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M.F.K. Fisher

June 06, 1991|RUTH REICHL | RUTH REICHL, TIMES FOOD EDITOR

". . . the most interesting philosopher of food now practicing in our country."

--Clifton Fadiman

"She writes about fleeting tastes and feasts vividly, excitingly, sensuously, exquisitely."

--James Beard

"M.F.K. Fisher is our greatest food writer because she puts food in the mouth, the mind and the imagination all at the same time."

-- Shana Alexander

"I do not consider myself a food writer."

--M.F.K. Fisher

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher lies in her bed, propped up on pillows, eating oysters.

At 84, it is one of the few sensual pleasures left to the woman whose impeccable prose introduced two generations of Americans to what she called the "Art of Eating." Her genius has been her absolute insistence that life's small moments are the important ones. "People ask me," she wrote, in the most-quoted passage from her 30 books, "why do you write about food, and eating and drinking?" The answer: "There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk."

Fisher's own body has, at this moment, betrayed her. Her voice has been reduced to an almost inaudible whisper, her hands cannot write much more than a signature, and her eyes no longer permit her to read. Movement is difficult. If any of this bothers her, she would not deign to show it; she is as imposing now as she was when I interviewed her for the first time 15 years ago.

"But how will you talk to her?" people have asked with alarm. These days her many visitors (Cyra McFadden was here yesterday; Alice Waters will be here the day after tomorrow) tend to come in packs and, in entertaining one another, entertain their hostess. What I found is that conversation is no problem: M.F.K. Fisher is still so intense that she virtually wills you to understand her whispers.

"Please don't whisper" is almost the first thing she says. Visitors unconsciously lower their own voices until they are no louder than hers. But Fisher will not suffer condescension. The sounds are soft on her Sonoma ranch: Occasionally a beeper gives out a peremptory honk, and there is the swish of cars moving on the road below, but the loudest noises are the quiet murmur of the television in the nurse's bedroom next door, the radio's gay, if slightly incongruous, tinkle in the living room and the thunk of the cats as they land on Fisher's bed. Into this silence her whispered command has the effect of a shout.

Things are awkward at first. She begins by putting down the oyster, sipping on a mysterious pink drink and talking--if these all-but-inaudible mouthings can be called talk--about the two new books she has just published. These are "The Boss Dog," stories about life in Aix-en-Provence in the '50s with her two young daughters that make you wish, with all your heart, that you could have been there with her, and "Long Ago in France," a compilation of stories from the '30s when Fisher was young, in love and living in Dijon.

She accepts congratulations for her election--just announced--to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She says--as she always does to people who ask--that she does not consider herself a writer. (Asked which of her own books is her favorite, she has always taken the most modest route and chosen "The Philosophy of Taste": "I didn't write that, you know. Brillat-Savarin did. I just translated it," she says for what must be the hundredth time.)

Fisher goes on to say that she is working on three new books, dictating every morning when her voice is strongest. "Writing is just like dope," she says. "I have to get my fix every day." She gestures off toward the corner of the room, where there are stacks of boxes, overflowing with papers. "There are thousands of pages. It's impossible to put into order," she says with a little sniff of disdain, as if this were something of which she were vaguely ashamed.

"I've always written naturally," she says now, as if that minimized her accomplishment. "It was just something I did." She insists that writing is so much a part of her that even her children Anne and Kennedy, to whom she refers as "nice girls," never thought of her as a writer.

Can this be true? I wonder, leaving Fisher's bedroom to allow her to rest for a while. I wander around the living room/kitchen--looking at the art. On the door is a 1953 poster of Aix-en-Provence and on the wall by the refrigerator some canvases done by Fisher's second husband, unframed. There are lots of books--art books, a life of Isabella d'Este, "Little Women," some Sylvia Plath, a copy of "Mrs. Bridge." There are a few cookbooks, too--signed from James and Julia and Craig. The only copies of her own books I can find are the ones in fancy bindings that publishers bestow upon their authors at Christmas. I find a copy of "The Gastronomical Me," and as I sit down to read it, the smaller of the two calicos jumps onto my lap.

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