- The Washington Times - Friday, May 27, 2011

By Anne Zimmerman
Counterpoint, $26 352 pages, illustrated

Long before Julia Child mastered the art of French cooking and brought its glories home to America, another newlywed young woman left behind her California upbringing and ventured forth to Europe. Anne Zimmerman begins her account of M.F.K. Fisher’s passionate apprenticeship as Mary Frances Kennedy and Al Fisher were crossing the Atlantic on their honeymoon on the RMS Berengaria. The young couple were headed for Dijon, France, where he would study literature at the university and she would plunge into the heady world of French gastronomy:

“In Dijon, Mary Frances’s life would change in many 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. … By her thirty-sixth birthday, she would be divorced and widowed. … She would also create a literary persona, writing under the name M.F.K. Fisher. Her essays and books … sprang from a voracious appetite that the ‘Berengaria’ merely whetted. Her writing would bind food, love, sex, the pleasures of eating well and reveling in the senses.”

But France and French food were never to be the be-all and end-all of Fisher’s culinary existence, and Ms. Zimmerman does a lovely job of showing how the bounteous natural offerings of her Californian upbringing influenced her attitudes - and not just the creamy avocados she longed for in Europe or the juicy fruits on the trees of Whittier and Laguna Beach. Her biographer shows how food came to be of such supreme importance to the young girl through the various people around her as she grew up.

There were parents who served wine at home and even enjoyed it during that “noble experiment” Prohibition; a grandmother who thought that the more penitential food was the better it was for you; a mother who disdained everyday cooking and left it to sundry “kitchen wenches” (one of whom actually killed herself and her own mother with the sharp knives she had employed with such skill in the Kennedy kitchen) but delighted in whipping up magical, joyous confections when she felt like it.

“The solitary woman who, in Whittier, ‘seldom felt psychologically sturdy enough to … invite even two people to the house to eat’ planned lively dinner parties. As Mary Frances described it, her mother ‘sailed through messy noisy delicious meals. … Mary Frances could have become a picky eater under her grandmother’s influence. Instead, in rebellion, she began to value pleasure over repression; she would seek out abundance in food, and in life, again and again.”

Ms. Zimmerman has chosen to view Fisher’s life through the prism of her enjoyment of food and wine, her existence focused on continuous discoveries of new delights. Quite properly too, for this process was key to her development as a person and as a writer.

But as one reads about the progress of her passions - gastronomic, amatory, existential even - it is clear all this involved the consumption of a truly prodigious amount of alcohol, not just in the form of wine but of spirits as well. For the most part, this was well-cushioned by all the food, but there are frequent bouts of just plain drinking. And when one reads about a wine dinner without the food, it is hard not to hear the ringing of warning bells.

This biographer views all this primarily through a gastronomic and oenophilic eye, as she skillfully matches Fisher’s published texts against other sources, but it might have been fruitful to examine in greater depth the effect of all this alcohol in exacerbating the emotional swings that were such a part of Fisher’s relationships, and indeed of her life as a whole. Without being so reductive as to analyze all this Sturm und Drang through the prismatic lens of Alcoholics Anonymous, some attention to its valuable insights would have added depth to her portrait.

I discovered Fisher’s essays when still in my teens and have continued to read them ever since with great pleasure. One of their unique qualities was the way in which, no matter what the ostensible subject, they projected so clearly the woman who was writing them, her distinctive hallmarks stamped on every page.

On the only occasion I met her briefly, as she held court in the corner of a large literary gathering, she did not disappoint. Although around 80 years old, she was stunningly attractive. Despite the fact that age had taken its toll, her features were still striking.

But more than anything else, she radiated not just charm and elegance, but a natural confidence and ease of manner that made her a delight to eye and ear. Passion might have been largely spent by then, but she was not a wreck or a ruin; rather still a radiant woman. In “An Extravagant Hunger,” Ms. Zimmerman has captured the passionate apprenticeship and wandering years, with all their turmoil and pleasure interwoven with pain, that created such a marvelous writer and such an enduringly luminous woman.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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