The Gastronomical She: The Art of M.F.K. Fisher

The last few decades have seen our attitude toward food change dramatically. We used to take it for granted. Sure, we stopped to eat it several times a day; we obsessed about its caloric content and its nutritionalMFK FIsher wolf value; we celebrated and mourned with it; in times of shortage or famine, it became the focus of our lives. But it wasn’t so long ago that food as a subject for artistic or intellectual examination was unheard of. Traditionally, when we studied history, we charted the movements of kings and generals, heroes, and sometimes, heroines. When we wrote poetry or sang songs, love was (and still is) our theme. In recent years, TV has given us celebrity chefs; restaurant culture and easy air travel have introduced us to exotic cuisines; and universities have recognized a field called culinary history. Still, this consideration of food as a “serious” subject is rather new. Plenty of people continue to think about food only when they’re deciding whether to bring home pizza or Chinese.

Imagine, then, the audacity of a 29-year-old author named M.F.K. Fisher, who in 1937 published a volume of essays on food. Serve It Forth combined history, memoir and meditation, a combination that would characterize Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher’s writing for the next half-century. Fisher “seized culinary writing” writes Joan Reardon in her lovely triple biography, M.F.K Fisher, Julia Child and Alice Waters: Celebrating the Pleasures of the Table (Crown, 1994), “from the domestic scientists, the packagers and promoters, even the ‘gourmets,’ and with cunning and daring, she placed it at the center of those ‘ageless celebrations’ of life.,’” Serve It Forth was the product of Fisher’s days as a young student bride, first in Dijon, France, where she tasted the glories of French cooking, and later, in Los Angeles, where a part-time afternoon job left her free to spend mornings reading culinary texts in the Los Angeles public library.

This peripatetic education prepared her to chronicle the eating habits of ancient Greece and Rome, the role of the potato in everyday meals, her own experiences eating snails, Catherine de Medici’s culinary influence on France, dining alone, aphrodisiac foods and a poignant return to a much-loved restaurant. A strange mix, but one held together by Fisher’s unforgettable voice, now playful, now painterly, sometimes superior, and sometimes full of heartbreak for the crushed dreamers (including, at times, herself) that she observed in her travels. Whatever her mood, she never doubted the sensuality and the sacredness of eating.

Here is Fisher on tangerines peeled and left for a few hours on top of a radiator in a sparsely furnished apartment: “. . . I cannot tell you why they are so magical. Perhaps it is that little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl, that crackles so tinily, so ultimately, under the MFK Fisherteeth. Or the rush of cold pulp just after it. Or the perfume.” And here she is on the potato: “Baked slowly, with its skin rubbed first in a buttery hand, or boiled in its jacket . . . it is delicious. Salt and pepper are almost always necessary to its hot moist-dusty flavour. Alone or with a jug of rich cool milk or a chunk of fresh Gruyere, it fills the stomach and the soul with a satisfaction not too easy to attain.”

Word pictures like these pop out on every page, not only in Serve it Forth, but in the subsequent volumes: Consider the Oyster, published in 1941, which touches on everything from the oyster’s love life to the oyster loaf at Fisher’s mother’s boarding school; 1942’s How to Cook a Wolf, a wartime prescription for coping with ration cards and shortages; 1943’s The Gastronomical Me, an autobiography told in food memories; and 1949’s An Alphabet for Gourmets. These five books, collected in 1954 in a celebrated volume called The Art of Eating, are probably her best known, but her output was far greater; before her death in 1992, Fisher produced 28 books, including a much-praised translation of French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste.

My favorite is The Gastronomical Me, which begins with Fisher’s girlhood in California, where her grandmother’s delicate digestion ruled the dinner table, and goes on to recall her culinary awakening in Dijon, the break-up of her marriage to Al Fisher, her love affair with the painter, Dillwyn Parrish, his slow death a few years later of Buerger’s disease and her subsequent travels—all juxtaposed against memories of the food she ate. (She would marry and divorce once more, and have two daughters, but these events are chronicled in other books.)

