Poet of the Appetites: The Lives and Loves of M. F. K. Fisher

Poet of the Appetites: The Lives and Loves of M. F. K. Fisher

by Joan Reardon

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In more than thirty books, M.F.K. Fisher forever changed the way Americans understood not only the art of eating but the art of living. Whether considering the oyster or describing how to cook a wolf, she addressed the universal needs "for food and security and love." Readers were instantly drawn into her circle of husbands and lovers, artists and artisans; they felt they knew Fisher herself, whether they encountered her as a child with a fried-egg sandwich in her pocket, a young bride awakening to the glories of French food, or a seductress proffering the first peas of the season.

Oldest child, wife, mother, mistress, self-made career woman, trailblazing writer-Fisher served up each role with panache. But like many other master stylists, she was also a master mythologizer. To retell her story as it really happened, Joan Reardon has made the most of her access to Fisher, her family and friends, and her private papers. This multifaceted portrayal of the woman John Updike christened our "poet of the appetites" is no less memorable than the personae Fisher crafted for herself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780865476219
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 10/12/2005
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 528
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.21(d)

About the Author

Joan Reardon is the author of four previous books, including M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, and Alice Waters, which was nominated for a Julia Child Award. She lives in Lake Forest, Illinois.

Read an Excerpt

Poet of the Appetites

By Joan Reardon


Copyright © 2004 Joan Reardon
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-86547-562-8

Chapter One

Born on the Third of July (1908-1920)

Since the beginning of my talking years, my family has teasingly warned me and gullible listeners that I never spoil a story by sticking to the truth. This is a plain lie, because I do not lie. But I have never seen any reason to be dull, and since I was less than four I have enjoyed entertaining and occasionally startling anyone who may be listening. -M.F.K Fisher

At the age of sixty-one, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher could not resist the opportunity to enhance her entrance on the stage of the world into a drama of extraordinary derring-do:

I began in Albion, Michigan, and was born there on July 3, 1908, in a heat wave. I leapt forth only a few minutes before midnight, in a supreme effort from my mother, whose husband had assured her that I would be named Independencia if I arrived on the 4th ... Father was not only editor and co-owner of the Recorder, with his brother Walter, but was a stalwart member of the volunteer fire brigade, and through his cohorts was able to keep our wooden house sprayed occasionally with a few good jets of hose water, to cool the air for Mother and me. This cost him a manly spree of ice cream and beer, later, in the back roomof the firehouse.

Unable to resist the lure of apocrypha, Mary Frances also introduced readers to an elderly neighbor, who, when she visited the Kennedy newborn and saw her tiny hands open, said to Mary Frances's mother, "Poor child ... can't last a week ... no strength there," and expressed shock when she heard the baby's name: "Mary!!! My goodness, I'd have thought with your church upbringing you'd call her something from the Bible!" Edith was speechless and sank deeper into her pillows.

Whatever the other circumstances of Mary Frances's birth, it occurred not minutes before midnight, but early enough in the day for its announcement comfortably to make page 3 of that day's edition of the Albion Evening Recorder: "Born to Mr. and Mrs. R.B. Kennedy, 202 Irwin Avenue, July 3rd, 1908, a girl." The big news of the day was the imminent selection of William Jennings Bryan as the Democrats' presidential candidate, and petitions for concrete sidewalks in the city. But then, this was a local paper that ran attention-grabbing sports headlines like "Finally Gets Even-Alma Man Carried Grudge for Nineteen Years at Last Took Revenge."

Although she spent the first two and a half years of her life in Albion, Mary Frances was never tempted to return. The small Michigan town at the fork of the Kalamazoo River, however, was the setting of an important chapter in the lives of her parents, Rex Brenton Kennedy and Edith Oliver Holbrook, because it was their first home after a wedding that had had more obstacles than roses strewn in its path. They had met two years earlier, in 1902, when Rex had gone to work at a newspaper in Onawa, Iowa, and Evans Holbrook, a friend from the University of Chicago, introduced him to his sister Edith. It was spring, Edith was twenty-two, and they fell in love. Rex wooed her "in a nearby nut-grove, in several rendezvous arranged by her favorite brother," because he was not deemed worthy of the formal parlor of the town's only banker.

