Monday, February 4, 2013

The Art of Eating

I took many good courses on creative nonfiction at the college level.  I read some of the most interesting things in those courses because there was a less of a “canon” than in fiction or poetry.  I decided that if I ever teach creative nonfiction, one text I will use is MFK Fisher’s The Art of Eating.  This colossal book, first published in 1954, is a collection of Fisher’s books from the 1937 Serve It Forth to An Alphabet for Gourmets.  From reading these books, I have become a devoted fan and would happily read anything Fisher wrote.  Like the best gastronomic writers, she writes sensually and with precision and humor, and like the best memoirist, she masters understatement and the unique link between the sensual and the emotional.  I loved every minute of The Art of Eating and can’t recommend it highly enough. If you find yourself pressed for time, however, and can somehow find An Alphabet for Gourmets separate to the other four books, I would recommend starting with that book, simply because it is the apotheosis of Fisher’s style and repeats some of the anecdotes, scenes, and wisdom from her previous books.  

I love Fisher for many reasons.  As a confirmed gourmand and aspiring gourmet, her philosophy if not her technique is within my grasp and, moreover, her strictures regarding the settings for eating well—regarded by some, no doubt, as snobbish—strike resounding chords.  I love eating and always have.  I wax sentimental and sensual about good food and consider the fact I lost a lot of weight proof of the deepest of my darkest bout of depression.  However, I do not consider myself a good cook and while I used to be a good baker, I have sort of lost the knack.  So it’s nice to know that Fisher thought, “cooking in itself is, for most women, a question less of vocation than of necessity.  . . . they cook doggedly, desperately, more often than not with a cumulative if uninspired skill.”  She acknowledges some cooks need “the radio” or a “phonograph” to keep them company, but “Most of all I need to be let alone.  I need peace.”    

One could argue Fisher is hopelessly old-fashioned and stuck in a bygone era of American culinary experience.  She did, after all, predate Julia Child and all television chefs; her childhood in the early years of the 20th century give her a very different background in terms of “staple American diet” than we know today.  Furthermore, much in her books could be considered quaint—especially How to Cook a Wolf.   Her discussion of the horrors of an early evening meal—“there is a fairly good play, a passable movie, a game of bridge—surely some way to kill a few hours”—predates the invention of TV.  Her description of a dream kitchen anticipates modern conveniences we now take for granted:  “dream-like rooms where glass walls and metal sinks compete with electric dishwashers and mixers of cake for the fascinated reader’s favour.”  Despite the multitude of good, solid, common sense advice in How to Cook a Wolf, and her 1950s addendums to 1940s writing, Fisher can’t really be considered “Jamie Oliver-esque.”  She came from a moneyed class and spends a great part of each book discussing dining on ocean liners, an antiquated and snobbish (it seems to me) custom (she reserves bile for a plane flight she took in the 1950s to Mexico).  Her activities in Dijon, Strasbourg, and in various restaurants across the US seem to have all the gaiety of the 1920s.  Her second book is Consider the Oyster, for Chrissakes. (Having never eaten oysters and not being in a rush to do so, I admit I read rather quickly through this book, though it was quite interesting.) 
Yet her call for variety must have been fairly radical in a time when “it is likely more neurasthenics and downright homicidal maniacs have been formed by roast-on-Sunday, fish-on-Friday, than by any other social custom.”  Personally, though I have ever been in awe of the English Sunday lunch, I find it daunting and a bit desperate.  The “vegetable snobbism” she speaks of has never really reared its ugly head at me, though I admit to being unfamiliar with some vegetables I now eat much more often.  “My mother, who was raised in a country too crowded with Swedish immigrants, shudders at turnips, which they seem to have lived on.  And yet, there she ate, week in and week out, corn meal mush and molasses[1], a dish synonymous to many Americans with poor trash of the pariah-ridden South.”  

