In Gregory Bezat’s documentary, The Art of Eating: The Life of M.F.K. Fisher, a chorus of approving food luminaries, biographers and friends testify on behalf of the late American author. Well-known cultural figures such as Jacques Pépin, Alice Waters and Ruth Reichl beam beatific smiles at the camera every time they mention Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher’s name or refer to her enduring literary influence.
Anne LaMott, the author of Operating Instructions, repeatedly returns to the screen to bestow belated laurels upon Fisher’s legacy. Everyone who appears in the film confirms that, in her afterlife, Fisher’s specter has qualified for sainthood. After an hour and a half of these sentimentally scored testimonials, only a cynical viewer would find this dovecote of devotion monotonous.
An archive of Julia Child’s television shows, starting with The French Chef, and post-mortem fictional depictions—see Meryl Streep’s portrayal in Julie and Julia—have enhanced her mythology and secured her place as the patron saint of American kitchens. Born in 1908, M.F.K. Fisher never became a TV star and, to date, no Hollywood actress has distilled her biography into a saleable film script.
A brilliant writer of essays and memoirs, Fisher’s oeuvre is primarily, though not exclusively, devoted to the culinary world. A stack of books by or about her are the source materials anyone can use to reanimate Fisher’s spirit. But the cultural currency of books has lost its value since Fisher’s first collection of essays, Serve It Forth, was published in 1937.
Though Ken Burns might disagree, the single-minded choir of adulatory voices in The Art of Eating acts as a necessary supplement to fill out Fisher’s life when it appears in still photographs. The documentary is a competent introduction of Fisher’s life and work to neophytes. And, with some editing, it could qualify as an episode of the PBS series American Masters. For longtime Fisher devotées, The Art of Eating is less a hearty, wine-infused stew and more a bowl of sweetened cream of wheat.
Overly familiar with their subject, the filmmakers occasionally drift into biographical vagueness. They forget that not every viewer is an M.F.K. Fisher aficionado, supremely well-versed in her life’s singular trajectory. Fisher was born in Michigan, grew up in Southern California, lived in Europe and eventually moved to Glen Ellen in the Sonoma Valley. With the onset of World War II, she was forced to leave a home in Switzerland. Apart from that historical reference, Fisher’s various moves are hard to follow. It’s as if the filmmakers kept omitting the final panel of a storyboard’s sequence or left out whole paragraphs from the final script.
Structurally, the film undermines the narrative momentum when those factual details are blurred out or overlooked and then replaced by a wave of interviews. There are segments that delve into Fisher’s three marriages, but they’re presented without clear timelines. There’s never any mention of a lover, partner or boyfriend who was not one of her husbands. One of her daughters, Kennedy Golden, is an on-camera interviewee; her other daughter is not. Golden’s commentary is, perhaps, deliberately hazy about her mother. She praises her in the same way that Fisher’s friends and acquaintances do—with the same enthusiastic and bland platitudes.
It’s difficult to recognize the author of The Gastronomical Me—my favorite of her many books—in this documentary. Fisher revealed her private thoughts and observations in a way that made the reader observe the known world in a new way. She doesn’t tell confessional tales to plead for her readers’ sympathies. Instead, she encourages them to be as brave and curious as she is through some mysterious process of literary osmosis.
Ostensibly, her subject was food—even though she wasn’t a professional chef. Some readers and critics described her writing as less serious “women’s stuff.” Fisher’s eloquent lines of defense are included in The Art of Eating:
“Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security…? They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft… It seems to me 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 warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it.” —Excerpt from M.F.K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me (1943)
In this memoir, Fisher writes a memorable scene about eating out alone at a restaurant. Without a husband at her side, she’s aware of her position in society as an unattached woman. But she’s also hungry for a good meal and a glass of wine at a delicious restaurant. In a few short paragraphs, she asserts her right to ignore the rules and judgment of polite society and to satisfy her hunger, even if she’s sitting at a table for one.
To make a claim for Fisher’s relevance 30 years after her death, The Art of Eating also features interviews with celebrated Bay Area chefs such as Tanya Holland (Brown Sugar Cafe) and Dominica Rice-Cisneros (Bombera). There’s even the reasonable suggestion—accompanied by a black-and-white still from a 1970s rally—that the second wave of American feminists found inspiration in Fisher’s writings.
In The Art of Eating: The Life of M.F.K. Fisher, the author becomes a malleable figure, ripe for subjective interpretations and projections. She belongs to everyone who reads her. I once gave a copy of The Gastronomical Me to a friend whose first marriage was disintegrating. When she married her second husband, who later became the father of her children, she placed one of her favorite books on every table at the wedding reception. One of them was Fisher’s. I like to think that M.F.K. Fisher’s tone of polite defiance inspired my friend to be bold enough to leave a bad marriage for a good one, to pursue and then satisfy her hunger for love.
The Art of Eating: The Life of M.F.K. Fisher will play at the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland on Monday, Oct. 16, and at the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley on Wednesday, Oct. 18.