Edith's parents, Bernard David and Mary Frances Oliver Holbrook, persisted in seeing the twenty-six-year-old newspaperman as insufficiently educated and socially inferior, and a rich uncle offered to send Edith off to Dresden to study music with a chaperone from one of her boarding schools. Determined and proud, Rex stayed in Onawa until "her Daisy Millerish stay was up." When Edith returned eighteen months later, she went straight into Rex's arms. They were a handsome couple. Edith was over five feet eight and a dark-haired, stylish beauty; Rex was six-four with deep-set gray eyes, a slight wave in his brown hair, a prominent nose, and a deliberate slouch. Amid stiff upper lips and scarcely hidden frowns, they were married in September 1904. Then they left Onawa, journeying by rail across the fields of Iowa and stopping in Indianola, near Des Moines, for a day to visit Rex's parents, Clarence Klaude (CKK) and Luella Kennedy. "Delighted to greet my first and (to date) only real live sister," wrote Rex's younger brother Ted, who was still living with his parents.

Three days later Rex and Edith reached Albion, where Rex was to join his older brother, Walter, at the helm of the Albion Evening Recorder. The Kennedy brothers had grown up helping their parents in a succession of weekly papers and had also worked at various newspaper jobs during and after their college days, so when Walter's boss at the University of Chicago Press offered to sell him the fledgling Recorder, Walter and Rex had purchased it, intending to assume the roles of manager and editor respectively. Rex and Edith moved into a house at 205 West Erie Street, where Walter and his bride, Agnes "Tim" Chambers, were already living in the second-floor apartment.

Years earlier, Rex had followed Walter to Simpson College in Indianola, where he played football as Walter had done, and on to the University of Chicago team. Although Rex did not have the tremendous strength and bulldog grit of his older brother and stayed at the university for only one quarter in 1901, he did go on to coach football for a season in North Dakota before becoming a newspaperman in Onawa. And when the Kennedy brothers began their professional and married lives together in 1904, they continued to share football as well, taking on the job of coaching the Albion College football team. While their husbands worked and coached together, Edith and her sister-in-law Tim joined the "Ladies Review," dedicated to the reading and discussion of good literature. Their friendship developed slowly, however, because the two women were very unlike. Tim was petite and, like her husband, outgoing; she loved to dance and go to parties.

Second-to-last of nine children, four of whom died in infancy, Edith was the favorite of her reclusive father. Educated at a young ladies' seminary in western Iowa and other boarding schools near Pittsburgh, and "finished" abroad, she played the piano and dressed elegantly in the clothes she acquired while traveling in Germany and France. She wore her long brown hair swept up and away from her face in the fashion of the day and was proud of her pinched waist. She also had a habit of tilting her chin up that could easily be interpreted as hauteur but proved to be shyness. Edith was not at ease with strangers, preferring solitary pastimes. She and Tim, however, shared a love of books, and they found ways to become a part of the Albion community of serious ministers, college students, and small industrialists. They also looked forward to bringing young Kennedys into the world.

Disappointment, however, attended Edith's first pregnancy, when a son was stillborn in January 1907. Nine months later Edith became pregnant again, and she gave birth to a healthy baby girl, notwithstanding the supposed prognostications of elderly neighbors. The baby was named Mary Frances, after Edith's mother. Family photographs picture a smiling Edith cradling her daughter in her arms, and another photo shows the six-month-old Mary Frances peeking at the camera over Rex's shoulder. In another may-have-happened story, Rex proudly introduced his baby daughter to neighbors and friends in the town's first automobile, owned and driven by the town's richest bachelor.

Before Mary Frances's birth, Rex had purchased a rambling white clapboard two-storied house on the street of stately homes called Minister's Row. Located on the corner of Clinton and Irwin Streets, the house had a wraparound porch and spacious yard. Rex took charge of remodeling the interior, and during the most unsettling period of renovation, Edith took her ten-month-old daughter to Onawa to spend a few months with her parents.

Two months after their return, it was her parents' turn to visit. By this time their initial objections to Rex were substantially lessened. He was obviously doing well in the newspaper business, he had been able to purchase a decent house in a good location, and Edith was happy. Their precocious granddaughter was walking and winsome. The visit was the last time that Edith saw her father. He died the following year, leaving his indomitable wife a widow and casting a shadow over his daughter's third pregnancy.

When Edith Anne Kennedy ("Anne") was born on June 12, 1910, Mary Frances rushed to tell the two little Lane girls, who lived across the street, that she had a sister. During the next few days, the children spent hours sitting on the Kennedys' front steps waiting for a glimpse of the baby, who was very small, and, unlike her healthy older sister, plagued by digestive problems. Nursing was difficult, and finding the right formula took weeks. Edith watched helplessly as little Anne cried in discomfort and failed to gain weight, while Tim's daughter Nancy Jane, who was born the same year, flourished.