How to Cook a Wolf was written to help the women of America cope with wartime shortages, based sometimes on the British model, sometimes coming from other sources.  “You can make scrambled eggs ‘go a lot further’ by putting bread crumbs in them when they are a little more than half done.”  Anyone who has ever tried to live on Pot Noodle, breakfast cereal, or bread and tea (I confess to the latter) will appreciate the story of a mother who got herself and 5 children through the Great Depression through economy.  “I have occasionally thought of her and her system, and have wanted, in a faintly masochistic mood, to see what five years rather than five months of farinaceous vegetables and cheap spaghettis[2] and breads would do the teeth and innards of her brood.”  There is even a good chapter on what to feed your pet when money/fuel/food is scarce.  (“There is one eccentric and wealthy old lady in Cornwall, the kind who is often the victim in mystery stories, who was stoned in 1940 because she had refused to kill her cat and her terrier.  Moreover, she had turned her cellars and her air-raid shelter into a haven for every pet she could rescue from the panicky village.  That seemed terrible to the people, to feed and protect brute-beasts while little children were bombed and might be hungry too.  The old lady was most unpopular, in 1940.  But in 1941 she was not.”)  However, I took a lot of useful recipes from this book.   Though the suggestion raised an eyebrow from Jamie, I love the idea of a supper consisting of just baked apples and hot buttered toast!
I like Fisher because she is perverse and funny.  “How [it] soup was discovered is best left unpondered except by radio script-writers (!) and people who try to interest children in the Stone Age[3].”  “I have tried to be callous about slugs.  I have tried to picture the beauty of their primeval movements before a fast camera, and I have forced myself to read in the Encylopedia Britannica the harmless ingredients of their oozy bodies.  Nothing helps.  I have a horror, deep in my marrow, of everything about them.  Slugs are awful, slugs are things from the edges of insanity, and I am afraid of slugs and all their attributes.
                “But I like snails.  Most people like snails.”  

She announces in the introduction to her first book, Serve It Forth, that she will include no recipes, and by the middle, she has cheerfully broken her cardinal rule, in one of the most amazing chapters in the entire tome, waxing incredibly lyrical about Dijonnaise gingerbread.  It’s a subject she returns to later, but the sensual experience of reading these pages is almost as good as smelling or tasting the gingerbread (I surmise).  “At art school, where tiny Yencesse tried to convince the hungriest students that medal-making was a great career, and fed them secretly whether they agreed or not, altar smoke crept through from the cathedral on one side, and from the other the smell of pain d’épic baking in a little factory.  It was a smell as thick as a flannel curtain.”  In the character of English-born Bavarian governess Miss Lyse, we are privy to an elegy on tea-drinking, and one of the most amazing creative nonfiction parts of the book.  

In the extensive introductory material, Fisher’s fourth book, The Gastronomical Me, is called oblique.  At first I had no idea why anyone would think that.  The first half is incredibly rich in memoir material of sharp, delightful detail and emotion.  “The first thing I remember tasting and then wanting to taste again is the grayish-pink fuzz my grandmother skimmed from a spitting kettle of strawberry jam.  I suppose I was about four.”  This scene, from a storm of canning going on in Mary Frances’ grandmother’s kitchen in 1912, is the first that indicates a background not unlike the one of the girls in Meet Me in St Louis.  1918 brings a bonding experience with her father over hot peach pie told in incredible, corporeal detail.  “There was a quart Mason jar, the old-fashioned bluish kind like Mexican glass, full of cream.  It was still cold, probably because we all knew the stream it had lain in, Old Mary’s stream.”  There’s a fantastic, almost unbelievable tale about a frustrated cook who becomes a murderer.  

However, it’s her first oyster, in 1924, when she’s a teenager at Miss Huntingdon’s School for Girls, that is the pièce de résistance of The Art of Eating.  Beautiful, clear-eyed physical detail is remember alongside the story of teenage awkwardness and the strange social gap between the girls, their families, and the staff. It’s a haunting, almost cinematic tale that will change your life.  Perhaps one reason I love Fisher and feel like I know her almost as well as if I’d met her is because she’s an all-American girl who nevertheless went abroad once (to France, no less) and caught the bug, traveling back and forth between Europe and America for the rest of her life.   “I had never travelled more than a twelve-mile trip home from school for vacations; I lived in the country outside a very small California town; I had almost no friends there, because I had been away a long time and grown very shy and rather snobbish; I was as sexless as a ninety-year old nun.  . . . And there I was suddenly, big moody, full of undirected energies of a thousand kinds.”   When she goes away to college with her cousin, delightful, heady excess is the name of the game:  “we could have four waffles and unlimited coffee or a five-course meal for forty cents.  Then we would go to the theatre and eat candy; there were still small companies playing Smilin’ Through and Seventh Heaven then, or traveling magicians.  And after the show we’d have another waffle, or two or three cups of hot chocolate. . . . I shudder wholeheartedly and without either affection or regret at what we ate, nine tenths of the time we were there, and remember several things with great pleasure:  Mr Cleary, of course; the dishes of pickled peaches like translucent stained glass, at the Inn when we were taken there for Sunday dinner; best of all, probably, the suppers Nan and Rachel and I would eat in their room.
                “Now I think we ate  them the way puppies chew grasstops. They probably saved our lives.
                “We would buy ginger ale, rolls, cream cheese, anchovy paste, bottled ‘French’ dressing, and at least six heads of the most beautiful expensive lettuce we could find in that little town where only snobs ate anything but cabbage, turnips, and parsnips for the winter months.
                “We would lock the door, and mix the cheese and anchovy together and open the ginger ale.  Then we ould toast ourselves solemnly in our toothbrush mugs, loosen the belts on our woollen bathrobes, and tear into that crisp cool delightful lettuce like three starved rabbits.
                “Now and then one or another of us would get up, go t oa window and open it, bare her little breasts to the cold sweep of air, and intone dramatically, ‘Pneu-mo-o-o-onia!”  Then we would all burst into completely helpless giggles, until the we had laughed enough to hold a little more lettuce.  Yes, that was the best part of the year.”  

