Friday, June 22, 2012

What The F!#& Should I Read Friday: The Art of Eating

What the F!#& Should I Read Friday: Books to Make Your Weekend Weird & Wonderful

The Art of Eating by MFK Fisher

If anyone asks me this month why I am leaving Massachusetts, I will answer that it is because I can no longer stand to live in a place where it is ninety-three degrees at night without murdering someone. This is, in fact, a major contributor to my departure from the Bay State. See, where I grew up in Northern California, it was rarely less than 40 degrees and rarely more than 90, ever. Here, it routinely goes from -20 to 100 in the course of a few months. This, my friends, produces UTTER FATHOMLESS INSANITY. In me, and, I'm pretty sure, in everyone else too; it's just that everyone else complains about it less. This is because they, poor fools, have no idea what it's like to live in the joys of a temperate climate. The 99-degree days just started showing up this week, and it's kind of a relief in a sick way: I've been dreading saying goodbye to the people I love, but now I can't wait to get out of here. People laugh when I trot out that old cliche of it's not the heat, it's the humidity! but it's true, they just don't know. I've been in hundred-degree weather in California (not the Northern coast, I should note) and enjoyed it - because it was DRY. In the shade it was LESS HOT. The breeze didn't feel like being SMACKED WITH HOT WET TOWELS. Walking outside did not present you with the sensation of walking into a SOLID WALL of heat. That's the thing about humidity - it's oppressive. It's the thing that makes me really, really crazy. Not the heat - the frantic feeling that I can't get it off my skin.

But there was one summer when I didn't mind it so much. It was my very first summer in Massachusetts, and it was also my very first summer on my own. And that was the summer I discovered this book, and what a joy it was...

That summer, I was living in a room in a pleasant house I shared with an adorable couple who left me entirely alone. The house was decently cool, and it had a little porch, and I had no furniture whatsoever because it was right after my first year of college and the only furniture I'd had in my dorm was the stuff they give you, and I was blissfully happy. I had a nice boyfriend who lived a couple hours away and came to visit me every couple of weeks, and a friend who lived an hour away who came to visit me once a week, and a job that involved me going into an office to shoot how-to videos about cooking a couple time a week and then sitting in my room editing the rest of the time. That summer, on average, I'd say I spent about twelve hours a week in the company of anyone who wasn't me. The rest of the time I was by myself. It was the summer I learned the difference between loneliness and solitude, because, as I mentioned, I was blissfully happy.

(Yes, I'm getting to the book. Shut up, this is important. BACKSTORY, son!)

HOW COOL IS THIS YOU GUYS also I WANT that bedroom.
via this website that includes a kind of wonderful description of
rain at night, which is written in very poor English but is still
peculiarly poetic and evocative: "Waking up between dripping rain
soul and the wet smell of soil mixed with each other, in the little
cold air, familiar but strange, i suddenly feel so lightly..." (sic)
It was hot. Crazy hot. Like stupidly, ridiculously, hideously hot. Inside the house it wasn't bad; my room was a little stuffy, but the kitchen was delightfully cool. Outside it was a furnace. I avoided walking whenever possible, and carefully planned each trip outside to get as much done as possible. I gloried in buying my own food. I ate almost nothing that summer except oranges, watermelon, olives, cheese, and garlicky asparagus on toast. I listened to a lot of Gotan Project - sultry, sexy, steamy, mournful tango music. I practiced bellydance almost every night, the first time I'd ever taken it so seriously. And almost every night, as if in approval, there was an epic thunderstorm. I'd never seen storms like this. Lightning EVERYWHERE. Rain POURING. I'd smell it before it arrived, and I'd throw open my window, and I'd lie in the dark on the piled quilts that were my bed because, as mentioned, I had no furniture, and I'd just listen. Or I'd go out and watch the light show from the porch. The heat would die down, and the extraordinary scent of petrichor would fill my room, and I would grow radiantly peaceful and eat my olives and read this book and feel perfectly happy with the world.

I am hating on this current summer because there hasn't been a single thunderstorm. Not one. This is not cool you guys. In every sense of the word.

