It’s a couple months ago now that I increased my personal happiness tenfold by reading M.F.K. Fisher’s Serve It Forth (1937); I’ve been wondering the whole time how to write about it. This book is both perfect and in a form I’ve never dipped into before–food writing. Essays I am familiar with, certainly (although, sadly, not nearly to the extent you might expect of someone who claims to be a reader; I felt, for a long time, that having been introduced to Michel de Montaigne, there was nowhere left to go save hellish disappointment!)
Luckily, a quotation in the first Brain/Food interview I posted made me reconsider, and now I want to read, not all the food writing, but all the M.F.K. Fisher–because how can anything else food-related possibly measure up to her perfect musings on that best of all things, vittles? It can’t; I can’t believe it; if you make a suggestion, I’ll try to be open-minded, but I might very well laugh at you; don’t take it personally, okay?
The essays in this volume alternate between the personal, the historical, and for lack of a better word, the sociological. Fisher owns them all like she invented them. History has never been so interesting, the personal so compelling, the sociological so immediate and convincing.
Examples. The personal (from “Sing of Dinner in a Dish”):
The first kitchen I ever had of my own was above a cake shop in the working quarter of a small French city. It was perhaps five feet long, and certainly not more than three feet wide.
Its floor of uneven baked tiles was scoured to a mellow pinkness. There were two weak shelves, slanting towards the floor. A two-burner gas plate on a tottering wooden table was the stove. To stand at it I had to keep the door open into the other room. That was all right: the door had been stuck open for several decades.
I had four plates, four goblets, and some three or four or five pans and casseroles.
But I made very good things to eat in that kitchen, and I have always felt that this was partly so because one end of it, from side to side and from ceiling almost to floor, was a window.
It was a sparkling window of many-paned glass, a window curtained briefly with two silly little dabs of cheap net, a window split down the middle ready to fling open as wide as those windows can be flung, wider really than any others.
It looked over treetops into the square where gibbets and then a guillotine once stood, where wandering circus families set up their gas flares for a night or two by the busy fountain and the pissoir, where people moved and talked incessantly above the high wail of a cafe phonograph playing ten thousand times the record of Josephine Baker’s “J’ai Deux Amours.”
The historical (from “Greek Honey and the Hon-Zo”):
Whispers and odours and the tantalizing noises of banqueting floated swiftly westward. Greece heard and smelled and was fascinated. Gastronomy nourished itself on rumour, and from the Spartan black broth was born a refined and decadent philosophy of eating.
In their love for fresh vegetables and native fruits, however, the Greeks kept their cuisine basically simple. Honey they used for all sweetening, leaving the cane sugar brought from China to the medicine-makers. Chestnuts were roasted, as they had been for centuries, and eaten after meals with dried fruits.
But now delicate little cakes of sesame and honey were served at the same time, and cities became rivals in varying their shapes and flavours. Athens grew famous for its fine breads and honey-biscuits, and villages waxed haughty over cheeses whose special tastes they had tried to disguise only a few years before.
The sociological (from “When a Man is Small”):
When a man is small, he loves and hates food with a ferocity which soon dims. At six years old his very bowels will heave when such a dish as creamed carrots or cold tapioca appears before him. His throat will close and spots of nausea and rage swim in his vision. It is hard, later, to remember why, but at the time there is no pose in his disgust. He cannot eat; he says “To hell with it!”
In the same way, some foods are utterly delicious, and the thinks of them and tastes them with a sensuous passion which too often disappears completely with the years.
Perhaps there are little chocolate cookies as a special treat, two apiece. He eats his, all two, with an intense but delicate avidity. His small sister Judy puts one of hers in her pocket, the smug thing. But Aunt Gwen takes a bite from each of her cookies and gives what is left of one to Judy, and what is left of the other to him. She is quite calm about it.
He looks at her with dreadful wonder. How can she bear to do it? He could not, could not have given more than a crumb of his cooky to anyone. Perhaps even a crumb would be too big. Aunt Gwen is wonderful; she is brave and superhuman. He feels a little dizzy as he looks at the bitten cooky in his hand. How could she do it?
I look at Fisher in dreadful wonder (but also at people who can take just one bite of a cookie; I’m sort of human, after all). She may very well be the best prose stylist I’ve come across, in part because she doesn’t seem like she is a stylist; it all looks so easy and natural coming from her. Her writing looks like what everyone should be doing, what we should all be able to do but which, of course, almost no one can do: say plainly and elegantly just what we mean.
But also, the making of something so necessary, so common, so universal, so often inelegant into something so very exciting and new: eating. Cooking and eating. Being cooked for, and eating. Thinking about eating. I enjoy eating very much, but the delicacy and wit with which Fisher describes it all is beyond me; at least, beyond my personal experience. I can appreciate it, if I can’t do it justice.
My husband I have twice now had fancy dinners at the Windsor Arms Hotel here in Toronto; the food, of course, was superb. I am more than able, now that I have a few years practice in, to enjoy tasty good eats. But I felt out of place there, like that documentary in which Julia Roberts plays a prostitute in fancy dress trying to remember how many tines on which fork meant what.
My foody spirit animal, if you will, is more…earthy. A few years ago, I was walking through the desperately terrible shopping mall up the street from my house. It’s got a Walmart, a discount grocery store, a Payless, a $15 haircut place. It hasn’t been renovated since 1981 and it sucked then. I was walking through this monument to despair when three teenaged boys passed me; they were slouching towards adulthood, zitty, hair in their eyes. Just as we moved past each other, one said, in an unconvincing attempt at predictably morose 16-years-old-ness, “Man, I fuckin’ love to eat.” He was really trying to sound oppressed and teenager-ish but he failed; he spoke his mantra–also my mantra–with a sincerity and relish and barely suppressed energy that inspires revolutions and mid-life career changes and running off to Europe with no money.
Longing, appreciation, pleasure, indulgence! There was so much in his sentence; so much, in fact, that I think even Fisher might have appreciated it.
I’m now on the hunt for all her books, but they’re hard to find, which I think is always a good sign about an author’s quality, if a disappointing and frustrating fact for new readers! In any case, you must go forth and read some Fisher yourself. If you’ve ever eaten and enjoyed it, you won’t regret it.