ELEVEN REASONS: On The Legendary MFK Fisher, Mother of Modern Food Writing
By Ashley Warlick
In the preface to her absolutely beautiful memoir, The Gastronomical Me, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher said people asked her why she wrote about food, instead of important things, like the struggle for power, security, or love.
Her answer is nothing short of perfect:
“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… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one.”
She wrote this in 1943. The Gastronomical Me was her fourth book published in six years, each one more prescient than the last, each one full of stories of food, farmers, restaurants, specific meals present and past, the pleasures of the table.
Why don’t more of us know her words by heart?
I offer a list of why we should.
Fisher believed in honest bread, wine, potatoes, steak. She prized simplicity on the plate and in the process; to say that food was honest was her highest compliment. Too, honest food communicated something ineffable. If you cut yourself a slice of bread from a loaf you’d made, she said: “It will smell better, and taste better, than you remembered anything could possibly taste or smell, and it will make you feel, for a time at least, newborn into a better world than this one often seems.
She believed everyone had a way they liked to feed themselves when they were alone. She recounted her own ritual of peeling tangerines in a Strasbourg apartment, waiting for her husband to come home, placing the sections on newspaper atop the radiator to plump and concentrate before plunging them into the snow of the windowsill. Such careful attention to detail, for an audience of one.
She also recognized (early and often) the connections between our appetites, and how a smart cook might take control of more than her lover’s taste buds from the kitchen. Even better than that, she realized her powers need not always be used for good. A meal to un-seduce begins with three martinis, salty Italian hors d’oeuvres, and then “something he no longer wanted but could not resist.” It ends with a small, terrible cup of coffee, “so black and bitter that my victim could not down it, even therapeutically.”
She had rules for martinis, categories for them, a healthy understanding of their power: “I, when about to drink one, make sure of several things, but mainly how soon after it I can expect to sit down to a decent bite to eat. If things look grimly as if they would drift on; if my host has a glint of pre-dinner wanderings and dropping-ins in his eye; if my hostess seems disarmingly vague about how to get a meal on the table…I must firmly say no.”
In Dijon, she ate pâté so old the seal of butter had mildewed, snipes so old they fell from the hooks they hung from. She ate oysters shucked in the street by a man whose hands were gnarled and freshly cut. She ate a lot of snails. She wrote, “A complete lack of caution is perhaps one of the true signs of a real gourmet.”
She was declarative in her writing tone, sweeping, sure. As a nation, she felt we worried too much about square meals and food groups. Balance could be found over the whole day, the whole week for that matter, and nobody was going to die from lack of meat and potatoes for dinner. Her recipes are breezy plans, rather than prescriptions. They often include directions like “it should be a heavily flavored mixture, according to your own tastes and distastes.” Because you should have confidence too.
She once took a long walk through the Swiss countryside with her lover, each of them detailing the time, place, weather and number of guests for the perfect dinner party, “as important to the gastronomical consummation as the food itself.” Even though her dinner party included enchiladas made with real tortillas, Collete and the Prince of Wales before he ran off with Wallis Simpson, and she can’t remember a thing about his, she’s certain that her lover won their contest.
She often wrote about meals in restaurants where the food was more the setting than the subject. She wrote about the passionate devotion of the waitress to the chef, the shaky hand of the old-timer, the strange habits of the other diners. She understood that a meal shared in public was shared with those who made it and served it, that they had stories too.
When she was at work on her first collection of essays, Serve It Forth, she was drawn to the old culinary books in the Los Angeles Public Library, the heft and smell of them, the brittle pages in her hands. She studied recipes for Roman fermented fish sauce, and tales of feasts in ancient Greece. She wove these histories through episodes from her own gastronomic past, as a child at her strict grandmother’s table, and as a wide-eyed young wife in the markets of Les Halles, because it’s important to know where we’ve come from.
She understood the power of memory, particularly when faced with the ravages of loss, and powerful way food can evoke it. In How To Cook A Wolf, she spent the entire book offering advice on managing rations in the kitchen, only to give six extravagant recipes in the final chapter. She said, “Sit back in your chair, then. Drop a few years from your troubled mind. Let the cupboard of your thoughts fill itself with a hundred ghosts that long ago, in 1939, used to be easy to buy and easy to forget.”
Above all, she valued story.
She valued her right to tell her story, her voice and perspective, her place in the world. And isn’t that the essence of the locavore movement? We feed ourselves every day, our whole lives through; what and how and why and from where matters.