MFK Fisher on Writing and Old Women

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In a discussion with Bill Moyers, MFK Fisher provides insight into her thoughts on the changing role of women in society and in personal relationships. Fisher’s recollections of her upbringing and adult relationships are surprisingly candid and honest.

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TRANSCRIPT

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] When Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher began to write, her publisher said, “Women don’t write this way,” so she was told to use the initials MFK. That’s how she’s known to her legions of admiring readers.

The poet WH Auden said of MFK Fisher, “I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose.” Others have called her the greatest food writer of our time.

Mixing recipes and instruction with reflections on life’s values, she treats eating as a social occasion that satisfies a basic human need, while also providing an aesthetic experience.

Much of her work is the story of her life, of her childhood in Whittier, California, where her father published the local newspaper, to her years as a young bride in Dijon, France, where she learned new ways to appreciate food, to later sojourns in the French town of Aix en Provence with her two daughters.

MFK Fisher’s first book, Serve It Forth, was published in 1937. Her literary reputation grew during the ’40s, with Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf and The Gastronomical Me.

For more than half a century, she’s been writing about her life’s experiences, places visited, meals enjoyed and people encountered. More recently, she completed Sister Age, a collection of stories about growing old, stories she started to accumulate as a young woman.

She is 82 years old now, and had been stricken with arthritis and Parkinson’s disease. But she continues to write, and lives in a small stucco house overlooking the Valley of the Moon in California’s wine country. That’s where we talked.

[interviewing] Well, now that Sister Age has come to live with you, is she what you thought she was?

MFK FISHER: Well, she’s still a good friend, still a sister, I think. There are some things about aging, if that what’s you mean, that I don’t like, but I think I rather be old than young.

BILL MOYERS: Why?

MFK FISHER: Well, I can get away with more, I think. Say more what I want to say and less of what I think people would want me to say.

BILL MOYERS: You seem to have thought about aging very early. You wrote even before you were 30 that there are two things we must do. We must grow old and we must eat.

MFK FISHER: Yes. Well, I do believe that. I’ve always liked older people, I’ve always been interested in them. I think one of the main troubles about modern life is that the older people do not live with the younger people anymore. In the old days -in the “old days,” I say now -but when I was a child, it was considered-you had a big house, bigger than teeny, because if the grandparents came, they took upstairs, and then the middle and the older children and the young people lived downstairs. Or vice versa now, but now with the houses, if Grandmother could come, she goes to an old people’s home, but by choice, she thinks or somebody chooses for her. And her room is made into a game room or a TV room or something. [unintelligible], maybe. But I don’t think that three generations living together is a common rule now.

BILL MOYERS: No.

MFK FISHER: No.

BILL MOYERS: I know that your grandmother had a large impact on you, even though you didn’t quite share her biblical-

MFK FISHER: Well, she was a very Christian woman.

BILL MOYERS: Yes.

MFK FISHER: For instance, you’d love food, I’d see, you loved God And we-I learned-well, I learned to read from the King James version of the Bible-

BILL MOYERS: Yeah.

MFK FISHER: -which just did me great good. I always remembered the Old Testament and the New, and I was always very glad for that. But she just thought that’s where you had to learn to read, just from the Bible. She was a rabid Protestant, Irish Protestant, yes, they’re really all rabid, I think. All hatred and prejudices.

BILL MOYERS: And yet it was still a good thing to live in the same house with her?

MFK FISHER: Yes, it was very good for us, because we had better manners when Grandmother was around. She demanded them, and she got them. We had one set of manners for Grandmother, one set when she was gone. We always ate well at the table, always ate nicely. We had good manners. Grandmother believed that children should be seen and not heard, you know, except she heard me all the time, reading. She taught me to read. I liked her very much, but I never-I wondered why I didn’t love her.

MFK Fisher

(Photo: Michael Oletta)

BILL MOYERS: Have you ever figured out the answer to that?

MFK FISHER: Well, she wasn’t a very lovable person. But she was my protection. I liked her like a tree or something, you know, she was just part of my life, like a tree or bush or something.

BILL MOYERS: Where did you think this interest in food came from?

MFK FISHER: Well, I think it was because of Grandmother, because when she left, we really splurged. Father had a big steak, you know. And we’d got out to the Rio Ondo, which is a river near Whittier, and we’d get watercress in the river. Father would never let us have the watercress, because he said the cows relieved themselves above it, and it fell down with cow urine or cow pee, you see. So we ate the watercress, and we had mayonnaise with olive oil in it, and it was just different cuisine when Grandmother wasn’t there.

