The writing style and voice of these profiles in the 1970s is quite different from today in some ways. The first six pieces in the book are pure hero worship from food writers tripping over adjectives to heap praise on their object of worship. M.F.K. was important as a food writer that happened to be a woman, especially in the context of her time. Still, I cannot believe the rampant brown-nosing by these writers that made it into print. It makes any modern media hero worship of chefs and food personalities like David Chang, Anthony Bourdain, Lidia Bastianich and Alton Brown pale in comparison.
Here are a few examples from James Villas’ “A Simple Country Lunch with M.F.K. Fisher” from 1978 that was published in his book, Villas at Table: a Passion for Food and Drink. The profile-interview begins with Villas spewing about 1,000 words to heap adoration on his subject, introducing her through physical description, setting the scene in her kitchen and citing her accomplishments.
We laughed at Mrs. Fisher while she strove to get her fill of caviar in The Gastronomical Me, but we shared her pain and heartbreak… We admired her brilliant translation of Brillat-Savarin’s La Physiologie de Goût, and how proud we all felt in the late sixties when this great American lady was chose to write The Cooking of Provincial France for the Time-Life series.
Villas’ prose reeks of soap opera narration. It includes the reader through the use of “we” even as he tells his audience how they should have felt or responded. It’s as though readers were physically by Fisher’s side and cheering her on as she accomplished each literary feat. It’s a transparent literary device that writers still use today to craft an accessible (or inaccessible in some cases, thereby elevating the writer’s status for having access) image about celebrities in order to create this false sense of closeness between the reader and subject. Yet coming from Villas, the passage above reads more like his voice making grand declarations on his behalf and, by the way, don’t you agree? Yes, we certainly must.
Villas puts Fisher on a pedestal. He extends a hand to readers in order to lift them up so that they may also see the view and behold the wonder that is M.F.K. Fisher. Later in the piece, Villas writes about the lunch he had with Fisher.
And the lunch? Oh, nothing really fancy: a few large Mexican prawns marinated in oyster sauce, baked quickly and served on a bed of duxelles; sliced plum tomatoes and zucchini topped with mild chilies; fresh sourdough bread with individual crocks of the sweetest butter; baked pears with fresh cream; and a carafe of Chablis from a local winery. No, nothing fancy, just one of the best-prepared and most-memorable meals of my life.
This paragraph is humble bragging years before the term was invented. Simply listing the dishes in the meal would suffice to paint a picture for the reader. This list as device is still used today. I do it from time to time. Villas’ commentary to downplay the “nothing fancy” meal while praising it inserts him firmly as a character in this piece, even as he brags with a “no big deal, just eating a modest meal with M.F.K.” vibe.
This sort of hero worship reminds me of the bubble of praise, respect and adoration that surrounds Ferran Adrià. He visited Kansas City in March 2015 as part of a promotional tour for his exhibit Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity that was on view at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art through August 2. While I’m no expert on the man by any means, it seemed that Adrià navigated the food celebrity attached to him by focusing on delivering his ideas through food, art, teaching and conversation. He was patient with people and gracious with his time, but spent his time being in the moment while also pursuing his interests and goals. Celebrity was and is more external than self-generated and perpetuated for him, based on limited observation.
It’s easy to understand why writers, foodies and professionals in KC’s culinary industry were excited by Adrià’s presence and thrilled to have access to him albeit brief. Some writing spawned from his visit bordered on fawning that was reminiscent of Villas blubbering about Fisher. I attempted to write my article about Adrià’s visit by acknowledging the set-up – a handful of people joined Adrià on a half-day “foraging” tour of Kansas City – without overtly inserting myself in the story.
I’m not trying to humble brag here myself but merely discuss the decisions a writer makes when telling a story. My implicit presence is established up front in the Adrià article. It takes a tiny bit of skill and forethought to use this approach, one that I prefer to do in most cases. This approach doesn’t position the writer between the subject and the reader in the way that Villas does in his piece, as I’ll demonstrate soon.
Implicitly establishing the writer as a background presence in the story runs counter to Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo style of inserting the reporter into the story. With this style, the reporter casts himself or herself as a character in the story and interacts with the subject(s). The reporter’s presence and voice is explicit and subjective rather than a more detached attempt at objective reporting. No reporting is completely subjective, by the way. I’ve used this approach at times but selectively so.
In the case of Villas’ article, the article’s title implies that he is lunching with M.F.K. He is a presence and observer describing the subject, scene and action for the reader. Rather than keeping his subject in the forefront, Villas intrudes as a writer by praising Fisher while using an inclusive “we” before he ventures into the meal itself and inserts his personal take on it.
