By Sarah Halzack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011; 12:20 PM
AN EXTRAVAGANT HUNGER
The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher
By Anne Zimmerman
Counterpoint. 261 pp. $26
M.F.K. Fisher's life was tumultuous. She never stayed in one place very long, had no shortage of marital strife and family tensions, and battled an oft-recurring sadness. But throughout, there was one constant: the deep pleasure she took from a delicious meal. The acclaimed author of books about food and dining saw eating not merely as a way to gain sustenance, but as a singular experience to relish and cherish.
In "An Extravagant Hunger," Anne Zimmerman mines Fisher's journals and letters to create a rich portrait of a troubled, talented woman with a hearty appetite. "No matter her location or level of emotional anguish, she always noticed the meal in front of her," Zimmerman writes. "From her first salad on the rumbling train into Paris, to the inky wines that swayed in her glass on [a ship called] the Cellina, the colors and flavors of great food and wine brought her incomparable pleasure."
Born Mary Francis Kennedy in 1908, Fisher had an unusual fixation on food even as a child. Her live-in grandmother was a dominant force in the family kitchen and held steadfast to the belief that bland, unseasoned foods were healthiest. Fisher loathed these dull meals so much that she looked forward to her grandmother's trips out of town and the chance to sneak some flavorful, adventurous fare into her diet.
Later, when Fisher excitedly moved overseas with her first husband, her letters home were dominated by descriptions of cuisine and wine she had savored. Still, despite her interest in the topic, it took her a long time to realize she could make a career of writing about food (and, perhaps more important, that she wanted to). Nevertheless, when she finally published her first book, "Serve it Forth" (1937), it was nothing short of groundbreaking. Zimmerman explains that, until then, women's contributions to gastronomical writing were largely limited to cookbooks and how-to guides. "Never before had a woman written so sensually about her intimate enjoyment of food," she points out. With later books, Zimmerman adds, "M.F.K. Fisher had created a genre all her own."
Fisher's rise to professional success is uplifting, but her personal life was quite the opposite. In fact, her life's overarching theme was loneliness. She was an outcast at school, lived isolated in France for much of her loveless first marriage, and endured a bleak and stifling period in her second marriage when her husband was stricken with a grave illness. Yet Fisher's hopeless struggle for happiness and her soap opera-worthy love life - as well as Zimmerman's careful attention to detail and suspenseful pacing - will keep readers turning these pages.