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An Extravagant Hunger

(article, Anne Zimmerman)

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h3. From the foreword: "Honeymoon"

Mary Frances Kennedy and Al Fisher boarded the RMS Berengaria in late September 1929, towing stacks of suitcases and wedding gifts: ribboned baskets of exotic fruits, gourmet chocolates, and flowers. The display, so ripe and fragrant, seemed especially extravagant amid the third-class steerage cabin and its hard sleeping berths.


h1. About the book and author

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher (1908-1992) invented a thoughtful, spare way of writing about food that is still revered today. An Extravagant Hunger is a new biography of Fisher that relies on her letters and journals to paint a portrait of a woman who lived extravagantly.

San Francisco-based writer Anne Zimmerman spent extensive time researching M.F.K. Fisher at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College; her graduate thesis at San Diego State University was a biographical study of Fisher. She has contributed to Culinate [/user/annebelle/articles "many times"]; this is her first book.

Copyright 2011 by Counterpoint Books. Reprinted with permission.


Their cargo raised the suspicions of the passengers and crew. After the steward determined that Mary Frances and Al weren’t famous — not writers or actors in disguise — he laughed, christening them “the honeymoon couple.” Indeed, they were merely students, moving to France so that Al, 27, could begin working toward an advanced degree in literature. 

Mary Frances, 21, had given little thought to what she would do so far from home. She certainly didn’t know that in France she would launch an entirely different journey and begin to pen the rich, finely tuned prose that would help define modern food writing — and, decades later, still make taste buds tingle. For now, she was just another newlywed.

What had begun as a casual summer romance morphed into a quick engagement. After marrying in an Episcopal church in the southern California town of San Gabriel, the couple’s first extended days and nights were spent traveling by train from Los Angeles to New York. Their new life was all adventure and excitement, especially their stop in Dodge City, Kansas, where a boy strolled the platform calling, “Telegram for Mrs. Alfred Young Fisher!” Upon arriving in Manhattan, Mary Frances’s final brush with familiarity was an afternoon of shopping and dinner with her aunt and cousin. Soon she was boarding the ship, standing with Al as the New York City skyline faded into oblivion.

As the Berengaria left the harbor, Mary Frances and Al knew only that France was a daring starting point. World War I had ended just a decade before, and the country had yet to recover economically or socially. What’s more, the couple had a limited income and no place to live, and neither spoke much French. They couldn’t anticipate how a life abroad would test their fledgling marriage.

[%image feature-image float=right width=400 caption='"An Extravagant Hunger" explores the life of M.F.K. Fisher.']She was pretty, tall and slim, with a round face, big eyes, and full lips. Her dark hair was frequently pulled back, perhaps because she wanted to appear older — and more sophisticated. Yet at a time when few women attended college, Mary Frances had been to three. She had almost always performed poorly: not because she wasn’t intelligent but because she had never really tried. During a year at Occidental College shortly before she married, Mary Frances had flaunted her affinity for dances and parties.

Despite her love for fun, however, she never drank the bathtub gin that was poured, lukewarm, from fraternity boys’ hip flasks. No, she wanted wine: “good chilled wines,” she would later write. She was allowed to drink them occasionally at home, and she required them from her dates, even though she’d been warned that no boys would take her out if she continued to be so demanding.

She didn’t care if the boys (or anyone at Occidental) liked her. She’d already set her sights on one man: a spindly poet with an angular face, timid smile, and light, wavy hair. Al Fisher’s gangly arms and legs made him resemble an adolescent animal, but his dark poetry signaled an intensity and intellectualism that she found intriguing. And Al was wild about Mary Frances, pursuing her heatedly until he was confident she was his.

Uninspired by her education and desperate to avoid her parents’ dutiful and restricted household, she took a calculated risk with Al. Did she love him? She thought she did. And she knew he would take her to France. Their shipboard accommodations, no matter how spare, heightened the drama. Mary Frances described third class as the “exciting, adventurous and smart thing to do . . . Part of the whole perfect scheme of things.”

Many of their shipmates were emigrants. In a letter to her father, Rex Kennedy, the editor and publisher of the Whittier, California, News, Mary Frances reported “lots of Jews and Germans, and a few French, Serbian, Polish, two Hindus, and about five Americans” in their area of the vessel. There were rabbis, fan dancers, and a buxom Swedish woman who propositioned Al at the beginning of the trip, slipping him a piece of paper inscribed with her cabin number.

On the massive Berengaria, four thousand passengers could mingle, misbehave, eat, and find entertainment in the hundreds of rooms. Mary Frances and Al were tempted by movies, gambling, and a library stuffed with seemingly countless tomes. But she spent a large portion of the journey writing home to her family. The letters — two to three per day — were composed on creamy stationery embossed, in a deep royal blue, with Cunard Line. And they begin to trace the personality that would mold and steer Mary Frances as she developed into the premier chronicler of how and why we eat.

Some days she wrote to every family member: Rex, her mother Edith, and three siblings, all younger — Anne, Norah, and David. The Kennedy family was close. They were wealthy Midwesterners transplanted to California, and then to Whittier’s conservative, largely Quaker enclave. Her letters to them were cheerful and descriptive. She told her family everything about the ship, how she and Al passed their time, whom they met, what they ate.

“The second day out was rough, really rough,” she wrote. “\[P\]eople who didn’t have sense enough to disappear hovered disconsolately near the rail. By wearing a hat over my ears and keeping my eyes on . . . \[my\] latest books, I retained my composure.” 

