In the summer just after college, when I fancied myself some type of pioneer of real-world living, clumsily learning the basic skills of adulthood (seemingly long-known by everyone else), I discovered by accident and subsequently went fully cultish over M.F.K. Fisher. A freshly edited compendium of her writing, The Art of Eating, had just been published that summer, and I think it literally fell down on me from a high shelf while I was sulking around the cookbooks at a Barnes & Noble.
A more providential gift from the gods it could not have been, because in some sort of deep but knowing trance I purchased the brick-shaped tome and devoured the whole thing, one essay after another. In all that lyrical and dreamy prose, I found the real talk I was in desperate need of at that time, poor pioneer that I was. I found, in those fragrant words and funny, opaque recipes, an edge of something hard and deeply smart, a sharp curve I could learn the outline of.
Through my ecstatic reading, I began to understand the power in simple, good cooking – not just how to roast a chicken (though I learned that, too), but the type of cooking that can nourish and heal, in the wake of a broken heart or in the expanse of lonely afternoon.
Her recipes are set in a dustbowl California childhood, on transatlantic ocean liners and cross-country trains, in small sun-soaked French kitchens, in wartime and not in wartime, in the first months of a marriage, in the shadow of a divorce, after an illness. Her sentences read fleetingly but are in reality heavy with the small, beautiful, self-caring things you do for yourself and others when you’re alone and away from home. They are never self-pitying, they are often funny, and they are always magically real.
Like a cake soggy with rum, The Art of Eating is heavily laced with recipes: delicious, extra fortifying for cold, grey days…but not necessary. The real prescriptions for how to sustain yourself and others are in her narratives. And what you glean from the sum total of all the stories and the people and the sure-handed sketches of the meals she writes about is that, you may serve nearly anything, as long as it’s cooked out of rightness and cleverness, and brought forth with dignity.
From “How to Be Cheerful Through Starving” in How to Cook a Wolf, which is a sort of cookbook for wartime, rationing, and all sorts of very real hungers:
I have never eaten such strange things as there in her dark smelly room, with the waves roaring at the foot of the cliff […] People said that Sue robbed garbage pails at night. She did not, of course. But she did flit about, picking leaves from other gardens than her own and wandering like the Lolly Willowes of Laguna along the cliff-tops and the beaches looking in the night light for sea-spinach and pink ice-plant.
The salads and stews she made from these little shy weeds were indeed peculiar, but she blended and cooked them so skillfully that they never lost their fresh salt crispness. She put them together with thought and gratitude, and never seemed to realize that her cuisine was one of intense romantic strangeness to everyone but herself. I doubt if she spent more than fifty dollars a year on what she and her entranced guests ate, but from the gracious abstracted way she gave you a soup dish full of sliced cactus leaves and lemon-berries and dried crumbled kelp, it might as well have been stuffed ortolans. Moreover, it was good.
I wonder what she might have said about blogging, but M.F.K. Fisher is nevertheless a huge inspiration here at Olympia, and this fan-girl letter is a mere introduction to a series of posts we’ll feature starting Monday and through all of next week around one of Mary Frances Kennedy’s favorite topics, and one of the singular foods that comes to mind when we think of GREY, which is: OYSTERS!
Odes to the bivalve, art, recipes for oysters and the things you have with them, How to Throw an Oyster Party, and, next Friday, Oyster Bars We’ve Known (slightly more glamorous than Tea Houses, we hope, but just as beloved)…it’s all coming, and Madame Fisher is paving the way up from the sea with pale-grey oyster shells.
HERE is a list of all of Fisher's work. Everything is great, but a suggested reading list is:
- The Gastronomical Me
New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1943
- A Cordial Water: A garland of Odd & Old Receipts to Assuage the Ills of Man & Beast
Boston: Little, Brown, 1961
- Long Ago in France: The Years in Dijon
New York: Prentice Hall, 1991
- (And, naturally) Consider the Oyster
New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1941