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 nutritional 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 teeth. 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.