On occasion, while sitting around a meal at our well-worn dining table, my husband and I like to recall our weirdest favorite childhood foods. As a kid, he loved a heaping plate of sautéed onions. For me, it was mayonnaise sandwiches, compiled quickly after school, to be eaten in front of the television in the mustard-carpeted living room of my home in Whittier, 20 miles east of Los Angeles.
Most if not all of my meals in Whittier were of the modest persuasion. Both parents worked at least one job, sometimes two or three. My mom did her best, usually making sure there was a pot roast or other meat bubbling away in the slow cooker. On nights when she worked late, my dad took us out for fast food. Burritos at El Norte on Whittier Boulevard, pepperoni pizza at Lamppost, and greasy, perfect charbroiled burgers at Rick's Drive Thru. On special occasions, we splurged on The Grand Canton in Uptown Whittier to feast on what I would later come to understand as Americanized versions of Chinese food: a syrupy sweet-and-sour chicken and salty chow mein, followed by my favorite dessert of crumbly, sweet almond cookies.
It was on these same Whittier streets, 70 years prior, that M.F.K. Fisher (the author of 27 books, including the classics The Gastronomical Me and How to Cook a Wolf) had her first experiences with hunger and the seductive pull of food. The "poet of the appetites," as John Updike called Fisher, may have spent her last years in Glen Ellen at a cottage near Sonoma in the Valley of the Moon, but her formative years were spent in Whittier, a modest town founded by Quakers in the hills above Los Angeles.
As you might imagine, given its stolidly religious origins, Whittier, unlike Sonoma, is not the stuff of foodie fantasy. At least, not the Whittier where I grew up, and certainly not the post-Victorian era version in which Fisher lived with her family. Her father Rex owned the Whittier Daily News, and for many years, her ascetic, severe grandmother ruled the meal planning with demands for bland white sauces and plain puddings. (The woman's favorite meal, according to Fisher, was steamed soda crackers with hot milk.) It was only later, when Fisher struck out for Dijon, France at the age of 21, with her new husband Al, that she discovered the joy of hedonistic gastronomy, an experience beautifully captured in her many essays.
M.F.K. Fisher's life story has received no shortage of coverage, given her prolific writing, and a few well-received biographies. In her fourth and latest novel The Arrangement, Ashley Warlick becomes the first writer to fictionalize the culinary star's life. As the editor of Edible Upcountry, a South Carolina food magazine, Warlick knows that some of the best stories can be found in food. Accordingly, she does a fine job of weaving together food and romantic intrigue into a readable, if somewhat light, story.
The novel takes up soon after Mary Frances and Al return to the states from their three-year adventure in France. Mary Frances is on the verge of becoming a professional writer -- and on the verge of falling out of love with Al.
Mary Frances' hunger for love, for sex, and for writing professionally despite her secondary status as a woman are the driving forces in The Arrangement. It's 1934 in Los Angeles, and Al is struggling as a writer with writer's block; he teaches to pay the bills. Mary Frances, on the other hand, is writing more than ever before, celebrating her very first publication in a local literary journal. Having reached her late twenties, Mary Frances is also sorting out exactly what it is she writes about. "Hunger," she tells one gentleman at a dinner party. "I write about hunger for all kinds of things."
At the novel's opening, Mary Frances has just finished up a long, luxurious, intentionally clandestine dinner (thanks to a subtle bit of trickery on M.F.K.'s part) with her husband's best friend, a wealthy businessman with literary connections, Dillwyn "Tim" Parrish. Tim is the first editor of Mary Frances' work and believes in her talent; Al, meanwhile, is uncomfortable with the idea of his wife rivaling him in her writing, and brushes aside her subject matter as nothing more than "recipes." The dinner and its eventual outcome in Tim's bedroom, despite his marriage to a young actress named Gigi, are all engineered by Mary Frances. She knows what she wants.
The encounter leaves an indelible impression on the two lovers, launching them eventually into a passionate affair on a ship heading for Europe. As a reader, it's hard to tell how much of this story is speculation on Warlick's part, and how much is true. Warlick once said in an interview that this particular period of Fisher's life lacks primary sources. Despite being a prolific keeper of journals, Fisher burned her writing from this period after Tim's suicide in 1943.
What's interesting in The Arrangement is how Warlick spins out themes woven through Fisher's own writing -- specifically that of hunger. On the ship, Mary Frances realizes that the consuming desire for her husband's best friend might just be a sign of a vast life hunger. At the time, such a hunger wasn't acceptable for a proper, middle-class woman, but Mary Frances willingly forgoes societal acceptance for a more bohemian choice:
"She thought if she could get on with it, get over, go on, she would come out on the other side of this, but she felt no bottom or end to her appetites, she might just always want this way - after Tim, something else. She might just always be this hungry."
Fisher was clear about this hunger in her own writings, as evidenced by a passage from the foreword to The Gastronomical Me:
"People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don't you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do? They ask it accusingly, as I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft. The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and the warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it . . . and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied . .. and it is all one."
Ultimately, despite her upbringing in modest Whittier, a town she left at a young age, M.F.K. Fisher became a woman of great influence with hunger on the brain.
I recommend pairing The Arrangement with The Gastronomical Me for a rounded picture of how Fisher came to be; Warlick paints an entertaining portrait of Fisher's choice to live differently during some romantically tempestuous early years. The reading will be all the better paired with a glass of honest, drinkable wine and snacks at hand -- perhaps, even, a mayonnaise sandwich and a plate of sautéed onions. Cheers to the many "strange ways of satisfying hunger."