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M.F.K. Fisher

updated 01/24/1983 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/24/1983 01:00AM

She is beautiful, of a generous size, and life has used her, sometimes, beautifully, and in all ways generously. She has had a Great Love, immobilizing tragedy, good health until recently, fame, and enough time to learn and explain the art of cooking and the art of eating. She was also given a hearty good humor.

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher has been called the greatest food writer of our time. W.H. Auden, the revered English-born poet, said of her, "I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose." Her books and articles are studied by serious cooks and cherished by serious lovers of the English language. A near recluse now, she has always been an extremely private person, avoiding the glitter track, traveling at her own pace and choosing her own destination.

Today she is 74 years old and still as sensual as mocha cheesecake. Her voice is light but strong, rather like good lace, and her large gray-green eyes look directly out at life, still challenging and still amused. "It is very simple: I am here because I choose to be," she declares in her latest book (ITALIC "As They Were"]; Knopf, $13.95). It could easily be the motto of her life.

She was born in Albion, Mich. to Rex Kennedy, an adventurous journalist, and Edith Oliver Kennedy, who was tall, willowy and, according to Mary Frances, "a really beautiful Gibson Girl." When Mary Frances was 2½, Rex, half owner of the Albion Evening Recorder, sold out to his brother, Walter. Gathering his wife, his younger daughter, Anne, and Mary Frances, he traveled West to brave a life of beachcombing and other high adventure.

The Kennedys roamed along the West Coast from Washington to Oregon, then south through California. "We could have been called hippies," says Mary Frances, "had the word been created in 1912." There is a wistful pride in her voice as she speaks of her family. After a year and a half, her father bought a tottering newspaper in Whittier, Calif. (the Quaker hometown of ex-President Nixon) and settled down to the provincial life of a small-town newspaper publisher. Unlike their neighbors, however, the Kennedys were neither Quakers nor provincial. They were given, by popular consensus, one year to be run out of town, broke and broken. Forty-two years later, Rex Kennedy died not far from his newspaper office, still publisher of the Whittier News.

During Mary Frances' girlhood, her brother, David, and sister Norah, now her closest friend, increased the household, along with a maternal grandmother and a live-in cook. Grandmother Holbrook ruled the family's large Victorian kitchen and was, in Mary Frances' words, a "gastronomical dictator appointed by her own vision of Righteous Christian Living and a Nervous Stomach." The offerings of boiled dressings (served over wet shredded lettuce) and "slip and go easies" (custards and strained stewed tomatoes) seem hardly the foods to train the palate of a young gastronome-scholar.

At 18, Mary Frances had to get away, not from the large loving family but from the small town that enclosed her. Hating the idea of college, repelled by the thought of joining a sorority, she asked her father to help her find a newspaper job, somewhere far away. "Timbuktu, anything, and I wanted to travel," she says. "To see something besides Whittier." After he refused, she and a cousin did manage to arrange a semester at Illinois College in Jacksonville. "It was dreadful, just sad," she recalls, "but we were together."

Then back to Whittier and a summer semester at UCLA, where she met and fell madly in love with Al Fisher, the handsome son of a Presbyterian minister. "Well, I fell...something.... Anyhow, I was dying to get out of the trap and he brought me out." And she brought him out. He was a Princeton graduate who wanted to become a college professor, to speak better French and to understand another culture. When Al won a fellowship, the young American lovers escaped to France and the good life.

French became her second language, and she speaks it today without a flaw. The exquisitely prepared foods of France developed her taste for the "pure and the fresh and the kindly." After a few days in Paris, the Fishers moved to Dijon and set up housekeeping in a pension ruled over by another gastronomical tyrant. Madame Ollagnier, however, was the absolute opposite of Grandmother Holbrook. She knew good food, Mary Frances recalls, and had "avaricious genius that could have made boiled shoe leather taste like milk-fed lamb à la mode printanière." For three years Mary Frances studied at the University of Dijon, polished her French, and ate the most voluptuous foods available in the city Burgundians consider the gastronomic capital of the world.

Her palate learned to appreciate 10-year-old pates and roasted birds, which had hung until they were so tender they fell from their hooks and then were served on toast softened by a paste of rotted innards and brandy. She consumed, with appreciation, grilled steaks, snails green and spitting in their shells, oysters embedded in seaweed that were "so fresh," she recalls, "their delicate flanges drew back at your breath upon them."

After her husband earned his doctorate in Dijon, the Fishers returned to Laguna Beach, Calif. in 1932. That Mary Frances had become a woman of passion and courage is evident in the choices she soon had to make. While still married to Al, she fell in love with a close friend, the painter Dillwyn Parrish, cousin of the already famous Maxfield Parrish. He was also married. But she was disciplined: Still profoundly attached to her husband, she kept silent, holding her feelings in check for four years and remaining loyal to Al. And she was audacious. With Al's encouragement, she took a sea voyage with her new love (not yet her lover) and his mother. After spending a few months in France, the strange ménage à trois returned to the United States, and Mary Frances returned for the last time to Al Fisher and duty.