So, okay, this book. Why the whole big leadup? I guess because I think this book is kind of special in a way that the others I've written about for WTFSIRF (hey, that's a pretty hilarious acronym actually - what the f!#&, Sir F? no? just me? darn) aren't. The others have been books I've loved, books that shaped me as a writer and a reader...but I suppose this book has a different kind of resonance for me. I stumbled across it in a bookstore while looking for cheap cookbooks with pretty pictures, and I felt like I'd discovered a treasure trove. And so, without further ado, here are you five question so I can tell you exactly why I felt this way.

1. Who the f!#& wrote this book?
2. What the f!#& is it about?
3. Where the f!#& should I read this book?
4. When the f!#& is it set? 
5. Why the f!#& should I read it?

1. Who the f!#& wrote this book?
The young Mary Frances
Kennedy. Via NYT Books.
The Art of Eating, which is actually a collection of five books, was written by M.F.K. Fisher, a fascinating woman who was born in 1908 and died in 1992 and therefore saw a whole lot of interesting stuff. She wrote for most of her life, starting early in her adolescence and writing pretty much up until she died; her essays on getting old are amazing (because nobody writes about getting old in America) but what she's really known for is her writing on food. She was one of the very first American writers to actually consider food a meaningful topic, and she wrote everything from recipe books to playful essays about oysters to serious historical pieces concerning the lives of epicures. She also led a rather daring and adventurous life, which included a great deal of travel in Europe and leaving her first husband for one of his best friends. She seriously considers everything from great French cuisine to the ham sandwich, and writes as honestly about fried eggs as she does about caviar. She is, in fact, one of the few food writers I think is equally appealing to those who don't think about food at all AND to those who have six kinds of balsamic vinegar in their cabinets you know the difference between them without looking. If, like me, you fall somewhere in between, you'll probably think she's pretty neat, too.

2. What the f!#& is it about?
Oh god, oyster stew. *flails* Via For the Love of Cooking
Well, it's about food, obviously. Like I said, the book actually contains five of her books of essays: Serve it Forth, Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, The Gastronomical Me, and An Alphabet for Gourmets. Each of them is different. Serve it Forth is maybe the most varied of the bunch: it's a set of short essays that is more about how people eat than what they eat, and considers everything from the rotten fish sauce used by the Romans to the story of an alcoholic waiter at one of the best restaurants in the world to unlikely friendships formed from the breaking of bread and the sharing of chocolate. Consider the Oyster is a book of little vignettes about oysters - why we eat them, for one thing, but also how to eat them, and it includes some truly spectacular recipes from the simple to the wildly elaborate. How to Cook a Wolf is kind of a lovely time capsule of a book, because she wrote it during World War II, and it's about how to preserve honor and dignity at the dinner table while food is being rationed! In this collection it includes annotations she made after the war, including some funny & rather rueful observations about how quickly the book became dated, but it's something of an amazing peek into how people lived during the war - and, more especially, about the importance of pleasure in times of hardship. It's not a how-to manual on economizing rations; it's a book about finding nourishment, both physical and spiritual, under adverse conditions. And it has some marvelous recipes in it; I have made her gingerbread so many time the page is crinkled and brown with molasses.

A postcard of the pool on the Berengaria, one of the ocean
liners on which she traveled, which she writes about in The
Gastronomical Me. Ah, travel. Le sigh. Via this website
devoted to postcards of the ship
The Gastronomical Me is a memoir, a set of stories about her own life in relation to food - stories of voyages by sea and her experiences in Europe that are absolutely delightful to read. The character she calls "Chexbres" in the book is the man she left her first husband for, Dillwyn Parrish, with whom she had an absolutely passionate and tragic love affair - he was the love of her life, and they had very little time together, because injuries he'd sustained during World War I basically meant that he was dying slowly throughout all of World War II. A couple of the stories in this book are about her life after him, and the way the world felt to her when he was gone, and they are strange and beautiful indeed. And finally, An Alphabet for Gourmets is a sweet and silly little book that is exactly what it sounds like: twenty-six short pieces, one for each letter, combining memories of some of the most potent food-related experiences of her life (from fried-egg sandwiches to fresh-picked peas to fancy racks of lamb) to musings about ostentation and honesty to how to live without salt. There are recipes sprinkled through, in the lovely way she has, like oysters in a creamy stew. (Sense a theme? Oh god, I have oyster lust.)

