Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher is not just the greatest American food writer who's ever played the game, she's one of our greatest writers, period. She was, variously, a travel writer, an essayist, a chronicler of American idylls, an observer of decline, of lack, of old fashioned custom and manners, a social critic, and a historian. The food thing? That's just what she loved — the fixed point around which she structured so much of her life (both the writing side of it and the actual living side of it) and to which she paid such particular and loving attention.
No one working in the English language has ever written about food quite the same way Fisher did. No one ever will. It's something to do with voice (the way her sentences breathe, the unconscious lulls and the very conscious focus shifts as she observes the reactions of people around the table to this or that little edible thing) and something to do with the way she witnessed life (as the things that happen between meals). But her truest power was in her ability to capture the feel of an American somnolence and the pause bought by even the simplest meals; the break with reality born of sitting at a table, with friends or without, and being forced, briefly, to contend only with the sensual and the sustaining.
The Theoretical Foot is no different. It is a roman a clef, lifting details, characters, locations and events from the latter days of the romance between Fisher (cast as Sara Porter on the page) and the artist and writer Dillwyn "Tim" Parrish (Tim Garton here). The novel itself never saw publication while Fisher was alive. It was submitted, rejected and sat for decades in the files of her long-time agent while she went on to make a career as a non-fiction writer. It is rescued here, now, only because she is M.F.K. Fisher. Because who that knows her wouldn't want another M.F.K. Fisher book?
In real life, the two of them — Fisher and Parrish — met while married to other people and fell hard for each other. Together they would go to Paris and, later, would live together in Switzerland (even though they were not yet married which was clutch-your-pearls scandalous at the time), in a house that overlooked Lake Geneva. It was full of friends and food and, looking back, must've seemed like a moment of perfection to Fisher because soon enough Parrish would develop Buerger's Disease and would have his left leg amputated (giving the book its title). The disease was incurable. Parrish spent his remaining days in immense pain. Within three years, he would commit suicide.
Admirably, The Theoretical Foot deals with both poles — the perfect nothingness, lightness and frivolity of the days before tragedy, and the squirming aftermath. There is, for the bulk of the book, nothing more consequential happening on any given page than someone lighting a cigarette, trying on clothes or laying down for a nap. Characters pass in and out of rooms, watch each other, judge and are judged. Drinks are taken — cold beers, gin and bitters, brandy as a curative for literally anything from hayfever to a sick cat — and lunch is served. Each meal is an opportunity for Fisher to round-robin through her characters' thoughts, which grow more complicated as each couple that arrived at the big house begins to fracture and fall for the spouses, boyfriends or girlfriends brought by someone else.
It is, all of it, a waiting game. A bottle episode of The Real World: Pre-War Switzerland, wine-soaked, sun-drunk, dealing with various forms of forbidden attraction. We know that Tim will lose his leg because the novel begins with a flashforward to his agony. And everything else is shadowed by that known catastrophe — by the understanding (by the readers, by the author) that no good times ever last, that frivolity is always the pre-game to tragedy.
But because this is M.F.K. Fisher (even young M.F.K. Fisher, still coming into her remarkable voice), the frivolity has its own value. It is beautiful. It is youth and second-youth, the joy of living in a time before sadness. It is the memory that we live on when memories of good times are all we have.
There is a point, about midway through the book, when a guest of Sara and Tim's walks the halls and feels as though everyone else there is ignoring him. Staring past him at some other thing. He asks, "What was he, a ghost? That everyone looked through him today? Were all of them ghosts?"
And the answer, of course, is yes. Because eventually the easy days fade. Bad things happen. Ultimately, we are all just ghosts in the making.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphiamagazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.