Serious Reads: An Extravagant Hunger, by Anne Zimmerman

Serious Reads

Reviews of food-themed memoirs, beach reads, and histories.

20120208-extravagantcover.jpgIt seems as though everyone in the literary world is hopping on the food bandwagon. Magazines, websites, publishers, newspapers—food writing is rising in esteem and quality. But in an era when everyone and their brother is logging hours detailing their most recent meals, some food writers are timeless. M.F.K. Fisher has influenced generations of readers with her melodic prose and delectable descriptions of food and eating. Her tumultuous and productive life is chronicled in An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher, by writer (and SE contributor!) Anne Zimmerman.

Fisher was born Mary Frances Kennedy in 1908, in a small town in rural Michigan. Her family—parents, grandmother, and three siblings—was tight-knit and affluent. They settled in the outskirts of Los Angeles, where they struggled to fit into the predominantly Quaker neighborhood. Fisher withdrew from her classmates and spent much time alone, writing and wandering. Her parents, both quite independent, encouraged her exploration—though they constantly chided her for poor marks in school. Fisher's poor academic performance would follow her to three different universities. But she never attributed much value to good grades; her joys came from parties, writing, and courting her first beau.

She married Al Fisher in 1928, and they sailed to Dijon to begin a life together. Mary Frances felt a deep connection to France that would continue throughout her life. The young couple explored the city, eating in restaurants and cafes, walking the streets and museums. It was there that Mary Frances first really tasted her food, and realized the power of food to heighten experiences and memories. As her husband focused increasingly on his poetry and less on her, Mary Frances explored cuisine independently and practiced her own craft of writing.

Fisher wrote an enormous number of letters, to friends and family in the U.S. and around the world. She also kept a diary off and on throughout her life. These sources allow Zimmerman to provide an incredibly detailed and insightful look at how Fisher lived, what she ate, and what she felt about the events in her life. After a few years of a failed marriage, she took up an affair with a friend of her husband's. The two fell deeply in love, and eventually were married.

This love was deeper and more satisfying than her first, but still ended in tragedy. Fisher had many lovers in her lifetime, all of whom were important to her in different ways. But she never quite settled into a traditional home. The birth of her daughter Anne in 1938, whose father was unknown, brought joy and yet more complexity to Fisher's life.

But through it all, Fisher penned the delectable novels and memoirs that hold weight to this day. Often birthed from the intensity of her emotional experiences, her books were a coping mechanism as much as an artistic venture. The success of the books was of little importance to her; more pressing was that she release herself onto the page and share her gustatory experiences with others. An Extravagant Hunger is compelling from the first page, an excellent biography that brings the reader even closer to a woman who shared—and withheld—so much in her many memoirs.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work has also been featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.