No, nothing fancy, just one of the best-prepared and most-memorable meals of my life.
That statement is about Villas and shifts the focus away from Fisher. That’s distracting and uninteresting to read about how much the experience impacted the writer. I want to hear about the experience and the subject. Once the interview commences in question-and-answer format, Villas takes consistent opportunities to insert his musings and opinions into the exchange. Again, this distracts from the flow of conversation and yanks the focus away from the subject, the person that is notable enough to write about in the first place.
In television or cinema, this would be akin to breaking the fourth wall where the protagonist diverts from the scene to address the audience. When executed well, the device can have great impact and draw the reader into the story and build a relationship with the viewer. The asides of Villas, when thrust between the responses of Fisher, feel awkward and clumsy. For example, one exchange follows:
Villas: Your book A Considerable Town revolves around Marseille. Where in the world would you most like to be living now? Is it here in Sonoma?
M.F.K.F. No. If I were able I’d like to live in Aix-en-Provence, which is near Marseille. I first went there in 1929 and have loved it ever since, most likely because it is so close to that dirty, mysterious port town. I wrote a book on Marseille in an attempt to explain to myself this inordinate attraction I’ve always had to the place.
[Suddenly M.F.K. Fisher’s blue eyes became fixed on the flames quietly lapping the small logs in the fireplace, and I tried to imagine to just what point in the far distant past my question had forced her to retreat momentarily. Perhaps she was thinking about the time she, Al, and her sister Norah (who now lives down the road and is still one of her closest companions) sat in a small restaurant overlooking the Old Port in Marseille, played an accordion, and shared a steaming bouillabaisse. Or maybe the vision went back further, to the whorehouse in Marseille where she and Al innocently booked a room and spent the evening eating fresh cherries. Or, who knows, she could have been remembering the old butcher, Cesar, whom every woman in town thought to be the devil himself but who once prepared the best steak she’d ever eaten.]
Villas performs the nifty trick of packaging three abbreviated anecdotes about Fisher into his aside that runs more than twice as long as Fisher’s original response. Now, any or all of those anecdotes conveyed directly by Fisher or recounted with the writer’s less explicit presence and musing would be more interesting than this delivery.
Again, Villas thrusts himself into the Q&A as he shifts focus away from Fisher “…and I tried to imagine…”
Then, he exerts literary license and his omnipotent choice of words to ponder (or assert?) how his question “…had forced her to retreat momentarily.”
Wow. The swagger and pretentiousness of Villas can’t be ignored here. Further, rather than ask what was on Fisher’s mind as her blue eyes watched the fire, and in doing so keeping the focus on the subject, Villas strings together a series of self-indulgent musings. He conveys tidbits of detail about Fisher but within the framework of “forcing” her to reflect in response to his question and then indulging in a romp across her mental landscape with his own fanciful imaginings.
It’s flabbergasting. Villas continues to use this technique of inserting his asides into the Q&A, one of the most basic and naked forms of reporting where the subject’s voice is prominent and clear using their own words. Villas undermines the exchange.
He added a postscript to the interview and his closing remarks, stating how proud he was of the profile particularly since it was the first interview she granted in many years. I’d be curious to hear Fisher’s thoughts on the result of Villas’ published piece. I can only imagine in my humble opinion [insert sarcasm here] that maybe there was a reason why she granted so few interviews at this stage of her life and career.
I don’t see many examples of modern writing that emulates what Villas did in this piece, thankfully so. Reading several articles from nearly 40 years ago in this book has been instructive on what passed for food-related reporting in another era. Even though I’ve been writing professionally for 15 years, I still have plenty to learn and refine as my talented editors demonstrate when they tweak my articles. It’s helpful to see how writing from the past and present is crafted and published as a tool for me to help improve my own work.
For another writer’s take on M.F.K. Fisher and her impact on modern food writing, read Josh Ozersky’s “Consider the Food Writer.” Here’s a sample:
Whether you enjoy her work or not, there is no doubt that she more or less invented first-person food writing as we know it today. Fisher swept away the bombast and pomposity of nineteenth-century epicurean food writing, a decadent, rotting edifice already crumbling under its own weight. She had what few writers have, a distinctive style, and like her contemporary, Ernest Hemingway, whom she in many ways resembled (though not physically), it was as much a moral as a literary one. Her writing is wise, in a superficial way, but not especially reflective; for that reason, she is at her best when generating brief, self-contained observations.