Ladies of the Pen and the Cookpot: M. F. K. FISHER

MFK Fisher

M. F. K. Fisher inspired, and continues to inspire, countless American food writers.

But still, not one quite surpasses her. Yet.


Anyone who reveres food and eats oysters, who yearns for security and longs for love, and who seeks out experiences and thinks much must discover M. F. K. Fisher. Just who was M. F. K. Fisher and why did James Beard, that gentle giant of the food world, call her a national treasure? And why did John Updike refer to her as “the poet of the appetites”?


Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was an American food writer, but what a food writer! Believing that our three most basic needs—for food, security, and love—so entwine that we cannot straightly think of one without the others, M. F. K. Fisher wrote prose that melts in the brain like butter mints melt on a warm tongue. She paints scenery with words, not oil paints. Caught up in the startling and sensuous observations of this gifted observer of Life, the reader floats calmly along the stream of M. F. K.’s words, buoyed by the lyrical phrases, by the images of far away and exotic places, by nearly indescribable tastes and odors. Such richness!


Discovering the wealth of M. F. K. Fisher’s writing might begin with any of the dozen or so volumes she produced since 1937.* Ironically, for a writer who has never made any money on her books, most of her books are still in print. Perhaps the best of M. F. K.’s books is The Art of Eating, a compendium of five small and slender volumes. Any oyster-loving fisherman will not want to miss Fisher’s treatise on the oyster, appropriately entitled Consider the Oyster and included in The Art of Eating. Be sure to read the ending pages, where the shipwrecked little boys dive and dive for oysters…


How can you fail to respond to a fabulous storyteller who seems to invite you to pull up a stool and swap yarns with her? Did you hear the one about the young woman who, while eating something extraordinarily delicious lamented, “Ah…what a pity that I do not have little taste buds clear to the bottom of my stomach!”? And what about the mad waitress who kept bringing a stranded M. F. K. food cooked by a seemingly invisible French chef in a café miles from anywhere? When reading Fisher’s work, you keep wanting to pull up your stool closer and closer, to make sure that you don’t miss anything.


Not only does Fisher tell a good yarn; she offers up many interesting recipes gleaned from French fishermen, California wine-growers, Long Island Sound potato farmers, Italian housewives, and a grandmother nicknamed “The Nervous Stomach.” With Bold Knife and Fork is the closest thing to a true cookbook that she ever wrote, but many of her other books contain recipes, cooking suggestions, and food philosophy dished out here and there.


Just before her death in 1992, Fisher still cooked occasionally for a few close friends. Lunch might have been a beef ragout (or stew), perhaps, and a clafouti and maybe a small salad of baby lettuce. And, of course, a fine California wine, from vineyards near Jack London’s ill-fated Valley of the Moon ranch (and that is another story worth telling some day).


Oh, to be one of Fisher’s lucky friends, eating her food and drinking in her wine and stories! Lacking all that, the next best thing would be to cook her recipes and read her books, one propped up on the counter, spooning up beef stew à la provençal, green salad, and an apple clafouti.


As she would have said, “It is a great way to live!”


Cow face edited 2

Beef Stew à la Provençal

Serves 6-8


3 lbs. beef stew meat, cut into 1 ½ -inch chunks

2 onions, coarsely chopped

4 garlic cloves, peeled and mashed

2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch slices

1 stalk celery, finely chopped

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

3 T. olive oil

3 cups good quality red wine (Cabernet or Merlot work best)

Fresh thyme leaves (3 sprigs, tied together with kitchen string) or 1 t. dried thyme

3 bay leaves

2-inch piece of orange peel (be sure to omit white part underneath as it is bitter)


1. Marinate the meat in all the ingredients overnight. use a stainless steel or glass container. Refrigerate and cover.

2. The next day, simmer the stew covered over low heat for about four hours or until the meat is tender to the fork. Let stew cool, skim off fat, and reheat gently until warmed through.

3. Serve garnished with small whole cooked peeled potatoes, lots of thickly sliced French bread, and a green salad.


Green Salad with Vinaigrette Dressing


2 heads Boston or Bibb lettuce, washed and dried

2 T. fresh lemon juice or red wine vinegar

6 T. extra-virgin olive oil

salt and black pepper to taste

1 garlic clove, peeled and mashed

1-2 t. Dijon mustard


Mix dressing ingredients in a jar and shake well. Serve lettuce on individual plates and pass the vinaigrette.


Apple Clafouti

Serves 8


2 lbs. apples, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced

2 cups milk

4 eggs

½ cup sugar

4 T. butter, softened

pinch of salt

1 ½ cups flour

¼ t. pure vanilla extract

Vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, or powdered sugar for topping (optional)


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch X 13-inch pan.

2. In a large bowl, mix the remaining ingredients together and spread over the bottom of the pan. Layer the apple slices over the batter.

3. Bake approximately 30 minutes. Serve warm, topped if you wish with one of the suggested toppings.


*Fisher’s books include: The Art of Eating (containing How to Cook a Wolf, Consider the Oyster, Serve it Forth, The Gastronomical Me, An Alphabet for Gourmets); With Bold Knife and Fork; A Considerable Town; Map of Another Town; Sister Age; As They Were; Dubious Honors; A Cordiall Water; Here Let Us Feast: A Book Of Banquets; Among Friends; Long-Ago in France; Last House: Reflections, Dreams, and Observations 1943-1991; To Begin Again: Stories and Memories; Stay with Me, Oh Comfort Me: Journals and Stories, 1933-1941; A Stew or a Story: An Assortment of Short Works by M. F. K. Fisher (gathered and introduced by Joan Reardon); Conversations with M. F. K. Fisher; M. F. K. Fisher: A Life in Letters; From the Journals of M. F. K. Fisher; and The Measure of Her Powers: An M. F. K. Fisher Reader (edited by Dominique Gioia).


Books about M. F. K. Fisher: M. F. K. Fisher Among the Pots and Pans: Celebrating Her Kitchens and Poet of the Appetites: The Lives and Loves of M. F. K. Fisher (both by Joan Reardon), A Welcoming Life: The M. F. K. Fisher Scrapbook (compiled and annotated by Dominique Gioia), and Between Friends: M. F. K. Fisher and Me (By Jeanette Ferrary).


© 2008, 2010 C. Bertelsen

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6 comments

  1. Everything she wrote is worth reading — and “How to Cook a Wolf” should be required reading in these straitened economic times. “Sister Age,” however remains one of my all-time favorite books. It’s not a food book, but it’s one of the finest things ANY American writer has produced.

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