At the beginning of The Gastronomical Me, Fisher explained herself: “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, about love, the way others do?. . . The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more 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. . . . There is communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.”

Nearly 75 years later, in an age whose very religion is fear of fat and carbs, and fear of food in general, those words take a new, more urgent dimension. Unlike so many of us, Fisher never took food for granted, and her message is as meaningful today as it was when she wrote it.

 

 

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Bon Appetit: A Reader’s Guide For Julia Child Fans

The phrase “reading for pleasure” takes on a different meaning for every reader. Some choose mysteries; others go for romance or biography or a particular author. For the past few years, one of my favorite escapist reading choices hasn’t been an author or a genre, but a subject: Julia Child. Her life and work make for reading that I, for one, find irresistible: cooking and eating, Paris, true love, international intrigue and the triumph of perseverance. Plus, there’s Julia herself, the force of nature, the exuberant soul whose wit and charm belied a work ethic of steel. Julia, who told legions of fans that of course they could cook haute French cuisine, and who counseled them to take courage in the kitchen. Julia, who, more than any single individual, transformed the way we think about food.

Even now, eight years after her death at age 91, Juliaphiles like me want more. And lucky for us, the past few years have seen the publication of a shelf full of books about Julia. Since the 1999 publication of Noel Riley Fitch’s 592-page doorstop of a biography, Appetite for Life,  there have been at least nine volumes devoted to Julia’s life and times, including her own posthumously published memoir, My Life in France. And while they all cover the same waterfront, they’re all different enough to make engrossing and pleasurable reading.      

dearie

The most comprehensive of these is Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, by Bob Spitz, published by Knopf late last year. Spitz writes that he got to know Julia when he accompanied her to Sicily in 1992. He was on assignment to write about her and emerged from the experience with a crush on the lively septuagenarian: “She was exactly like her TV persona… warm, funny, outgoing, whip-smart, incorrigible and most of all, real.”

The two talked about a biography, but Spitz had other projects and did not start on Dearie until after Julia’s death. I must admit that it took me a while to love this book. In the early chapters, Spitz sometimes takes a portentous tone, endowing simple events with great meaning. Example: in kindergarten, Julia McWilliams learned to follow rules and listen to instructions, which Spitz notes are “prerequisites for following a recipe.” One wonders at the other five-year-old rule-followers who did not go on to culinary careers. But that’s just a quibble, and for the most part, it’s fun to follow Julia’s life from her youth in conservative Pasadena, California; through her wartime service in Asia (where she met her future husband, Paul Child); to their years in Paris and elsewhere in Europe (where she learned to cook and began her groundbreaking book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking); to her days of cookbook and TV stardom and beyond. Along the way, he offers snapshots of nearly a century of history—turn-of-the-century California; World War II in Washington, D.C. and the Pacific theater; postwar Europe; the early days of public television; and the evolution of the food scene in America.

my life in france

Julia told her own story in a memoir that came out not long after her death. My Life in France (Knopf, 2006) was written with Paul’s grandnephew Alex Prud’homme, and it is a beauty. The pair worked on the book during the last two years of Julia’s life, with Prud’homme interviewing her, writing up what she had said and giving it to her for editing. Julia recalls her days not only in Paris (where Paul was stationed with the State Department), but in Marseille, (his next assignment) and in Provence, where they had a vacation home. Forty or fifty years after the fact, she recalls individual meals and how she cooked them, as well as the people she shared them with. It’s both sweet and frank, a graceful memoir of food, work and her years with the man she adored in a land they both loved.

covertJulia and Paul’s wartime experience has been recounted many times, but never in as much detail as in A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS by Jennet Conant (Simon and Schuster, 2011). This book is as much about Julia and Paul as it is about an all-but-forgotten-but-once-notorious woman named Jane Foster. The three met during the war when they were stationed in what was then Ceylon, working in the Office of Strategic Services, the intelligence unit that was the precursor to the CIA. Foster left government service shortly after the war, disillusioned by a leadership who ignored her on-the-scene observations of revolution in Asia. She went to France to pursue her painting, but during the McCarthy years, her leftist ties led to her being investigated by the State Department and the FBI. She was eventually indicted on charges of espionage, but never tried because France did not extradite for such charges. (The evidence seems to have been pretty flimsy, at that.) Paul was investigated too, but he was exonerated, while Foster was hounded by the U.S. government and the press for years. Connent tells a sad but fascinating tale of what Julia herself later called “a disgusting era.”