BILL MOYERS: I’ve been so curious about your sense of taste. You know, for some people, taste is a tyrant. It subjects one to gluttony and obesity, and for other people, taste is an art. It’s sensitivity, it’s a friend.

MFK FISHER: Well, it was only a friend to us, probably because Grandmother didn’t think it was a friend, either. She thought one ate to sustain life, you sustained life for God, for good works for God. Father and Mother believed in seeing life with pleasure, always. So we had a lot of fun when Grandmother went away, and I notice that very early on we that we talked a lot more when Grandmother was gone.

BILL MOYERS: Was it a happy place?

MFK FISHER: Oh, very happy. Of course, I was miserable when I — I was a patsy for years. I was the oldest child, but I never got any privileges because my next younger sister was the invalid of the family. She knew how to get all the attention, and I didn’t get any. So I’d cook. I was always the cook on the cook’s day off. And then I realized that I was being a patsy, because just to get the admiration, I loved it. I wanted to get something away from my sister, and so I would cook, cook meals. I learned how to cook when I was very young.

BILL MOYERS: Look what came of it, a lifelong art.

MFK FISHER: Well, it can be an art. I don’t think it ever was with me. I never was a cook, you know.

BILL MOYERS: But it became the metaphor for your art, it seems to me, food.

MFK FISHER: Well, you asked me why I wrote about food. I think I wrote about everything all my life, I’ve always been a writer, but I found that I could earn some money by it, and I earned-I supported the family, you know, for years.

BILL MOYERS: With your writing?

MFK FISHER: Yes. The only way I made money was to write for magazines and so I did, from the age of about — well, I think I was 23 when I published the first thing for money. So I don’t think I’m a real writer because I’ve not grown any.

BILL MOYERS: You haven’t grown any?

MFK FISHER: I don’t think so. I think — well, now my books sell. The books — the first books I published sell just as well now as they did then, better maybe.

BILL MOYERS: Don’t tell me this isn’t growing. You’re talking about moments of wisdom. “Once I was lying with my head back, listening to a long program of radio music from New York, with Toscanini drawing fine blood from his gang. I was hardly conscious of the sound, with my mind, anyway. And when it ended, my two ears, which I had never thought of as a cuplike, were so full of silent tears that as I sat up, they drenched and darkened my whole front with little gouts of brine. I felt amazed. Beyond my embarrassment in a group of near friends, for the music I had heard was not the kind I thought I liked, and the salty water had rolled down from my half-closed eyes like October rain, with no sting to it, but perhaps promising a good winter.”

MFK FISHER: Well, that’s good. It’s okay. But I don’t think that’s really writing. I just did it, you know-

BILL MOYERS: No, I don’t understand.

MFK FISHER: -well, I said it, I didn’t write it.

BILL MOYERS: You said it.

MFK FISHER: I said it — I said it to myself. And I just put it on paper, and have never rewritten it.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

MFK FISHER: I never wrote it. Oh, what is that from?

BILL MOYERS: That’s from “Moments of Wisdom,” your opening essay, your opening chapter in Sister Age. You don’t recognize it?

MFK FISHER: I don’t.

BILL MOYERS: Isn’t that odd?

MFK FISHER: Well, I never read anything I wrote, except this one book I did read, read one thing. I listen to it.

BILL MOYERS: You mean some inner voice is speaking to you when you write these words, and you-

MFK FISHER: No, I’m thinking, I think they’re true, so I think them. So I write — I think in sentences and paragraphs and even in chapters, you know.

BILL MOYERS: Hmm.

MFK FISHER: Maybe I’m crazy, a phenomenon or something.

BILL MOYERS: Well, that’s what they said of Mozart, that what he heard he wrote down, and he often didn’t know what he was writing down, or what he had heard.

MFK FISHER: Well, I couldn’t dare compare myself to Mozart, though.

BILL MOYERS: You can hear what you’re writing, that’s what’s happening. Where did that come from? Do you think that was your reading so much as a child? Or the King James-I know, a lot of us Southerners-

MFK FISHER: Bible.

BILL MOYERS: -can hear the Bible, even when we haven’t read it for a long time.

MFK FISHER: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: Something about that language that was so musical.

MFK FISHER: Yes. Begat, the begats, remember all the begats in the Old — I always thought that men begat men and women had children — had the girls.

BILL MOYERS: Why?

MFK FISHER: Well, because Joseph begat Nebuchadnezzar, begat — you know-

BILL MOYERS: Right.

