gardened, they picnicked, they talked for hours on end. He painted, she wrote; she became a writer at last. This went on for a year. In 1938, Dillwyn developed an embolism in his leg, and the leg was amputated, but the pain didn’t go away. Soon his condition was diagnosed as Buerger’s disease, a fatal circulatory disorder. They moved back to the United States and got married, but they had no hope. “He can’t walk at all unless I hold him,” she wrote to a friend. “His pain is terrible to think of.” Finally, in 1941, after three years of anguish, he killed himself.

Fisher’s life went into a tailspin. A year after Dillwyn’s suicide, her brother David also committed suicide, the night before he was to go into the Army. The year after that, Fisher gave birth to an illegitimate child – her first daughter. (She told everyone the child was adopted. She never revealed who the father was.) Two years after that, on a trip to New York, she met a dashing book editor. Donald Friede, and though she seems never to have trusted him – he had already been through five wives – within two weeks she became the sixth. (She telegraphed a friend: “I ACCIDENTALLY GOT MARRIED SATURDAY TO DONALD FRIEDE.”) In 1946, she had his baby, her second daughter, Mary. But before long Friede’s publishing career was in ruins, and he was in the throes of a mental breakdown. In 1951, after six years of marriage, she divorced him.

She remained unbroken. From 1937 to 1949, through grief and hell, she published nine books. I guess we should pause for a minute over the fact that she became a writer once she had become a sexual being. But a minute is enough. Twenty-nine was not a late age for a woman of her generation to be publishing her first book, and, as I said, she needed money. The notable thing is not that sex opened her up but that the complications and disasters that followed did not close her down again. How to Cook a Wolf, that brave, happy book, was dictated to her sister Norah, at the typewriter, as Fisher, still in black grief over Dillwyn, paced up and down in the house where he had shot himself only months before. The Gastronomical Me, which followed a year later, was “conceived and written and typed in ten weeks”, as she did other work on the side and gestated a fatherless child.

Then came an experience, seemingly benign, that did almost break her. In 1949, her mother died. Her father now needed someone to run his house, and Fisher, his oldest child, decided she should do it. For four years, she remained in Whittier – a conservative town where she no longer felt comfortable – cooking, cleaning, running around after her daughters, and watching her father, who was dying of pulmonary fibrosis, hawk up phlegm and spit it into the fireplace. She had no one to talk to. She began having spells of depression and, if I read her correctly, severe anxiety attacks. She began seeing a psychiatrist.

During this whole period, she wrote next to nothing, apart from columns, including her father’s, for the Whittier News. (This was part of the deal. As long as she was there to help with the paper, he didn’t have to sell it, though he was far too old and sick to run it.) She stopped thinking of herself as a writer. Rather, as she wrote to Norah, she was “a genteel has-been now and then asked to speak ten minutes at an arty tea.” This state of mind continued long past her father’s death, in 1953. She who had published nine books in twelve years brought out not a single new book in the twelve years after she moved into her father’s house. Those who lament the dissolution of the American family – kids with no way to get to Girl Scouts, aging parents put into nursing homes – should remember what it was that kept the American family together: women’s blood.

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6 Responses to The Books: Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, ‘Feasting on Life’, by Joan Acocella

  1. Kent says:

    Sheila, as I’m sure you already know… you are in for a treat! Both in reading and cooking. Even if you don’t ever never ever cook, M.F.K. is a very involving writer who gets you hooked… offering rewards for much more than just the brain!

    • sheila says:

      I can’t wait – I have some of her columns in various New Yorker anthologies – where should I start, in terms of her books?

      • Kent says:

        She is a very fine writer who covered a lot of ground in many ways. I am partial to her autobiographical books which deeply evoke the food and customs of the worlds she traveled, especially France. “The Gastronomical Me” charts her break from American living and dining. It is a great place to begin, I think. After that, I lean heavily toward her books on Provence and the large format Time/Life picture/recipe book on Provincial French cooking.
        I have not read her journals but they have been highly recommended and are probably a good bet, if you are not terribly interested in the country cooking and the recipes of France.
        Somehow, her work makes great sense to me as a break from twentieth century American mass production while staring Hitler and fascist thinking in the eye. She is of the thirties, but not stuck there. A formative time for so many artists… Duke Ellington, Picasso, Vincente Minnelli and many others who developed deeply personal style and tastes that influenced the rest of the world for decades to come, as the elegance and simplicity of America and Western Europe began to slip away.
        M.F.K. Fisher is so specialized that she almost defies description, certainly defies comparison, and is best to dive into head first. Joan Acocella “gets” her, I think.

  2. gina in al says:

    I was laid off for about 6 months in the Eighties in Knoxville Tennessee and in that time read all the MFK Fisher I could find. It did not fire me with a desire to cook, but with the desire to survive to a better day. Then I got a job and haven’t read her since, but more books of her writing and about her life have come out since and one day we will meet again, hopefully on a vacation and not a lay off! I remember a large format Vintage omnibus of 3 of her books was the beginning and believe How to Cook a Wolf was in there. I just dove in helter skelter, without the Internet or a convenient library, there was nothing to go on but instinct. Happy Thanksgiving!

  3. sheila says:

    Gina – thanks for your perspective. I am really curious to check her out.

    Happy Thanksgiving to you too!

  4. Kerry says:

    “It did not fire me with a desire to cook, but with the desire to survive to a better day.”

    And there you have it.

    Keep swimming.

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