That winter was especially cold, and Edith began to question whether Albion was a good climate for the children. Rex had already started to think about a possible move to the West Coast. His younger brother Ted had a teaching position in Spokane and his mother and father, having also left Iowa, lived in Fairfield, twenty-five miles away. The prospect of owning either a fruit orchard or a citrus ranch appealed to Rex, and he had already shown an inclination not to remain in one place for very long. Although they had lived happily in Albion for seven years, in the early spring of 1911 Rex and Edith decided it was time to move on. In an amicable agreement, Rex sold Walter his share of the Recorder and, bolstered by about $10,000, made the sixty-hour train trip to Spokane.

It was Rex and Edith's first meeting with Ted's wife, Etta, and their eleven-month-old nephew. For that matter, it was only Edith's second meeting with any of her in-laws, and she did not feel at ease with the Kennedy clan. The senior Kennedys were Simpson College graduates, as were Ted and his wife, and their social contacts in Spokane were also Simpson alumni. Always a little disdainful of local colleges (her brothers had attended the University of Iowa, Northwestern, and Stanford), Edith considered herself both culturally and socially superior to her mother-in-law and sister-in-law. And she did not share the interest in journalism, football, and teaching that the Kennedys had in common. To make matters worse, Luella and CKK campaigned to make Rex's visit in Washington permanent. But their efforts to persuade him to invest in an apple orchard and settle nearby failed. He had already decided to bow to Edith's wishes to spend the summer months in a rented log cabin on Maury Island, across from Vashon Island in Puget Sound, where one of Edith's wealthy Holbrook uncles had a large and impressive home.

Mary Frances claimed that one of her earliest recollections of life on Maury Island was associated with the sandy shore: "I do have one clear memory of my life on Puget Sound, when I was down at the bottom of the beached rowboat pretending to save all our lives by dipping some of the bilge water out with a little tin cup ... my sister Anne lay on her blanket. My mother always insisted that I could not possibly recall this too-early memory, but she was mistaken there. It is still clear and full to me." After an idyllic summer on the beach, Flex and his family continued their travels in a new Model T. From Washington, they journeyed down the coast to southern California. In Ventura County Rex flirted with purchasing his long-dreamed-of orange ranch, and went so far as to take out an option on several acres, which he surrendered when he discovered that there was hardpan just below the surface. Discouraged, he returned to more familiar turf and purchased the Oxnard Courier in nearby Oxnard. That venture lasted only a few months, however; Rex and his family then moved farther south to San Diego, where he obtained a position at the local newspaper. Independent as he was, Rex found working for others difficult, and his allergy to water fleas, which were indigenous to the area, literally made him ill. Finally, he decided to follow up on a notice about the sale of the Whittier News, which led to his purchasing a controlling interest in the paper in the fall of 1912.

At the end of the nineteenth century, California, with its promise of wealth and health, had drawn settlers from all over the nation. An area twenty-five miles inland from Los Angeles had caught the eye of Aquila Pickering, a wealthy railroad entrepreneur from Chicago, who had traveled west to seek out a place for a Quaker settlement in California. With several other Friends from Pasadena and Los Angeles, he purchased the land for $69,890 in 1887. "From the first," Pickering wrote, "we were favorably impressed with this beautiful situation: the high ground sloping away from the Puente Hills from which we could see the whole valley reaching toward the south and west until our eyes rested upon the coast, some 18 miles away." A subdivision known as the Pickering Land and Water Company became the town of Whittier, honoring the Pennsylvania Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who was too old and infirm to visit the town that bore his name.

Although there were multi-acre plots available for ranches, the original town grid consisted of thirty-two blocks, with a sizable block in the center reserved for a park. When the lots established in this grid went on the market, many families from the East purchased land sight unseen. Most, but not all, were Quakers, as by charter "all fair-minded people" were invited to settle there. The early economy was based on cattle raising; gradually the grazing lands were transformed into citrus and walnut ranches. A thriving fruit cannery followed, and the expansion of the Southern Pacific Railroad, including a spur connecting Whittier and Los Angeles, transported products and people between the East Coast and Los Angeles. However, it was the discovery of oil in the Puente Hills that brought the greatest influx of new residents. During the boom years from 1894 until 1904, the outlines of derricks mounted on the eastern slopes of the hills marked the profile of the town. Lots were sold and resold, water was brought to the expanding city at great cost by a sequence of flumes, permanent and more spacious homes were built around Central Park and fanned out from the affluent core of the city to the outskirts, and fine municipal buildings and schools were erected, including Whittier College.

By the time Rex invested in the Whittier News, Whittier had been incorporated as a sixth-class city with a population of over five thousand, the majority of whom were Friends.


Excerpted from Poet of the Appetites by Joan Reardon Copyright © 2004 by Joan Reardon. Excerpted by permission.
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