Her descriptions of the ship’s food, however, were vibrant and colorful: “The food is really very good,” she told her family. “\[N\]ot scrumptious, but simply gobs of it.” Following the lead of her parents, who had often described their dining out in great detail to their children, Mary Frances regaled her family with tales of a breakfast spread that included coffee, oranges, and a buffet of large muffins. There were kidney omelets and Yarmouth bloaters made from smoked and salted broiled herring. It’s clear she wanted her family to picture the boundless buffet, just as she had pictured every restaurant dish her parents had described to her as a young girl.

At lunch, there was always a buffet to marvel over or a long sit-down meal of six or more courses. Cocktails were served before a multicourse dinner, followed by a fountain of liquors that helped them digest everything in their slowly expanding stomachs. She declared to her father that she and Al ate and drank with a “perfectly revolting relish.”

They had come of age during the years of Prohibition. Although the consumption of alcohol was illegal in the United States, Mary Frances’s father kept bottles of wine and sherry at home. While on the ship, Mary Frances relished not only drinking but boasting about it in her letters. To Rex she wrote, “\[W\]e have drunk, gambled, and caroused . . . Instead of having only a cocktail, we’ve had that and liquor later and sometimes wine.”

Though the couple kept to themselves during the early part of the day, they often gathered with shipmates for meals and entertainment in the afternoons and evenings. Mary Frances described one of their dining mates as a “fat, funny little old Englishwoman, wife of a sailor” that she and Al liked immensely. They were less fond of a “suspiciously well bred and languid” English woman and her daughter, who were embarrassed about traveling in third class. They were alternately entertained by, and weary of, a trio of rowdy young men from New York, and a “queer tall, beaked Englishman” named Major Baker, who was “like something out of a novel and a most perfect storyteller.”

She recommended that the family gather to read her letters, explaining, “I simply can’t tell every thing to each one of you, and I’m bulging at the sides with this and that — everything is so awfully new.” She signed her letters “Dote,” affectionate family shorthand for “Daughter.”

Mary Frances had ached to escape California and her family, yet many of her letters offer meticulous information about how they could visit her in France. She told her mother, “\[I\]f I were you I would come Second \[class\] . . . for the trouble with Third would be the awfully steep and numerous flights of steps and the awful planks they quaintly call berths.” The notes to Anne concerned clothes and accessories. “\[B\]ring lots of sweaters and skirts and coats to go over dresses and stay-on hats and warm stockings and low heeled shoes,” for long days on the ship, Mary Frances instructed.

In all of the letters, Al is barely mentioned. He is a sidekick — next to her at dinner or the gambling table, or lounging dreamily beside her on deck. There are only occasional gushes of the love and romantic passion one might expect from a new bride. “We’ve had one argument,” she wrote home, “about his not kneeling in church.” The letter finishes with a confession that she and Al were “counting the days till next June,” when her family might visit. Already, it seems, the two longed for familiar personalities to stoke their conversation — and adoration.

Al’s letters were only slightly more forthcoming about the couple’s early days of marriage. In a letter to Rex and Edith, Al said that Mary Frances did little but “read, rest, and write a few letters — and eat.” He thought her “bounding appetite” was healthy, but remarked that “I’ve not been a husband long enough to know what is just right.”

He was loath to proclaim too much happiness with his new bride: “It doesn’t seem that two people are any happier than we are,” he wrote, tempering his enthusiasm by adding, “but I guess this has happened to many people in the world over a period of years, and that they have always felt just the same.” Did the realities of marriage differ from what he had expected?

The Berengaria had promised a romantic retreat, but despite their private room, the newly married couple’s intimate moments had not been as frequent or as satisfying as she had hoped. A friend of Al’s later claimed that Mary Frances had turned out to be “not what \[Al\] wanted in bed at all.” He had longed for Mary Frances. Once he had her as his bride, disinterest grew.

Still, Mary Frances wrote her mother that they were “bounding with vim and vigor” and that she “loved Al more every minute.” It was the first of many sweeping statements Mary Frances would pen to mask the hurts Al would heap on her over the coming years. Her optimism was a healing tactic, and she hoped it would convince her family (and herself) that she was as happy as any newlywed should be.

As their days at sea drew to a close, Mary Frances wrote one last time to her mother. “I’m sorry it’s the last day out,” she wrote. The couple’s arrival in Cherbourg, France, the next morning would bring new challenges and further travel: onward to Dijon, where Al would begin his studies. In Dijon, Mary Frances’s life would change in many of the ways she had hoped — and many she had not. During her years in the country, Mary Frances would flourish, drinking coveted wines and eating epic meals ranging from rustic to decadent.

Yet a careful study of numerous unpublished personal accounts and private papers, whose contents have helped shape this book, reveals that her writing about everyday culinary delights — whether in letters, journals, or in her various books — became a way to codify an occasionally lonely existence. By her 36th birthday, she would be divorced and widowed. She would experience the Great Depression and World War II from both sides of the ocean, and become an unwed mother who delighted in the mystery surrounding her daughter’s parentage.

She would also create a literary persona, writing under the name M.F.K. Fisher. Her essays and books — such as Serve It Forth, Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, and The Gastronomical Me — sprang from a voracious appetite that the Berengaria merely whetted.

Her writing would bind food, love, sex, the pleasure of eating well, and reveling in the senses. Yet behind the beautiful descriptions of memorable meals there would be hardship and catastrophe. This understanding of life’s inherent pleasures and agonies are the reason her work endured. And it all began in her childhood kitchen, amid boiling strawberry jam.

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