As AlwaysA happier story is told in As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto: Food, Friendship and the Making of a Masterpiece (Houghton Mifflin, 2010). Joan Reardon, a food historian who has written on M.F.K. Fisher, was the editor of this volume, and she has done a wonderful job of selecting and judiciously annotating the correspondence of these two friends. They met by mail in 1952, when Julia sent a fan letter to Avis DeVoto’s husband, the historian and writer Bernard DeVoto.  He had written a column bemoaning the poor quality of kitchen knives and Julia sent him a good one from Paris. Avis DeVoto, who handled her husband’s correspondence, wrote back, launching a friendship-by-mail that lasted for years and resulted in the publication of Mastering; it was Avis DeVoto who made the introductions that eventually got the book published. Reading this book is pure pleasure; sixty years later, the two women’s voices dance off the page as they exchange notes on cooking and recipes, husbands, politics, and the progress of the book, which took years to complete.  You’ll enjoy meeting the dynamic DeVoto, and if you want to know what Julia was like in private, in her own voice, this is the book to read.

backstage with JuliaAnother angle on the Julia story can be found in Backstage with Julia: My Years with Julia Child by Nancy Verde Barr (John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2007). The book chronicles a later period in Julia’s life, some twenty years after the publication of Mastering, when Julia had been a TV star for nearly two decades. They met in 1980, when Barr was running cooking schools and raising her family. A friend asked her to help with a Planned Parenthood benefit where Julia would be doing a cooking demo; the two women clicked and Barr joined Julia’s team of assistant cooks, working with her on Good Morning America, traveling with her, and forging a friendship that lasted until Julia’s death. Barr is an engaging writer (and a wonderful cookbook author in her own right) and this slender book adds another perspective to the Julia canon.

minetteThere are even two children’s books about Julia Child, both beautifully illustrated and full of charm.  Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child, written and illustrated by Jessie Hartland (Schwartz & Wade, 2012) offers up Julia’s life in storyboard form, with multiple hand-lettered pictures spilling from each page. Beguiling scenes of Paris and of Julia in her kitchen with Paul accompany the familiar story, which ends with Julia’s first TV show. Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and her Cat, written by Susanna Reich and illustrated by Amy Bates (Abrams Books for Young Readers, Bon Ap picture book2012) tells Julia’s story from the point of view of her cat, Minette. Reich’s cat’s-eye-view narrative and Bates’ haunting pictures of Paris nicely capture Julia’s years there. Young readers will surely enjoy these two books (my daughter and niece did), but I can’t help thinking that their elders—who remember Julia in her heyday—will enjoy them even more.

cats

There’s actually another whole book devoted to Julia’s feline obsession. Julia’s Cats: Julia Child’s Life in the Company of Cats by Patricia Barry and Therese Burson was published by Abrams in 2012. This is, contrary to what you might expect, a serious biography, and it tells Julia’s story with an emphasis on the cats that joined her household over the years. (Minette was the first of many.) If you are both cat lover and a Juliaphile (like me) this book is, um, sheer catnip.

Laura Shapiro book hardcoverLaura Shapiro is one of the nation’s preeminent food historians, so it makes sense that she has weighed in with a book of her own. Julia Child, part of the Penguin Lives series (Lipper/Viking, 2007), is beautifully written volume that tells the story of Julia’s life and sums up her place in American food history and popular culture. “Julia Child,” she writes, “was unlike any other celebrity in America…what was unique about Julia was the quality of emotion she inspired, which was remarkably direct and pure. Julia attracted love, torrents of it, a steady outpouring of love that began with the first pilot episode of The French Chef and continued through and beyond her death.” 

Which I suppose is why, years after her passing, we’re still reading about Julia—and enjoying every page.

 This post was originally published at http://www.booktrib.com