3. Where the f!#& should I read this book?
This book is a voluptuous and luxurious read; it clocks in at 744 pages, not including the index. It's a delight to read almost anywhere, but I will say this - I would not recommend reading anyplace where you will not have quick access to tasty things to eat. It will make you hungry.

4. When the f!#& is it set?
Turns out the awesome fantasy writer
Anne McCaffrey like the title so much
she used it for a cookbook that compiled
recipes from a bunch of famous fantasy
and sci-fi writers. No, really. You can
make Peter S. Beagle's "Legendary
Minestrone." Oddly, McCaffery makes
no mention in her introduction of the
rather more influential book from
whence her title came...
It does do to bear in mind that these books are rather old, and they are set firmly in their own time. Serve it Forth was published in 1937, Consider the Oyster in 1941, How to Cook a Wolf in 1942, The Gastronomical Me in 1943 (she was prolific, man) and An Alphabet for Gourmets in 1949. She comes from a fairly liberal family, and she is upset by her mother's racism (she writes particularly about a Japanese cook they had who deeply unnerved her mother by his "otherness") but she is not entirely free of prejudice herself. She was a white woman who was not immune to stereotyping and two-dimensional ideas of non-white people, and both her mother and grandmother had ideas about Class that bleed through in ways she can't see but we, as readers, can; she writes about the servants her family had, most of whom were poor and white, with a mixture of sympathy, sensitivity, and a cluelessness I'm sure she didn't know about. She is, at least, several steps closer to thoughtfulness about people different from her than her parents were, and I suppose that's something. Her style, too, is old-fashioned, but very clear and graceful and simple.

5. Why the f!#& should I read it?
I'm going to let MFK Fisher answer this one herself, because what she has to say about will either convince you that you want to read this book or, um, not. And here it is, from the introduction to The Gastronomical Me:

      "People ask me: why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don't you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do?
      They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft.
      The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more to it than that. 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 the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied...and it is all one.
      I tell about myself, and how I ate bread on a lasting hillside, or drank red wine in a room now blown to bits, and it happens without my willing it that I am telling too about the people with me then, and their other deeper needs for love and happiness.
      There is food in the bowl, and more often than not, because of what honesty I have, there is nourishment in the heart, to feed the wilder, more insistent hungers. We must eat. If, in the face of that dread fact, we can find other nourishment, and tolerance and compassion for it, we'll be no less full of human dignity.
      There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk. And that is my answer, when people ask me: Why do you write about hunger, and not wars or love?"

It is this, really, that sums up why I gloried in that book all summer long. It was nourishment, of a kind I'd never had before: it articulated to me why it is that food, and the eating of it and the sharing of it, has always seemed so wildly important to me. Eating, says MFK Fisher, is an act that can express everything from love to honor; it can support the warmth of family or the sweetness of solitude; it can be a way to live with grace, a way to look fear in the face. And so, dear readers, I serve it forth to you. May it fill you up also.


  1. That actually sounds like a book I would like, but I doubt I will get it onto my list (because my list is SO big).

    How soon do you head this way?

    I grew up in a place smothered by humidity. So much so that I barely feel the heat out here at all. It was 100 last Saturday, and I was quite comfortable the whole time. My wife has taken to calling me a lizard.

    1. July 6th, baby. Only two more weeks of heat insanity. Oy. Packing has become SO DIFFICULT.

  2. Beautifully written. And yes, it's balls-to-the-wall humid out. It's making-me-stupid humid out. (Supposed to be a thunderstorm coming in here tonight - hopefully you'll be getting it, too? We're not that far apart.)

    1. Ahhh, I hope so! We can sit inside and listen to the rain together. it will be adorable.

  3. I'm already tired of the humidity. I'm ready for fall. :) It's a pleasure to meet you. I stopped in from your query post today.


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