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You Think You Know Somebody: On Writing From the Life of MFK Fisher

Long before there was a Martha Stewart or a Padma Lakshmi there were women who knew food AND knew how to write about it. The ArrangementOne of the greats was MFK Fisher, an intelligent, iconoclastic, brave and brash cook and author, whose unusual personal life is the subject of Ashley Warlick's The Arrangement, one of our favorite of recent novels about famous historical figures. Here, Warlick, a magazine editor and bookseller, writes about how and why she wrote it.

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher published her first collection of essays in 1937. Serve It Forth was a culinary book like no other, full of historical feasts and the origins of world cuisines, as well as personal accounts of MFK's own tables and tastes, all told with a kind of brash, ballsy confidence. Insistence--on what was seasonal, and plentiful. On what was simple, because honest food has nothing to hide. On what was shared, in the right time and place with people who enjoy it, because "When shall we live if not now?" It's a fantastically modern stance. She was newly divorced and living with the man she considered the love of her life, a man who had been her husband's best friend, in the house where they had once lived all together on a hillside in Switzerland surrounded by the coming war. She was 29. The other lady writers of her time whose subject was the kitchen wrote recipes, and tips for keeping the baseboards clean.

In the spring of 2006, I read Joan Reardon's biography of MFK Fisher, Poet of the Appetites. I picked it up because I'm a dedicated home cook, a passionate eater who travels belly-first, and I thought I recognized the same in what I knew of Fisher from reading an essay or two. I was instantly caught by this part of her early history, where so much seemed in confluence: her marriage, her passions, her beginnings as a writer. She made impossible choices one after the other, and survived them. Her biography told me what happened, but not how and why and what she might have been thinking. There was story here that could really only be imagined.

So I read everything she published.

Isn't that how a writer gets to know another writer? Particularly a writer like MFK, who often wrote about herself, who was skilled in her persona, and who honed it carefully for more than 50 years in print. I read and write for a living. I know how to check the seams, to look for marks of manufacture. And, according to her biography, she carefully curated her desk and drafts throughout her life. If much had been lost to the fire, at least this version of her, her published work, was complete.

It was such a pleasure to read and read and read.

First and foremost, there's her voice. There's nobody who sounds like her anymore, that subtle blend of mock and authority, elegance and tease. She used adverbs in a way that's almost criminal, italics, exclamation points— all the punctuation that would get you thrown out of an MFA workshop, but god, you can hear her from her pages. (Someone once described her speaking voice as pettish. Such a word! Go listen on YouTube, and think pettish.)

The idea for a novel began to take shape as she did, with her voice, her attention to the sensual image, her audacity. I could see her version of an event laid across the facts of what happened like the layers of blueprint; there was as much to learn from what matched up as what didn't, as much to learn from what was left out.

Like so: near the beginning of Serve It Forth, she writes about tangerines and the deliberate pageantry of preparing them to eat, drying them on a radiator, chilling them on a snowy windowsill, while waiting as a young wife in Dijon for her husband to come home. (Separate each plump little pregnant crescent. If you find the Kiss, the secret section, save it for Al.) Later in the same book, she writes of taking Tim to the restaurant in Dijon where she and Al had first schooled themselves in the pleasures of the table. She wants to share a magnificent meal, to show off her skill and offer some glimpse of her history, but nothing, not even her favorite waiter, is as it once was. Still, they toast each other: she says, "I'm not afraid of time." The piece ends with her in tears.

Throughout her life, MFK wrote about capacity. The way a bite of something can taste good and also transport you back to when you were a child, to when you were in love, in France. The way you can live in two moments at once. I know now that her meal with Tim was one of the last gestures of a three-month spree in Europe, that Al was waiting at home, mired in his own losses, and that the three of them were on the cusp of entering an untenable arrangement, as impossible to make as to turn away from. I know now it was a betrayal to share this special piece of her marriage with her lover, but also in the sharing, perhaps an idea was born.

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