I have what I optimistically (and, I suspect, irritatingly) refer to as an Artistic Temperament (my apologies for sounding like a pretentious ass). Quite frequently I am a jumble of emotions, flitting from one to another. My self medication comes in the form of hot tea, striding walks, good solid food (cold beets work wonders, as do digestive biscuits), and my favorite writers. When it comes to the latter I usually turn to my beloved Virginia Woolf. The passion, the momentum that her writing contains propels me forward, keeps me going. When my nerves are completely rattled and I can not sleep few things beat MFK Fisher. For this Christmas I received The Art of Eating, the gargantuan omnibus that contains five of her books (Serve it Forth, Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Woolf, The Gastronomical Me, An Alphabet for Gourmets), a book that I now keep on my bedside.
Fisher’s writing is (Is it tacky to refer to it as a cool, refreshing glass of water? Ah well…) a cool, refreshing glass of water. No, no, I take that back. Let us scrap the water metaphor and instead replace it with tea. Take this: Agatha Christie is a cup of milky tea with sugar, Virginia Woolf is a mug of the blackest of black teas (Russian Caravan*, perhaps?) brewed to its most bitter and powerful best, and MFK Fisher is a cup of Earl Grey (Caffeinated please, I am not a child**.) that clears away the mind’s fog and refreshes the soul.
There is something so honest in her writing. You, or at least I, believe that Fisher is earnest in her statements, earnest in her love for food. Her language is casual without being sloppy, intimate without being gossipy, informed without being pretentious. When you read it you can see Fisher at her desk dashing out a sentence, pausing it to reread it, and passing down her judgement if it is good or bad. If it is the former she carries on but if it is the latter she, with a faint smile on her face, shakes her head and then scratches it out. In this edition of How to Cook a Wolf Fisher returned to her 1942 work almost ten years later (The book was written to provide advice to those dealing with the rationing of WWII and her updates carry this book into the realm of general home economics.) to update the text with “copious marginal notes and footnotes and a special section of additional recipes” (p. 187). These notes highlight the honesty that I find in her work. Several of these notes update her information but I would say that the bulk of these notes are her commentaries on her younger self’s writing. She, without any sense of forced good-will, chastises her younger self, argues with herself, rolls her eyes at the ideas she once held. Take these snippets:
Let the whole thing rest for a few hours… a day is better [... not better, best] (p. 266)
It is usually expensive, in a mild way. [How can extravagance be mild? And what is mild about a minimal $1.25 bird? But I still say it is worth it, now and then.] (p. 277)
Besides being honest Fisher’s writing is also refreshing. She is direct and does not mess around with unnecessary embellishments, but this directness does not mean that her writing is bland. No, nothing could be farther from the truth. Let us return to the Fisher-Earl Grey tea comparison. Earl Grey does not have the medley of exotic flavors of its sister Lady Grey. Instead of coming across as flat or dull Earl Grey is a complex tea that refreshes and delights. Her directness allows her messages to come across clearly.
I am also completely in love with the stories that Fisher tells. Fisher uses one of the most memory laden aspects of our culture (food, of course) to wander about in her past. Yes, several writers attempt this and end up sounding like the most boring people in the world and you just want to shoot them; however, Fisher has three things going for her:
- Her writing (see above) would make even the most boring story fascinating.
- She stays on topic. I feel like one of the biggest mistakes that food writers make when combining food and memories is to completely forget about the food aspect. They write a paragraph about turkey, relate the way turkeys look to the way that their father’s face looked, write six pages about their father, write a paragraph about turkey, call it done. Fisher never forgets the food. She doesn’t use food as an excuse to write about her life but rather writes about her life experiences with food.
- Her life was fucking fascinating. Private schools, the early 1900s, trips across the Atlantic ocean, unwise marriages, Switzerland, and more.
I have eaten a great many pigeons here and there, and I know that the best one was one I cooked in a cheap Dutch oven on a one-burner gas-plate in a miserable lodging. (p. 278)
*I would like to refer you to something I once had an older British woman say to me when she described Russian Caravan: “It’s a beefy tea. English Breakfast Tea with hairy legs we like to call it.”
**This is no disrepect towards those who drink decaffeinated teas. I personally associate the stuff with being a child and being forbidden caffeinated teas. To this day I insist that I can tell a difference between what I call “proper Earl Grey” and “that flavored water”.