Wednesday, January 22, 2014

My culinary hall of fame: M.F.K. Fisher*

I have the effrontery to place an asterisk beside this culinary legend's, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher's, name because giant though I know she is, I have never enjoyed her books. She did splendid work, collecting and explaining all sorts of wonderful materials on food and eating in history, and of course she translated (1949) no less magisterial a figure than Brillat-Savarin, author of the famous Physiology of Taste (1825). Perhaps mastering him, even before publishing him, went to her head. "There are two kinds of books about eating," she pronounces in her introductory chapter to Serve it Forth (1937), "those that try to imitate Brillat-Savarin, and those that try not to ...."

Ah. Really. Her ideas are firm like that, and her prose clear, and flowing, and poetic and lovely I suppose, but her mood is so cold and haughty that I habitually put her aside after only a page or two. What with the jabs at other people's scandalously bourgeois food choices, and the terribly meaningful short stories, a la a Fellini film, about fragile Polish lady tourists emotionally crumpling in small French hotel rooms where the young bride Fisher happened to stand witness, and the magnificently offhand driblets of otherwise unexplained information -- "And when the infamous Whistling Oyster of Drury Lane started his daily pipings on the pub bar" -- what with all of it, I begin to think, great Madame M.F.K., give me some recipes and be done with it. ("They will only appear," she says, "like birds in a tree -- if there is a comfortable branch.")

For a woman who devoted her life to the joys of food and writing, she strikes me as singularly bitter. She's bitter about anything and everything. She's bitter about dish soap, for heaven's sake. She hates the radio ads exhorting women to buy "super-oxygenized Drift-O" so that their rough hands will be healed and pretty enough for Mr. Right to kiss. "All is well" at the end of these ads, Fisher assures us in a voice dripping with loathing, "and from that day forward she washes dishes with just oodles of soapsy sudsy bubble-squubble Drift-O" (How to Cook a Wolf, 1942).

Of course it's hardly fair to pick out the angriest, non-food related quotes as proof that she merits damning with an asterisk, but then again there are so many angry quotes. "There are few people alive with whom I care to pray, sleep, dance, sing or share my bread and wine," she tells us. Admirable honesty, but I can't help thinking that most of the people who knew her probably muttered sotto voce, Honey, that goes double. Just below her sentence on not wanting company, is this equally honest paragraph, on wanting it:

Naturally there have been times when my self-made solitude has irked me. I have often eaten an egg and drunk a glass of jug-wine, surrounded deliberately with the trappings of busyness, in a hollow Hollywood flat near the studio where I was called a writer, and not been able to stifle my longing to be anywhere but there, in the company of any of a dozen predatory or ambitious or even kind people who had not invited me.

That was the trouble: nobody did.

Both these quotes are from "A is for Dining Alone," in An Alphabet for Gourmets (1949). You can flip through Fisher for interesting food information -- she writes a really frightening passage on what it's like to die of a bad oyster in Consider the Oyster (1941) -- but there is also an awful lot of the above sort of thing. How she drank marc at that quaint French hotel, and cried when they fired her favorite old waiter ....

As for the recipes, those birds on comfortable branches, considering how flinty she is, I wish there were more at least of those. The few I have cooked are good. To make best use of M.F.K Fisher as a source, I recommend something like Here Let us Feast (1946, 1986). She keeps herself most in the background with this compilation of the best of other centuries' and civilizations' food writing, and so lets sunnier dispositions (better digestions, possibly?) speak, and eat, for themselves.


M.F.K. Fisher's basic minestrone, from How to Cook a Wolf (1942, compiled with four of her other books into The Art of Eating, 1990).

Begin by gently sauteeing onions, tomato, celery, oregano, basil and parsley in bacon fat or salt pork; I used a generous quantity of butter, to see if I could make a good version that had "not been breathed upon by meat in any form," which Fisher says characterizes one of the authentic Italian versions.

To the softening vegetables, add about 1/3 cup wine, 3 quarts water, and large quantities of vegetables:

... 4 stalks celery, more onions, 2 to 3 cloves of chopped garlic; carrots; an unpeeled potato; most importantly, Savoy cabbage, the mild, distinct flavor of which really makes a difference.

Simmer for two to three hours, and serve with grated Parmesan cheese. Garlic toast and any wine you like will also go nicely.

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