M.F.K. Fisher and the Art of the Culinary Selfie

Some 77 years after its original release, M.F.K. Fisher’s iconic essay collection 'Consider the Oyster' is to be republished.

by Ruby Tandoh; illustrated by Nadia Akingbule
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Nov 5 2018, 9:01am

“Life is hard, we say. An oyster’s life is worse. She lives motionless, soundless, her own cold ugly shape her only dissipation.” If the oyster survives, the author darkly concludes, “it is for man to eat, because of man's own hunger.”

When food writer M.F.K. Fisher wrote these sombre reflections, her husband had lived with the anguish of Buerger’s disease for several years. He had suffered clots and gangrene in a leg which would eventually be amputated, and the debilitating pain he endured would seep, as suffering tends to do, radially outwards to touch each person he encountered. Pushed westward by the onset of war and fear for Dillwyn’s—or Tim, as he was commonly known—health, in 1938 the couple relocated from their Swiss home to Fisher’s native California, purchasing a small plot of land where he might be able to rest.

By the time those reflections on the oyster were published in 1941, Dillwyn Parrish was dead. Overwhelmed by his pain, he slipped out into the “90 acres of rocks and rattlesnakes”—this haven in the desert with warm, dry air, away from the ravages of war—and took his life. Fisher awoke to the sound of a single gunshot that morning. Just weeks later, Consider The Oyster was published: a series of funny, often unsettling, declarative essays on the oyster, and Fisher’s second book. This month, some 77 years after its original release, it will be republished with a foreword by food writer Felicity Cloake. In an age of Huel, home delivery meal kits, and Joe Wicks, what could the old-fashioned oyster possibly teach us?

If an oyster-themed essay collection seems limited in its scope, it is only because we haven’t yet shucked the beast. It’s both possible and pleasurable to dance across the surface of Fisher’s prose, rich as it is with witty anecdotes and clever asides. “If he likes raw oysters, he enjoys this ceremony very much. Many do not, and may they long rest happy, if envious,” she declares, going on to revel in “their strange, cold succulence.” She dips into the cool, oyster-rich waters of Chesapeake Bay before careering exuberantly (and with more than a pinch of poetic licence) into tales about some or other “cadaverous old man who had reigned… in the kitchens of all the crowned heads and banker-princes of fin-de-Hapsbourg Europe,” sharing with the reader his recipe for Oysters à la Bazeine. But among these quips there is something altogether darker that bristles and stirs in the deep waters.

As food writer Bee Wilson has noted, “[Fisher] reminds us that in the midst of peach pie, we are in death, which is all the more reason to enjoy the pie while we can.” This writing isn’t the glossy, perma-happy lifestyle journalism that dominates so much of the food media now and as it did in Fisher’s day. While we gorge ourselves on the wonderfully synaesthetic descriptions of food in her books (Updike famously called her a “poet of the appetites”), danger dwells in the next sentence, in parentheses, or nestled barely perceptibly between the lines. Even the luxury of an oyster in broth is a steely memento mori. “Its chilly, delicate grey body slips into a stewpan or under a broiler or alive down a red throat, and it is done.”

During a career that spanned over 60 years, Fisher created a cultural legacy that spreads far beyond oysters, or the concept of oysters, or the seas in which they dwell.

And yet Fisher’s unflinching confrontation of the suffering intrinsic to life doesn’t collapse into the morose. Where there is hunger, there is the shadow of death, yes, but also the promise of pleasure. On that oyster swallowed alive, she continues, “Its life has been thoughtless but no less full of danger, and now that it is over we are perhaps the better for it.” This uneasy blend of darkness and hope, brought together in a deftly mordant humour, characterised Fisher’s life as it did her writing. Struggling to reconcile her husband’s untimely passing with her own burgeoning success, Fisher once commented: “I very mistakenly felt, for a few minutes anyway, that he might have put off dying, if he’d known the publication date.”

Fisher’s context matters here: her tone and style were a significant departure from the politeness of generations of gastronomes before her—writers such as Isabella Beeton and Eliza Acton for whom food and propriety were inexorably bound, and who went nowhere near the sharp edge of the knife, stained as it was with flesh, guts and “red throat[s]”. Fisher’s is a kind of food writing in which the presence of food necessarily implies the presence of an eater, and where the story of that eater—their hunger, mouth, tongue, tastes, and body—is placed at the centre of the story.

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During a career that spanned over 60 years, Fisher created a cultural legacy that spreads far beyond oysters, or the concept of oysters, or the seas in which they dwell. Her fans include Yotam Ottolenghi, Ruth Reichl, and Bee Wilson. Her voice—both authoritative and nurturing—finds an echo in the writings of Nigella Lawson, Samin Nosrat and more. We also see her reflected in the diaristic food blogs that flood the internet, the unwavering popularity of personality-led food TV and the ascendance of the “foodoir,” or food memoir, into the ranks of popular non-fiction.