MFK FISHER: -Tetrach, all the begats. And they all just — I had to read every one correctly to Grandmother. So I really thought that men begat men and women had girls.

BILL MOYERS: Which causes me to remember something you said or wrote once about women, women having an inner language that was peculiarly their own. Do you remember writing that?

MFK FISHER: No.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think that’s true?

MFK FISHER: Yes, I do, yes. Often they don’t express it, though. They don’t — they understand it but they don’t express it. Yes, I do think this. An entente. There’s “ententry” in men, too, women never understand.

BILL MOYERS: An entente.

MFK FISHER: Yes. There’s something — you could be with a man and you’d understand something about him that I would never get.

BILL MOYERS: And yet I think my best friends — many of my best friends are women, even though I don’t feel that entente toward them that I do toward old, dear male friends.

MFK FISHER: I like men very much, but I — I think men are less interesting than women, in general.

BILL MOYERS: Why?

MFK FISHER: They’re more limited.

BILL MOYERS: In what sense?

MFK FISHER: Well, they don’t feel the same pain. They don’t have the same endurance. They don’t know the same things women know.

BILL MOYERS: What makes the pain of women so particular?

MFK FISHER: Childbirth, for instance. Something that is just taken naturally by natural women. We make an awful lot of fuss about it now, but we don’t need to, you know. Natural, the natural function of a woman is to bear, to — man begats woman, gets her with child and then she has a child. It’s more of a vexes [?] usually for a man and for the woman, too, if they’re good. And the woman goes on, she bears the child, nine months and she has to bear it. I think that does something to deepen, to make more real, life, too. I don’t think life’s very real to most men. Do you?

BILL MOYERS: I’m afraid we live too much in worlds that have been constructed for us, organizations that we didn’t create.

MFK FISHER: Unfortunately, women will always kowtow to men, though, and-

BILL MOYERS: Why?

MFK FISHER: -I don’t know. I hate it.

BILL MOYERS: You hated it.

MFK FISHER: I hate the subservience of women to men, because they’re — I think one reason we’re in such a mess now is because of men. I hate politics, and yet women are terrible politicians. Most of them, they become strident, you know, if they raise their voices. I don’t like that. Of course, I’m a good one to talk, now, because I couldn’t raise my voice if I wanted to. But-

BILL MOYERS: You’ve lived single for 40 years now. Was that by choice?

MFK FISHER: Well, I haven’t been single. I’ve had several good affairs. I don’t really — I don’t believe in marriage much.

BILL MOYERS: Why?

MFK FISHER: Well, I think it’s silly.

BILL MOYERS: No, well, you’ve got to explain that. Too many of us are married to be silly.

MFK FISHER: It’s wonderful, the best thing I can think of is to live with somebody and go through — be content together, and then come out the end and have good years of love and whatever it is left.

BILL MOYERS: So is marriage just a device?

MFK FISHER: Largely now, I think. It doesn’t keep enough people together, though.

BILL MOYERS: No.

MFK FISHER: Too easy to get divorced. But I don’t know. I’m a poor one to talk about it, I think.

BILL MOYERS: Why is that? Because you have such strong feelings about marriage, negative feelings about marriage.

MFK FISHER: I was married to a very good man. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister, and I was terrified the whole time he’d suddenly feel that he had to take-if he felt the-you know, become

BILL MOYERS: Become a clergyman?

MFK FISHER: -become a clergyman.

BILL MOYERS: That would have been hell?

MFK FISHER: It would have been for me because I couldn’t have ever been a clergyman’s wife.

BILL MOYERS: I’m not sure you could be anybody’s wife.

MFK FISHER: I don’t think I could. I did — I lost two men. My poor husband, my second husband killed himself. And that was justified, I feel.

BILL MOYERS: I have, just from reading your stories, I’ve had this sense that he was your only true love.

MFK FISHER: Yes, he was. I fell in love with him the first time I saw him, I think, or the second. I knew then it was hopeless, but it never occurred to me to get a divorce or anything, never tell anybody, you know. I was the first person in my family to get a divorce.

BILL MOYERS: I came across a simple declarative sentence in a story about you. It said, simply, “She married the painter, Dilwin Parrish, who died in 1941.” That’s all, you know, just a deep passionate saga reduced to one declarative sentence.

MFK FISHER: That’s okay. I like it that way.

BILL MOYERS: Do you have a great capacity to love?

