San Francisco writer Anne Zimmerman's new book is not the first biography of Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, and we may safely assume it will not be the last. But one of the many joys of An Extravagant Hunger is how comfortable it seems in the still-expanding continuum of Fisher appreciation. The book has no panic about proving itself; as befits a proper gastronome, its first priorities are to savor and to share.
"It was her early work that established food writing as a genre and named M.F.K. Fisher as its queen," Zimmerman dutifully explains. "But it is the strength of her writing that keeps her from being dethroned." Very good, and with that established we can get to wondering whether the royalty was innate and, in any case, by what means it was cultivated. As it happens, before there could be The Gastronomical Me, among the many other books, there were the provincially humble beginnings to transcend, the culinary enlightenment of world travel, the awakening of ravenous appetites, and the suffering of several variously hapless marriages. The basic ingredients of Fisher's unprecedented literary career are obvious, but the exact recipe is something else.
Zimmerman proceeds from the reasonable and well-supported hypothesis that although a famously eloquent self-describer, Fisher, who died in 1992 in a Glen Ellen house with a sign out front warning that "trespassers will be violated," was not entirely self-revealing. "I had always believed that there was more to M.F. K. Fisher's life than the stories she told in her autobiographical books and essays," Zimmerman writes. "Her writings about food — so ripe and evocative — felt tempered by sadness. Indeed, she reminded me of a beautiful, slightly bruised piece of fruit."
After Fisher's sheltered Southern California childhood, presided over by her grandmother's "suspicion of food and pleasure," and the early college years in Illinois, with classmates who frowned upon the appreciation of avocados, it's no wonder that her first taste of French bread — in France, in 1929 — came as an epiphany: "With just one bite, Mary Frances knew she could never return to the bland loaves of home." By then she'd already become a keen and tireless observer of her own sustenance, and perhaps by logical extension also an unsatisfied wife. Much grief was in store for her, and much literary productiveness.
It would be reasonable to expect salaciousness here, with all the talk of passionate years (all 83, it would seem) and the "chronicling of human hungers." But tastefulness, in every sense, is what prevails. With patient scholarship, human understanding, and just enough critical distance, Zimmerman shows a fine sense of discretion about reading between her subject's eminently quotable lines. She takes Fisher to task for needing external validation, but respects her for earning the particular self-sufficiency that is required both for writing well and for dining alone. Ultimately, An Extravagant Hunger is a book about the complex process of nourishment.
Certainly Fisher knew the pleasures of the table, and her share of sorrows. Even after her death, we still lean in toward the sound of her voice. "Without her, our Puritan ancestry might have defined our tastes," Zimmerman writes. "But in our current obsessive food culture, ruled by celebrity and gluttony, M.F.K. Fisher is also a voice of restraint."
Zimmerman obviously has taken Fisher's example to heart. An Extravagant Hunger is all the more satisfying for being so accessible and unpretentious. Of obvious interest to foodies and writers in particular, it also will appeal to anyone with an interest in becoming a better taster of life.