Encyclopedia Womannica

Tastemakers: MFK Fisher

Episode Summary

M.F.K. Fisher (1908-1992) was a prolific food writer who authored many books.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

Follow Wonder Media Network:

Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

This month, we’re talking about Tastemakers -- women who changed the culinary game. For much of history, women have been relegated to domestic tasks. Yet female innovators in food and beverage are often undercelebrated. Let’s change that. 

Through her incredible personal essays on food, today’s Tastemaker created a new literary genre that pioneered the concept of food as cultural metaphor. W.H. Auden once called her “America’s greatest writer”- we’re  talking about M.F.K. Fisher. 

Mary Frances Kennedy was born on July 3rd, 1908 in Albion, Michigan to Rex Kennedy, a local newspaper owner, and his wife Edith. Mary later wrote that she was born during a heat wave. She wrote, “I leapt forth only a few minutes before midnight, in a supreme effort from my mother, whose husband had assured her that I would be named Independencia If I arrived on the Fourth.”

The year before Mary entered Kindergarten, her father bought a newspaper in Whittier, California. Whittier was a predominantly Quaker town outside of Los Angeles, making  the Kennedys, who were Episcopalian, outsiders. 

During her childhood, Mary spent most of her time either in the kitchen with the family cook or reading and writing poetry. She became quite an accomplished cook in her teen years and a very good writer.

Upon graduation from high school, Mary spent time at Illinois College, Whittier College, Occidental College, and finally UCLA. There she met a graduate student named Alfred Fisher. The two were married in 1929, and then moved to Dijon, France, where Alfred finished his doctoral work. 

While living in France, Mary studied art for three years, and was photographed by famed artist Man Ray.  

Once Mary and her husband could afford an apartment with a kitchen, she ran a sort of informal salon out of her kitchen for her many friends. Unlike most expats, who were generally enchanted by French cuisine, Mary wrote that she spent her time “trying to blast their safe, tidy little lives with a tureen of hot borscht and some garlic-toast and salad instead of the fruit cocktail, fish, meat, vegetable, salad, dessert and coffee they tuck daintily away seven times a week.” 

In 1932, the Fishers left France and moved back to California, where they lived with Mary’s family. Alfred found a job at Occidental College and Mary started writing more seriously. She had her first piece published in Westways magazine in 1935. 

Mary decided to combine her two passions, food and writing, so she  started writing short pieces on gastronomy. It wasn’t long before a publisher at Harper Brothers took an interest in her work. In 1937 Harper Brothers published Mary’s  first book of essays, Serve It Forth. Mary summed up her entire gastronomical ethos in Serve It Forth with the simple sentence: “Look, if you have to eat to live, you may as well enjoy it.” The book received significant critical acclaim, but wasn’t a popular success.

As Mary’s career was taking off, her first marriage was falling apart. Mary and Fisher moved to  Switzerland in 1936 to help create an artists colony with friends. A year later, they divorced. Soon after, Mary married artist Dillwyn Parrish with whom she’d been having an affair. 

Mary and Parrish moved to Bern in 1938. Just two days after they arrived, Parrish fell ill. He eventually had to have his leg amputated after developing gangrene. With World War II on the horizon and Parrish still in considerable pain and ill-health, the two decided to move back to the U.S. and eventually settled in Hemet, California. 

In 1941, Mary published her second book, Consider The Oyster, which was a combination of oyster recipes and humorous, informative essays about things like the history of the oyster, oyster reproduction, and oyster cuisine. She dedicated the book to Parrish, who committed suicide in August 1941.

In 1942, Mary published How to Cook A Wolf, which was focused on recipes and tips for cooking and eating during wartime and on wartime rations. It was her first major popular success.

 That same year Mary signed a contract with Paramount Pictures to write comedic material for stars like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. But in 1943, Mary found out she was pregnant and went into seclusion. During her time out of the public eye, she wrote the material for one of her most famous works, The Gastronomical Me. In it, she famously mused:

“People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do. They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft. The easiest answer is to say that, like most humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. 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 straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that 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.”

In 1944, Mary broke her contract with Paramount. Then while on a trip to New York, Mary met and married a publisher named Donald Friede, with whom she had a second daughter. 

Mary spent the next couple of years writing essays for major magazines like The New Yorker, Gourmet, Atlantic Monthly, Town and Country, and Vogue. She also published Here Let Us Feast in 1946, another of her greatest works. 

In 1948, Mary’s mother passed away and she moved back to California to take care of her father. Over the next several years Mary published a number of additional books. 

After a divorce from her third husband and her father’s death in 1953, Mary and her daughters moved to Provence for a number of years. They then ping-ponging between California and Europe for over a decade. Mary wrote prolifically throughout.

In 1971, Mary settled down in Glen Ellen, California, in a house built for her by a friend on his vineyard. She named it Last House, and lived there until 1992 when she died at age 83. MFK Fisher forever changed the world of gastronomic writing.

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Tastemaker. We’ll be talking about an Argentinian cook, baker and media personality. 

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. 

Talk to you tomorrow!