MFK FISHER: Yes, I do. I don’t love unquestioningly, but I love completely. And I think I learned a lot of that from Timmy Parrish. He taught me how to love, because he knew we wouldn’t be married very long.

BILL MOYERS: When you married, were you aware that he was ill?

MFK FISHER: No.

BILL MOYERS: Was he?

MFK FISHER: No. But we learned it soon after.

BILL MOYERS: Did he take his life because he was so ill?

MFK FISHER: Oh, yes. He did have Buerger’s disease, which-he and the king of England were the only people who had it-I think there were only 30-there were 37 identified cases in the whole world.

BILL MOYERS: What did they call it?

MFK FISHER: Buerger’s disease.

BILL MOYERS: What is it?

MFK FISHER: It’s like a cancer of the blood. He was doomed. He was doomed. Because he had a wonderful heart, very strong heart, it kept beating, you know. It’s called the large heart. It’s quite interesting, interesting in medicine, it’s mentioned often by great Americans doctors as the large heart, large ODG. Uncle Bonie had this, Mother had it, and he had it. So it would have gone on beating, his heart would have gone on beating even if he was a basket case, which he would have been.

BILL MOYERS: Was he in pain?

MFK FISHER: Terrible pain.

BILL MOYERS: You were with him.

MFK FISHER: Yes.

BILL MOYERS: Did you know he was going to take his life?

MFK FISHER: Oh, yes, sure.

BILL MOYERS: Did you agree to it?

MFK FISHER: Yes, I did. It was always a shock, though. I kept him from killing himself once, and then I said, never again, I never will do that to anybody.

BILL MOYERS: What did you do?

MFK FISHER: Well, I held him back from jumping over a bridge, off a bridge. He couldn’t help himself, though, he was insane with pain. So I think there is justification, but most suicides, I think, are selfish, basically selfish.

BILL MOYERS: How did you appease your grief?

MFK FISHER: Oh, I never did, I guess. I just dropped — went with it. I didn’t show it to anybody much, though. I went to work. Timmy and I lived out on an isolated place out in the desert, and it was a very good place indeed, [unintelligible] And my father and mother loved it, everybody loved it. So I’d be gone weekends, and I stayed out there. And everybody said, “Now, you must go to work, you mustn’t stay there alone.” And I thought, “Why not, I have everything I need here, including my dog.” One night about 10 o’clock, I said, to Butch, my dog, “Now, Butch, would you please turn off the radio?” I got a job the next day, I realized I had just gone over the edge, to talk to my dog as if he could turn off the radio.

BILL MOYERS: That was the moment.

MFK FISHER: So I feel very strongly on the subject of suicide, naturally.

BILL MOYERS: You never considered it yourself, obviously.

MFK FISHER: Oh, yes, I think everybody does, everybody does, but I never would kill myself, never, because it’s too hard on the other people. It’s terrible, what it does to other people, I think.

BILL MOYERS: Well, me, too, I think I’ll just wait for the shipwreck.

MFK FISHER: Sure. And I think when people are ready to die, well, I think there are times when you could die or live, and I’ve always chosen to live. You can choose, you know, quite often. In fact, I think most people have about — at least — well, I’ve had seven or eight times when I could have lived or died, you know.

BILL MOYERS: Why did you choose to live?

MFK FISHER: I don’t know. I thought there was another book to write. Wanted to say something more, probably. I’m an awful talker.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the story of the picture over there, Ursula von Ott?

MFK FISHER: Well, we found it in the [unintelligible], in Anshoffen, in Zurich, and I just grabbed the picture. It was painted by a spoiled young man, young brat, [unintelligible], before he went off to the fight, the Napoleonic wars, in 1802. I think it was 1802, 1808 that was written on the back. And I knew I had to write about old age, so I started writing it then, wrote about Ursula.

BILL MOYERS: What struck you about her?

MFK FISHER: Well, she was so — would you, one — would somebody get that picture there? It’s on the wall.

BILL MOYERS: Can you hand me that picture?

MFK FISHER: She was so ugly and mean and nasty-looking. He wrote, he did this — see, he made himself very beautiful, you see. He hated his mother, because he made her very ugly. She was not that ugly, you see. All the discoloration there, he-now, that and the veins in her arms, and this old hand, holding the letter. She’s supposed to be weeping. He doesn’t — but she’s very exclus… merry, I think. It’s made of leather, it’s on leather, you see. And one time I was gone, and I came back, and everything had been eaten by silverfish except this Ursula, who stands out still.

