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 the 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, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it... and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied... and it is all one.
— M.F.K. Fisher, The Gastronomical Me 1943
How is this as an appetizer? Having to choose a morsel that would give you a sense of the meal to come, I think this is a fine one.
Mary Frances Kennedy was born on July 3, 1908. The 100th anniversary of her birth is the immediate cause of this article, the excuse to talk about a deeply human thinker and brilliant writer. If you have never read anything she wrote, I invite you to do it.
I could fill this column with notes about M.F.K. Fisher’s life, her formative years (she grew up in Whittier, Calif.), her husbands (the first of whom was Al Fisher) and daughters, her travels, her house in Glen Ellen (“Last House,” where she lived from the early ’70s until her death in 1992, writing, reading, cooking and entertaining visitors). However, I would rather devote the allotted space to discussion of her beautiful writing.
Of the books penned by Ms. Fisher that I have so far read, my favorite is How to Cook a Wolf, which, I believe, illustrates well the qualities that make her writing enchanting. After spending three years in France with her first husband, she came back to the United States in 1932. Five years later she published her first book, Serve it Forth. “Now I am going to write a book. It will be about eating and about what to eat and about people who eat,” she writes in the first chapter, “To Begin.” In 1941 came Consider the Oyster, a fine read, regardless of your personal relationship with the mollusk of the title: “An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life.” That book was followed, in 1942, by How to Cook a Wolf, described by James Beard as “her brilliant approach to wartime economies for the table.”
Wartime brings special challenges to anybody trying to eat “with both grace and gusto.” Fisher refuses to allow all pleasures to disappear from the wartime table and provides advice and recipes that creatively make the best of what can be obtained and prepared at a time of tight budget and scarcity. As usual with Fisher’s books, the food at hand provides the springboard for reflections on topics ranging from the balanced diet to the choice of a drinking partner.
An endearing quality of How to Cook a Wolf is the fact that, nine years after its publication, Ms. Fisher went back to it and annotated it. Her notes, printed enclosed in square brackets in the North Point Press edition, sound like theatrical asides where the author reflects on her earlier ideas and assertions. Sometimes she stands by her words: “In other words, never throw away any vegetable or its leaves or its juices unless they are bad; else count yourself a fool (That’s right!).” Sometimes she amends her original words, since she thinks she has learned a thing or two in the intervening time: “There are two ways to boil rice correctly. (How arbitrary can you be? I should have said: ‘I thinkthere are...!’ I still think so, but am open to persuasion now, being older and hopefully wiser.)” And sometimes she declares that she has changed her mind: “When you are really hungry, a meal eaten by yourself is not so much an event as the automatic carrying out of a physical function: you must do it to live. (I now disagree completely with this, and could and probably will write a whole book proving my present point, that solitary dining, no matter what the degree of hunger, can be good.)”
At some point the war ends, and in time rations and shortages end as well. People want to forget the war years and the privations suffered during them. Fisher believes, however, that the majority of men and women “who cooked and marketed their way through the past war ... will feel, until their final days on earth, a kind of culinary caution: butter, no matter how unlimited, is a precious substance not lightly to be wasted; meats too, and eggs, and all the far-brought spices of the world, take on a new significance, having once been so rare. And that is good, for there can be no more shameful carelessness than with the food we eat for life itself.”
Each chapter of How to Cook a Wolfpresents Fisher’s thoughts on a topic: “How to Boil Water,” “How Not to Boil an Egg,” etc. Expounded principles are applied in recipes inserted in the text. Although the recipes are interesting (they include the aptly named War Cake, in which bacon grease can be used, “because of the spices that hide its taste”), the main pleasure of reading the book is to listen to Fisher philosophize, muse, get passionate, gently satirize (herself first), and tell stories, where she describes people and events of her life.
My favorite character is Sue, protagonist of the chapter “How to Be Cheerful Though Starving.” “She loved to eat, and she apparently loved, now and then, to eat with other people. Her suppers were legendary.” As we read about Sue’s house (“a little weatherbeaten house on a big weatherbeaten cliff”) and about her meals (“There were the little bowls of chopped fresh and cooked leaves. There were the fresh and dried herbs, which she had gathered from the fields. There was the common bowl of rice ... There was tea, always.”), we are drawn into what feels like a fairytale and we move in it like small children, awed and a bit afraid. “I have never eaten such strange things as there in her dark smelly room, with the waves roaring at the foot of the cliff.” Sue knew about lots of herbs and wandered around her house to pick them, sometimes trespassing in other people’s gardens. “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.”
Beyond the appreciation for the food Sue prepared, Fisher tells her story as one that embodies her deeply-held belief that we should “nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy, and ever-increasing enjoyment.” “I doubt very much if anybody but Sue could make it good. ... But anyone in the world, with intelligence and spirit and the knowledge that it must be done, can live with her inspired oblivion to the ugliness of poverty. ... Sue nourished herself and many other people for many years, with the quiet assumption (this is very important) that man’s need for food is not a grim obsession, repulsive, disturbing, but a dignified and even enjoyable function. Her nourishment was of more than the flesh, not because of its strangeness, but because of her own calm. (And this, too, is very important.)”
Graceful and appreciative eating leads to a deeper understanding of the nobleness of our life: “I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war’s fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy, and ever-increasing enjoyment. And with our gastronomical growth will come, inevitably, knowledge and perception of a hundred other things, but mainly of ourselves.”
How was that for dessert?
My Vegetarian Version of French Onion Soup with elements (in italics) from MFK Fisher’s recipe for “Parisian Onion Soup” from How to Cook a Wolf:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1-1/4 lb sweet onions, thinly sliced using a mandolin
leaves from 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon regular flour
4 cups vegetable broth, heated (Fisher uses canned beef broth)
rye bread, sliced thin and toasted
grated snappy cheese (Parmesan type)
Heat the oil in a saucepan and add the onions and thyme.
Cook gently for 15 minutes.
Sprinkle the flour, mix well, then add broth and bay leaf.
Simmer until the onions are soft, 30 minutes, or as needed.
Discard the bay leaf and adjust salt and pepper.
Spread the cheese thickly on the toast, and melt under a quick broiler. (This is better than putting the toast and cheese on the soup and then melting since the toast stays crisper.)
Ladle the soup into bowls, arrange the toast on the surface and serve immediately.