Where once the focus of food literature was the preparation of the food, the etiquette of eating, or high-falutin philosophical debates about the nature of good taste, it is now overwhelmingly focussed on the self. One of her most famous works, The Gastronomical Me, takes Fisher’s “me” as its subject, with “gastronomical” merely the qualifier. Her disciples, whether they know it or not, have this written into their culinary DNA. When we write about eating, we write about emotion, identity, family, home—questions of time and place and self. When we talk about food, we are talking about ourselves. And in some small way at least, for better or worse, we are talking about M.F.K. Fisher.

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was born in the small town of Albion, Michigan, in 1908 during a heatwave. While the July sun poured down and the ground began to parch, Rex Kennedy—co-owner of the Albion Evening Recorder, and a volunteer fireman in the town’s makeshift fire squad—persuaded his fire brigade buddies to hose down his house, soothing the sting of the blistering heat for his heavily pregnant wife, Edith, sat inside. On July 3rd, on the eve of Independence day, Mary Frances was born.

By the time she was two years old, Mary Frances’ family had moved to the West coast, the foundry where so many of the century’s great American culinary minds would be forged. A privileged, happy childhood followed, much of which was repurposed for her largely autobiographical 1943 classic The Gastronomical Me. The memories Fisher describes from this period are of a distinctly American idyll. She writes about ranches, cottonwoods, and “wartime crews of old men and loud-voiced boys picking the peaches.” Reminiscing about holidays at her great aunt Maggie’s, she remembers, “Old Mary the cook, [and] watching her make butter in a great churn between her mountainous knees. She slapped it into pats, and put them down into the stream where it ran hurriedly through the darkness of the butter-house. She put stone jars of cream there, too, and wire baskets of eggs and lettuces, and when she drew them up, like netted fish, she would shake the cold water onto us and laugh almost as much as we did.” More than a little nostalgic, Fisher paints a picture of an America of plenty, free-spiritedness, and rough-and-tumble goodness, where anything is possible if one is well-fed and well-loved, which to Mary Frances may just be the same thing anyway.

This peach pie vision of heaven couldn’t last forever. A reasonably happy adolescence gave way to a somewhat listless young adulthood during which Fisher drifted from college to college, only settling when she met her soon-to-be first husband, Al Fisher. The couple married shortly after Mary Frances’ 21st birthday and with that she became M.F.K. Fisher—the name under which she would author all work during her lifetime. The couple moved immediately to Dijon, France, where the vibrancy of French attitudes to ingredients, eating, and cooking roused an appetite in Fisher that she would relish for the rest of her life. Over a decade later, when writing Consider the Oyster, that Francophile wistfulness would still round the edges of her usual bluntness: “well-fed French people... plucked the shells with me from their willow baskets on the rue de la Gare, when the old man sliced open the rough long shells with his knife... and the little oyster-stalls stood bravely near the stations in all the province-towns of France.”

Her marriage was under strain, however, that no quantity of “Portugaises vertes and oysters from Garennes” could assuage. It has been noted that Al, in his spare time, was working on an epic poem based on the Bible. “By 1931,” Mary Frances’ Wikipedia records, “[Al] Fisher had finished the first 12 books of the poem, which he ultimately expected to contain 60 books.”

With this in mind, alongside her own testimony that the marriage had grown loveless, it’s perhaps not surprising that the Fishers’ romance didn’t stand the test of time. Al was distant, his wife grew isolated and depressed and by 1937 the couple had separated. Soon after, Mary Frances fell in love with Dillwyn Parrish. The sordidness of this particular story varies wildly depending on who you ask, from accounts in which Mary Frances slipped unbidden into Parrish’s bed, to Fisher’s own version of events in which she simply sat beside Parrish one day, and told him that she was in love. Either way, it was the beginning of a life-defining romance that lasted scarcely four years, ending abruptly that day in 1941, when Parrish stepped out with his gun into the cool morning air.

“M F.K. Fisher must die.”

Or rather, her legacy must die: by the time food writer Josh Ozersky wrote this sentence, Fisher had been dead for over 20 years. In a much-shared essay called “Consider the Food Writer,” Ozersky takes aim at what he calls the food media “oligarchy”—a stagnant, sluggish, self-plagiarising monolith that, feeding from Fisher’s original insights some 75 years prior, had been dutifully rewriting the same staid content ever since. Citing the M.F.K. Fisher Food Writing Award (a category of the prestigious James Beard awards), the work of Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) and Amanda Hesser (co-founder of Food52), and the hegemony of the sentimental first-person voice of women’s food writing, Ozersky rails against the monoculture that he believes had grown to dominate food writing in Fisher’s wake: a way of talking about food that was both entirely her doing and none of her fault. In Ozersky’s own words, “[she] can’t be blamed for the wreck she made of her chosen field.”