During the early 1930s, Fisher meets her first husband, Al, crosses the Atlantic for the first time, they settle in Dijon, and she has the culinary adventures now a dime-a-dozen in A Year in Provence-type rip-offs.  There are some fantastical episodes in this section, including some on the unnamed coast of a South American country which take on dream-like qualities.  Al veers in and out of the book, eventually disappearing (we don’t know for a long time whether it’s divorce or death, as her second husband, Chexbres/Dilwynn dies of cancer).  This is certainly Fisher at her most oblique, in regards to men, where she reveals some surprising, sometimes downright shocking thoughts, yet keeps us all at arms’ length in a haze.  There are occasional glimpses into a Hollywood studio (!) and/or radio (!) writing career, her third husband, and her daughters.  Fisher seems like she may have been a difficult mother to have.  

She isn’t afraid of saying that she’d rather dine alone than with dinner guests who make the meal a hell (I’ve endured far too many of these myself to disagree).  “Sharing our meals should be a joyful and trustful act, rather than the cursory fulfilment of our social obligations.”  Instead of giving you endless models of mixers, spoons, gadgets, and must-have items, she admits, “there is not one [kitchen] I would willingly accept unchanged.”  “I was beginning to believe, timidly I admit, that no matter how much I respected my friends’ gastronomic prejudices, I had at least an equal right to indulge my own in my own kitchen.”  She is far kinder to gluttons than anyone writing about cuisine has been for the last 30 years—for example, in the story of Biddy, who spends a holiday in Los Angeles eating breakfast for four hours in Spring Street, drinking coffee, eating Viennese tarts, sweet pickles, etc.  There are a number of crazed characters like this in The Gastronomical Me and An Alphabet for Gourmets.  One of the strangest incidents is Fisher’s trip to Mexico where her brother David is caught up in a strange ménage-à-trois with a transvestite.  

An Alphabet for Gourmets is the most assured of the works, less personal but also full of kindness, sharing, practical advice, recipes—in short, a condensed and judiciously edited combination of the four works that preceded it.  One of the highlights is Aunt Gwen’s fried egg sandwiches, under H for Happy.  Aunt Gwen was not her aunt but an English neighbor who used to go behind Mary Frances and her sister Anne’s grandmother’s back to make them fried egg sandwiches which were put in dress pockets and eaten on a ridge above their Californian homes while they sang rousing hymns.  “Group happiness is another thing.”  K is for Kosher is a very interesting look at a Gentile’s view of Jewish cooking and the practical reasons behind Moses’ dietary laws.  L is for Literature is a joy because it makes the link between writing and eating and cooking, and Fisher confesses to reading novels about food as well as hundreds of menus and cookbooks.  Although not a good cook, as mentioned, I enjoy reading menus and cookbooks (but I am not really a TV cookery person.  I can only imagine it’s because I enjoy the act of reading more than the TV consumption route).   She also explores eating as catharsis, as in the case of an everyday man who’d just gone to his wife’s funeral and afterward stopped at every diner along  the highway and eaten everything he could possibly want.  

You wonder what Fisher would have made of today’s TV cooking and dining shows, of organic food, of microwaves and preservatives, aspartames and Atkins diet (she died in 1992).  In her reappraisal of How to Cook a Wolf, she writes disparagingly of “sealed cans filled with milk-solids, nitrous-oxide gas, and suchlike, which spit out a ‘dessert topping’ vaguely reminiscent of whipped cream when held correctly downwards, and a fine social catastrophe when sprayed, heedlessly upright, about the room.”   I am planning to try Fisher’s recipes and see if they hold up after 50 years, which I’m sure they will.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

[1] Long an American staple, since at least the 18th century. 
[2] This makes me think of those TV shows where people eat nothing but Hoops for years.
[3] Anthony Coburn, then.

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