M.F.K. Fisher’s Hunger

“When I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it” – M.F.K. Fisher, The Gastronomical Me (1943)

The famous twentieth-century food writer Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, or M.F.K. Fisher as she signed her writings, really wrote about love and the hunger for it. In fact, she wrote about love and the hunger for it with such directness that it seems unnecessary for her to have had to explain as much to readers in the introduction to The Gastronomical Me (1943).

Many readers were probably already familiar with her earlier book Consider the Oyster (1941), an erotic meditation on that most sexualized seafood, dedicated to Dillwyn Parrish, the lover for whom she abandoned her first husband. M.F.K. Fisher’s writings about oysters make Hemingway’s seem prudish. His suggestive descriptions of oysters that resemble lady-parts cannot compete with M. F. K. Fisher’s bold tales of oyster-inspired sexual awakenings, missteps, and gratifications. In the opening chapter of Consider the Oyster, “Love and Death Among the Molluscs,” Fisher introduces her calciferous subject as a creature of astonishing “sexual energies.” It performs tremendous feats of masculinity in its juvenile days, releasing great clouds of spermatic milt, then transforms into an equally potent female form, and spawns hundreds of millions of eggs. The oyster’s sexual potency awakens erotic hungers in the most surprising places. Fisher recalls three elder “gentle sisters” from New England who are gripped by a “stubborn sensuality” when they recount the oyster stews of their New Hampshire childhood. The memory of the swollen morsels afloat in a buttery broth could revivify the most wizened flesh.

The oyster also has the power to first awaken young flesh, as Fisher recalls in her most evocative oyster tale, “The First Oyster, 1924,” which appeared in The Gastronomical Me, a memoir of sensual discovery and loss that she wrote after Parrish’s tragic early death. The chapter, set in a girls’ boarding school Fisher attended when she was sixteen, recalls her earliest steps into the complicated waters of adult sexual desire. (Oddly, despite its title, the chapter does not memorialize the first oyster Fisher ever ate. In Consider the Oyster, Fisher describes eating oyster stew regularly on Sunday nights “when I was little.”)

Fisher begins “The First Oyster” by noting the “intramural complexity of the faculty at Miss Huntingdon’s School for Girls.” Throughout the 19th century, and well into the 20th, a culture of romance flourished at American girls’ schools, with its own specialized lingo of crushes, smashes, mashes and raves. Teachers and students exchanged love notes and gifts, held hands, cuddled, kissed, shared beds, and even had sex. When the first sexologists like Havelock Ellis and Richard Von Krafft-Ebing began their work, they recorded many first-person accounts of girls’-school lesbianism. Eventually such research made lesbianism both public-knowledge and a public concern, forcing administrators to crack down. Mashes and smashes became things of the past. But at Miss Huntingdon’s school in the mid-1920s, mashing culture remained very much alive. When a new gym teacher came to the school “who had the most adorable little cracked voice, almost like a boy’s” that went “perfect with her hair so short and boyish too,” Fisher recalls, “three of the teachers were writing passionate notes to her” within two weeks. Fisher is forthright about the teachers’ lesbianism, even calling one of them “a skin-and-bone edition of Krafft-Ebing.”

“The First Oyster” recounts Fisher’s initiation into smashing culture at the Christmas Party held during her sophomore year at Miss Huntingdon’s. All the girls attend dressed in evening gowns, the seniors wearing the most recent flapper-fashions, with “firmly flattened young breasts” draped in semi-transparent materials and fox furs. When the waiters bring out a hundred raw oysters for the girls, Fisher is daunted. She has eaten cooked oysters before, but never a raw one. The upperclassmen seated on either side show her how it’s done with a combination of sophistication and bravado. Then it is Fisher’s turn. She lifts the oyster to her lips, sucks it into her mouth and can go no further, poised on the brink of devouring its flesh, but needing a final push. Then Olmstead, the senior seated beside her, pulls Kennedy from her seat for the first dance, and when “Olmstead put her thin hand on my shoulder blades, I swallowed once, and felt light and attractive and daring, to know what I had done.” Fisher is speechless with pleasure at dancing with Olmstead. But this first flush of excitement is immediately followed by Fisher’s discovery of the dangerous and even sinister aspects of sex. Fisher is next pounced upon by her other experienced seatmate, Inez, who promises “there are a couple of things boys can do I can’t, but I can dance with you a damn sight better than that bitch Olmstead.” Inez presses Fisher close and coos into her ear.  “She was getting a crush on me,” Fisher realizes. “Relax kid,” Inez instructs, “just pretend….” Rather than allow Inez to complete her sentence, Fisher depicts herself running from Inez’s arms into the kitchen, where she witnesses an upsetting scene of sexual debasement acted out between the school’s housekeeper and its cook. She ends the chapter by passionately rejecting the lesbian potential within her newly awakened sexuality: “If I could still taste my first oyster, if my tongue still felt fresh and excited, it was perhaps too bad. Although things are different now, I hoped, then, suddenly and violently, that I would never see one again.”