What most upsets Ozersky, it could be argued, isn’t the ubiquity of personal food essays, but the ubiquity of women’s personal food essays. He’s hardly coy about this. He describes the literary voice of M.F.K. Fisher as similar to “the endless chatter of some lady you sit next to on a bus,” which is generous to ladies on buses, to say the least. Later he bemoans “home cooks with artistic aspirations and a lot of time on their hands,” and goes on to describe some high-profile (and exclusively female) food writers as “mawkish,” “spunky-sensitive,” and “brassy.” There is a pervasive masculinity in Ozersky’s prose, and although it’s hard to pin down exactly what this macho energy stands for, it’s clear what it stands against: home, “ladyblogs,” softness, uncertainty and, above all, the disciples of M.F.K. Fisher.

Not all of his criticism is unfounded. One of Ozersky’s complaints is that Fisher came from a reasonably privileged world and that it’s from a very narrow, wealthy genepool that her successors have sprung in her image. He mentions Fisher’s contemporary, Elizabeth David, the daughter of a Conservative MP and Julia Child—“heiress to a paper fortune.” He does not mention Nigella Lawson (also the daughter of a Conversative MP) or lauded food writer Patience Gray who, until her retreat in her later years to a cottage in rural Italy, had enjoyed an upper-middle class upbringing in London, but we can assume that they occupy a similar place in this lineage.

It is fair to say that Fisher wasn’t the everywoman’s food writer. An entire book dedicated to oysters is not the most vital or accessible text of our time. She acknowledges, if only obliquely, the narrowness of the audience for whom she writes when she comments that “oysters are very unsatisfactory food for labouring men, but will do for the sedentary.” On the topic of mass-market cookbooks, she describes having to toss back a glass of dry vermouth just to be able to face them. “The trick worked its… magic, and I felt only an occasional wave of hysteria as I read [them].” A reactionary streak runs deep through Fisher’s writing and she was clearly unsettled by the introduction of cheap, factory-made foodstuffs to the American post-War marketplace. But in a world where processed foods had become more convenient than fresh, and where the workforce had migrated largely to the cities, Fisher’s food philosophy—born among California orange groves, on Dijon’s cobbled streets, and in the tranquillity of the Swiss Alps—may not have been nearly as universal in its appeal as she’d hoped, and sales of her books were never particularly impressive.

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Some of her more scathing remarks, however, still hit the spot some decades later. In 1980, she wrote: “we are told… not only how but what to eat, and when, and where. The pictures are colourful. The prose, often written by famous people, is deliberately persuasive, if often supercilious in a way that makes us out as… gastronomical oafs badly in need of guidance toward the satisfaction of appetites we are unaware of.” In our conflicted modern food culture, this rings particularly true. Things that Fisher would have regarded as uncomplicated pleasures—a still-warm baguette slicked with sweet butter, some orange juice—have been cast asunder by the many contradictory dictates of the health gurus, leaving an ever-diminishing pool of “foods that might not kill you” from which we might choose.

We have outsourced one of our most vital, human skills—the ability to listen to the cravings, hungers, and demands of our bodies; and to feed ourselves accordingly—to Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle website Goop, for one, and to a broader cast of wellness practitioners who neither know us nor care to. “With this constant attack on innate desires,” Fisher sighs, we are left “bewildered about whether we really crave some peanut butter on crackers as a post-amour snack, or want to sleep forever.”

By her own reckoning, M.F.K. Fisher wasn’t a food writer but a writer who took food as her subject. At yet she sits at the helm of a stylistic movement—autobiographical, sentimental, focussed on feeling as much as flavour—that has defined food writing for decades. In 1949, Fisher translated Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste and the now famous aphorism, "Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are." Although we are now more likely to hear the sentiment rephrased as “you are what you eat,” the message remains the same: the food we eat constructs, defines, and boundaries our identities as much as it does our bodies. As esteemed Rabbi Yéhouda Léon Askénazi once wrote: “Food is the continuation of the gesture of creation.” This creation strikes to the core of who we are.