BILL MOYERS: But you said you wanted to write about — you knew you would have to use this in writing about old age. Why? Then you put it-

MFK FISHER: Yes. Well, it shows how you don’t know anything until you’re older, I guess, about grief, how little it matters.

BILL MOYERS: About grief?

MFK FISHER: Well, see, this is an old woman who’s survived everything. The fact that she — it’s eaten all around, that you see this, and she’s there still, cold old lady.

BILL MOYERS: An old, old lady. There’s something very powerful about an old old lady surviving.

MFK FISHER: Yes, there is. And they do, too, and they don’t want to, you know.

BILL MOYERS: The picture, you say, hung above your desk or your bed for a long time: ” … speaking to me about life and death, more than I thought there was to learn. Tim never laughed at me, and nobody ever questioned the ugly, dark old picture hanging by its crude thong on walls in Switzerland and then wherever else we were. It was part of the whole, like wine or air.” And then you say: “Nobody can know now whether Ursula’s son came back from his dream of heroism and noble death and became a good Swiss burger. All I can see is what he and time and the silverfish have left for me, the enigmatic, simian gaze of a woman standing all alone. She is completely alive in a landscape of death, then and now. She does not need anything that is not already within her.” I like that, “She does not need anything that is not already in her.”

MFK FISHER: Yes, well, I don’t think any of us does. We are born with too much, you know, or not enough, or just enough. I have just enough, I think. I’m very fortunate because I know more — I know more — I’ve always known more than many people because some people are born dumb, dumb. I wasn’t born dumb.

BILL MOYERS: You have a conversation in here. “She will make a wonderful cover for the book, rich, dark, rewarding,” I said. “She’s an ugly old lady,” Tim said. “That mustache, she looks like a monkey, all right, that long lip and melancholy eyes.” “Yes,” you say. “She’s removed from it, from all the nonsense and frustration. She’s aloof and real. She’s past vanity.”

MFK FISHER: She is past vanity. I am too, of course.

BILL MOYERS: How did you get there?

MFK FISHER: I don’t think I ever was vain, so I didn’t need to go past it.

BILL MOYERS: As you say, “She’s removed from it, from all the nonsense and frustration. She’s aloof and real. She’s past vanity.” But of course, she’s just a painting.

MFK FISHER: Yeah, but she was very real to that boy who painted her. He hated her guts, you see. As only an 18-year-old boy can hate his mother. He wanted to make her a fool, he wanted to make her ugly, like a monkey.

BILL MOYERS: How do you know she wasn’t?

MFK FISHER: Nobody could be that ugly. No woman, I think, is really that ugly. Except in her son’s eyes now and then. That’s where you’d look to, pretty much, you know.

BILL MOYERS: I’ve seen a few pictures of you when you were much younger. You were beautiful.

MFK FISHER: Well, I photographed well. And — I don’t think I was beautiful at all. But I photographed well, and I carried myself well. I never thought one way or another about it until — you know, I was so surprised, when I was — I had the kids when I was quite old, you see. And so Ann was almost 17 when the last time [unintelligible] and there was a young Englishman who was [unintelligible], and I was sitting with my legs sort of down like this, the way I do now, you know. And he said, “Your mother must have had lovely gams once.” And I thought, “Lovely gams once,” what does that mean? And it meant when I was younger I must have had good legs, in other words, my legs were pretty much all right then, but they were gone for him forever because I was too old to have them.

BILL MOYERS: That is something that’s hard for men to understand, back to our discussion of men and women, because men do age a little more beneficently than women, and it must be hard on a woman to have a man say, “She must have had good legs once.” In other words, she must have been young and beautiful and vibrant once. Men don’t like old women, do they?

MFK FISHER: No, they don’t. You know, I would have died 20 years ago if I thought-somebody would have shown me that picture of me with, you know, pouches and bags and stuff, I don’t like those things. They’re not very pretty. But I’m me.

BILL MOYERS: You wrote once that our needs, our basic needs, are for food, security and love.

MFK FISHER: Yeah, they are.

BILL MOYERS: Would you add anything to that, now that you’re in your 80s?

MFK FISHER: Well, in order to exist you have to be warm and fed and protected by other people, which means love or protection. And you seek the food for-and you feed other people first, usually, keep them alive. And food, security is a place where you can hide your head, go to be with somebody you love. Don’t you think?

BILL MOYERS: Mm-hmm.

MFK FISHER: Well, there you are.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over} From Glen Allen, California, this has been a visit with MFK Fisher, Mary Frances to her friends. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on May 19, 2015.

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