However, Fisher is not being entirely forthcoming: perhaps she ran away at first, but she soon returned. After the Christmas dance she developed a passionate crush on classmate Eda Lord. Lord lived most of her adult life as an out lesbian, the longterm lover of lesbian writer Sybille Bedford, and the evidence points to Fisher and Lord having been lovers as well during their school years. The title of “The First Oyster,” hints as much. The first oyster makes clear that there were later oysters that followed. After the disagreeable Inez, who made Fisher wish never to taste an oyster again, came the delicious Eda. It is worth keeping in mind, as Fisher instructs in the opening chapter of Consider the Oyster, that the oyster spends most of its life as a pulsing organ of female generation. And of course, the oyster is the treasure chest for the pearl – a synonym for clitoris since long before M.F.K. Fisher came of age. In “Love Was the Pearl,” a chapter from Consider the Oyster, Fisher acknowledges the association between the oyster and women’s genitalia, attributing it to the “oyster’s odor, its consistency, and probably its strangeness” (sounding very much like someone who has been there). Clearly, Fisher came to appreciate this association, considering that she devoted an entire book to the mollusc.

Yet Fisher also poked fun at the oyster’s reputation for possessing special aphrodisiac qualities. Consider the Oyster includes the sad tale of a milquetoast college boy who quaffs dozens of oysters to prepare for a date with a girl known as “La Belle Dame sans Culottes” (the pretty lady without panties), making himself sick before the date begins. When he beats a hasty retreat to his hotel room, he falls in to the winning and seductive arms of the porter.

Broad in her tastes, Fisher recognized that many different foods, not only oysters, could serve as stimuli for the erotic appetite. An early chapter in Fisher’s first book, Serve it Forth (1937), describes how during a cold winter spent living in Strasbourg, she seduced her first husband with tangerine slices toasted over the radiator. The story is strangely similar to Hemingway’s memory of eating tangerines in his chilly garret in Paris and throwing the peels into the fireplace, although Hemingway’s indulgence was entirely self-focused.

Hemingway and Fisher shared another commonality – both had their gustatory tastes formed by spending their early adulthoods in France. Fisher lived in Dijon from 1929-1931, while her first husband worked on his doctorate at the University. Only twenty-one when they arrived, Fisher’s “fresh ignorance” made her ideally receptive to the new pleasures of the table that she experienced. A short stop in Paris en route gave Fisher the opportunity to taste “the most delicious” hot chocolate and croissants she had ever eaten. But she lost her heart to the truffles, Burgundy wines, dark sauces, and game meats that characterized the rich cuisine of Dijon, self-appointed “gastronomic capital of the World.” These foods came as a revelation following Fisher’s bland childhood diet, dictated by her grandmother’s theories of nutrition.

After two years as a boarder in two Burgundian households where she learned about hand-collected escargots, truffled geese, kirsch soufflés, and tournedos rossini (a filet mignon topped with foie gras and truffles in a madeira sauce), Fisher and her husband finally took their own apartments where she could begin cooking. Her tiny kitchen, limited budget, and over-indulgence during the previous two years led Fisher to develop a much simplified style of cooking that became her hallmark as a recipe writer. Dinners of cauliflower casserole or hot borscht took the place of the seven-course feasts she had eaten as a boarder. Later, when Fisher moved to Switzerland with her lover Dillwyn Parrish, the two would serve buttered vegetables from their garden and glasses of thin white wine or simple ragouts to wealthy restaurateurs accustomed to far more luxurious fare. The simplicity of the meals reawakened their guests’ jaded tongues.

Fisher had arrived at the sensual insight that a perfect pleasure can come from feeding the most basic animal hungers. The gourmands who dressed every plate in complex sauces as testimony to their aesthetic sophistication missed the joy of eating fresh green garden peas, picked and shelled by friends, on a terrace in the dusk. The pleasures of a great patissier’s Diplomate au Kirsch (an ethereal alcoholic sponge pudding with candied fruits and a creamy glaze) were rivalled by the satiation that came from a piece of bread and a square of chocolate eaten while on a hike. A cup of tea on a picnic, a bowl of wood strawberries with champagne, a single ripe nectarine, each might prove as memorable as the canard au sang served at La Tour d’Argent. As Fisher concludes after the instructions for assembling  a dish of “Oysters à la Bazeine” involving truffles, chives, butter, champagne, parma ham, goose fat, béchamel, and velouté: “or fry oysters and serve with ale.”

À la Fisher, I remember one perfect mouthful: in the first flushes of love, a hot bath and an ice-cold glass of sweet plum wine with a raspberry floating inside. What taste could rival that?

Author: Rachel Hope Cleves

Professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America (2009). My new book about the notorious writer, Norman Douglas, will be out in October 2020. Now working on a project titled "Good Food, Bad Sex."

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