Fisher’s oysters are never just oysters but also symbols of refinement, simplicity, viscerality, death, class, and despair, and upon swallowing an oyster, we might take a clammy, saline gulp of that rhetoric for ourselves. This bias toward the personal has had some remarkable upshots. This is a gastronomic landscape where one might tell a story about a fruitcake that nourishes not only mind and belly, but also a fundamental sense of self. It is a way of thinking about food in which a salad might make manifest, in bright, multifarious, delicious physicality, some vital part of our queerness. What this amounts to might be described as a culinary selfie: a snapshot which, through food, tells a story about self. As in the 16th century paintings of Milanese artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, from between pumpkins, gourds, leafy cabbages, and plump ears of corn, a strange face begins to emerge.

"Things that Fisher would have regarded as uncomplicated pleasures—a still-warm baguette slicked with sweet butter, some orange juice—have been cast asunder by the many contradictory dictates of the health gurus."

This way of talking about food isn’t unproblematic. If you are what you eat, and you are eating badly, what does that say about you? This is the mindset that led Jamie Oliver to decry what he perceived to be the problem of low-income families “eating chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive fucking TV.” It is why the sugar tax penalises individuals while leaving the broader reasons why people might consume excess sugar—urban food deserts, poverty, lack of affordable healthy options, structural barriers to food education—very firmly intact. “We sink too easily into stupid and overfed sensuality,” wrote Fisher, echoing Oliver’s disgust, “our bodies thickening even more quickly than our minds.”

The boundaries of food writing are hard to trace, but what is clear is that in spite of the soaring popularity of the food memoir and its ilk, little editorial time and space is being given to topics that sit in more overtly political territories. The Guardian's Feast magazine, and many other national food supplements, are rich with imagery, whimsy, and culinary flights of fancy, but largely apolitical. Famine, urban food deserts, food legislation, and the workplace rights of restaurant employees lie outside of the remit of much contemporary food writing, shoved sideways instead into environmental or political journalism and often taken off the plate entirely.

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This was perhaps the facet of the culinary selfie that most enraged Ozersky: our tendency to get lost in the ever-compelling “I,” at the expense of the bigger, often more urgent food stories that lay outside the confines of the suburban kitchen table. “Outside,” he reminds us, “there remains an immense, seething, varied, noisy, conflicted, confused, unclassifiable population of people who eat, and cook... but they can’t get published or paid. They are invisible and unviable, but their voices matter.”

Josh Ozersky died just a few months after writing that acerbic essay. Not afraid to fully and wholeheartedly articulate his disgust, he would likely have had more than a few words to say on the republishing of Consider the Oyster. But Ozersky was perhaps less dissimilar to Fisher than he might have thought. What really distinguishes “My Life in Hamburgers” from The Gastronomical Me? The points of reference may be different, the language coarser, and the style saturated with macho posturing, but the foundational belief remains the same: food is as important spiritually as it is physiologically. In his smart, unflinching, arrogant, but ultimately sentimental food writing, Ozersky inhabited a space carved out by M.F.K. Fisher, whether he liked it or not.

“The hamburger, at least,” he wrote, “never lets you down.”

“Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher lies in her bed, propped up on pillows, eating oysters,” wrote Ruth Reichl in a 1991 LA Times profile of her friend, just a year before Fisher’s death. The doyenne of food writing was in the late stages of Parkinson’s disease, her eyes failing and limbs weak, and asked for more than one break during their interview—time during which she might rest and recover from the exertions of storytelling. And yet Fisher ate oysters until the very end. “Eating is difficult for her,” Fisher’s nurse confided in Reichl, “but anything with oysters, she has no trouble at all.”

Fisher was both incredible and deeply flawed, and her legacy bears the imprints of this duality. But within these contradictions lies a way forward. “Pearls,” Fisher explains, “grow slowly, secretly, gleaming ‘worm-coffins’ built in what may be pain around the bodies that have crept inside the shells.” Just as the parasite, the wound and the body converge in the milky stillness of a pearl, food writing must allow itself to crystallise around points of tenderness. Moving away from the assertive “you are what you eat,” we can venture into a more uncertain, questioning space: Why do you eat what you eat? Who has the freedom to eat for pleasure, and who does not? Why does food matter at all? We start, but do not finish, with the Fisher-esque culinary selfie. The gastronomical “me” is no longer a monolith but an anchor point: a place in time, space, family, and culture from which we might turn our lens outwards to explore issues of hunger as well as comfort, suffering as well as joy.

There is still space for Fisher’s oysters in this fertile terrain. They are plentiful and plump, just one part of a culinary ecosystem that stretches from the restaurants of Manila, to a Texan prison mess hall, to the cockle sheds of Leigh-on-Sea. These are stories not just about food, or you, or I, or some abstract “mankind,” but about people. There’s a famous quote of Fisher’s which people tend not pay attention to beyond the first half, but which should be heeded, every word.

“First we eat,” she decreed, “then we do everything else.” This is the everything else. What we eat is just the beginning.