When her emotions would not be controlled any longer, she set sail again for Europe and Parrish. The next three years at their home in Switzerland were glorious. Mary Frances was in love and was loved in return. She was writing well—her first book, Serve It Forth, was published in 1937—and after divorcing Fisher, she married Dillwyn.

They played near Vevey, entertaining themselves by gardening, canning their own crops, cooking and serving sumptuous meals to visiting friends. When Mary Frances wasn't preparing fresh home-grown produce or complicated Burgundian dishes she had learned in Dijon, she spent her time writing, or talking to Dillwyn. "The only man I've ever really known," she says. "We talked more in our short time together than I have talked in all my life." Dillwyn painted his glowing oils in a studio connected to their house, and they drank the thin local wines.

It was well for them to live so intensely, for Dillwyn soon lost a leg to a nameless but ever-encroaching disease that led to his death in 1941. "For several months after he died I was in flight, not from myself particularly nor of my own volition," says Fisher. "I would be working in my little office and suddenly go as fast as I could out the door and up the road until I had no breath left."

Although drained and changed, a more mature Mary Frances knew she had to survive the loss. She visited Mexico, where brother David, with his new bride Sarah, had taken a house with Norah. Guadalajara, its music and musicians, and searching the markets for food filled the days. Drinking, eating and singing with her family filled the nights. Mary Frances was recovering.

A few months later, at the beginning of World War II, David committed suicide. Mary Frances, with a look so direct it could be called hard, says of the tragedy, "Well, he told me he would never wear a uniform."

Further grieved by the new loss, the young widow went back to work. Her second book, Consider the Oyster, was published in 1941. How to Cook a Wolf came the next year and The Gastronomical Me the year after that. Meanwhile she met and married publisher Donald Friede; had two daughters, Anne and Kennedy; wrote articles on food for the New Yorker and other slick magazines, and went to work in Hollywood writing screenplays for Paramount. She divorced Friede in 1951. "He was more trouble than the children," she says.

When they were only 8 and 10, Mary Frances took her girls to France to see the land their mother had loved in her youth. As if the ability to learn languages could be inherited, the children quickly acquired French. After they spent a year in a local school, their mother let them run free, unrestricted by lessons, exposed to the countryside and its culture. "As I watched my daughters turn sweeter and rosier in the pure air and heard them gossiping with the old shepherd, I knew I was right to let them have their freedom. My demon was worth listening to that time."

Her child-rearing ways may have been unorthodox, but the results have proved successful. Anne, 39, the mother of three, lives in Oregon and works in a social center caring for the unemployed. Kennedy, 36, mother of one son, is a respected stage manager under contract to a Berkeley, Calif. repertory theater. Mother and daughters remain comfortably close. Once Mary Frances plied her way between California and France with the regularity of a scheduled steamer, encouraging cooks and eaters toward wise and sensual experimentation, writing constantly and writing well. She now has 16 books to her credit and a much-admired translation of The Physiology of Taste by Brillat-Savarin. But she has surrendered France and the large cities of America to live in somnolent Sonoma County in Northern California.

Now housebound most of the time by various illnesses, she continues to fill her days with work. Memories are as thick in her combination living room-kitchen as the fine odors of her cooking which weigh on the air. The lush paintings of Dillwyn Parrish hang on the walls, along with numerous works of art by old friends. Hundreds of cookbooks are snug in their shelves, and fine old pots rest in cupboards. Fresh flowers abound.

Culinary awards and literary tributes are absent from view. The house, designed for her by the British-born socialite architect David Pleydell-Bouverie, is a remarkable portrait of its owner. Its exterior is calm, lovely and totally lacking in gee-gaws, and only the careful observer would suspect that inside the pacific structure black tile floors glisten like fat Greek olives, and flocked wallpaper, as red as young wine, covers an enticing sitting room-bath. Likewise, those who have not read her books, or watched her captivate a table of guests with delicious food and comfortable wit, might imagine that this quiet, still beautiful woman has lived a life of humdrum routine.

As the years have passed, bringing arthritis, a weakened heart and other maladies, Mary Frances has stopped driving her trim little car. Once weekly a young friend takes her into the town of Sonoma, where she still selects "the honest fruit, fresh vegetables and purest meat." She continues to write, to laugh, to cook and to entertain, although not as frequently or on such a grand scale. "I will not bow," she declares. "Absolutely not bow. I say, 'Brother Pain, come in and sit down, you and I are going to take this thing in hand. And I will not give in.' "

As a kind of proof, she has just finished a book entitled Sister Age. "I took liberties with Saint Francis, who wrote songs to his brother the Sun, his sister the Moon. My book is about old age. I think it is something you must welcome, and I welcome it as a sister. And I am grateful. Other people have done much more and much better, but I'm glad I've lived this life and I expect to be around for many others." Expectantly, she smiles at the promise.

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