september: notes on m.f.k. fisher

reading mary frances

random notes:

This has been a tough month for my essayist project. I’ve told you how I got distracted reading Spunk & Bite. I also have a seventeen-year-old applying to college this fall, so I’m suddenly busy with that, and reading books with ridiculous titles like How to Get Into the Top Colleges. 

I seemed to get around to Fisher just as I was going to bed each night. And then fell asleep soon after. Which prompts the ageless conundrum: Did I fall asleep because the book was boring? Or was the book boring because I was falling asleep?

Part of the problem was that I stubbornly stuck with Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me.  Philip Lopate, author of The Art of the Personal Essay and my unknowing mentor through this project, calls that book Fisher’s “best”. I’m going to respectfully disagree (and hope he doesn’t show up in the comments to argue). Turns out The Gastronomical Me was one of Fisher’s first books, and I found the writing uneven. There’s some fantastic stuff there (as you’ll see in the quotes below), but much of the book rambles, like stream-of-consciousness memory rather than shaped essays.

As October rolled around, I got desperate and picked up my sun-bleached copy of As They Were. I only had to reread the essay “Two Kitchens in Provence” to remember what I’ve long loved about Fisher. I suppose that’s sort of sappy and predictable. It reminds me of the time I told a landscape architect that I wanted to plant our front hillside all in lavender and he said, full of snot, “People are so sentimental about lavender.” Well, yeahI’ll take my lavender hillside and I’ll take Fisher’s memories of food and Provence, no matter how cliche they may seem.

Lopate writes, “Stylistically, Fisher had a taste for aphorisms, sentences of compressed wit that boldly cut through any dithering.” I’d say, to use a word from my recent readings, that she wrote with spunk. Her writing voice was opinionated and direct, refreshing for a woman of her time. And while she’s known for her food writing, it’s her mastery of details that makes her writing memorable. Yes, she could reconstruct a meal from decades before, course by course, but she could also convey the feel of a village in winter, or the driver of a traveling grocery cart: “The man who jolted it around that rocky country had a good face, like a tired village doctor or lawyer.”

Fisher’s insight into people is one of my favorite qualities in her writing, as much as those recollections of meals and time spent in France. She was perceptive, in what seems to me a very female way. And she’d surely make the ultimate dining companion.

a few lines to love:

On recollecting food, from “Once a Tramp, Always…”

It is said that a few connoisseurs, such as old George Saintsbury, can recall physically the bouquet of certain great vintages a half century after tasting them. I am a mouse among elephants now, but I can say just as surely that this minute, in a northern California valley, I can taste-smell-hear-see and then feel between my teeth the potato chips I ate slowly one November afternoon in 1936, in the bar of the Lausanne Palace. They were uneven in both thickness and color, probably made by a new apprentice in the hotel kitchen, and almost surely they smelled faintly of either chicken or fish, for that was always the case there. They were a little too salty, to encourage me to drink. They were ineffable. I am still nourished by them. That is probably why I can be so firm about not eating my way through barrels, tunnels, mountains more of them here in the land where they hang like square cellophane fruit on wire trees in all the grocery stores, to tempt me sharply every time I pass them.”

This essay was published in The New Yorker in 1968, thirty-two years after Fisher ate those chips. The particulars of the chips are impressive enough–but then there’s that description of modern-day chips that “hang there like square cellophane fruit on wire trees in all the grocery stores”. Dead food on dead trees–perfect.

Going back in time to her childhood:

“We spent our time in a stream under the cottonwoods, or with Old Mary the cook, watching her make butter in a great churn between her mountainous knees. She slapped it into pats, and put them down in the stream where it ran hurriedly through the darkness of the butter-house.”

I love the image of the churn between those “mountainous knees”.

On cooking for others:

“I was beginning to believe that is is foolish and perhaps pretentious and often boring, as well as damnably expensive, to make a meal of six or eight courses just because the guests who are to eat it have always been used to that many. Let them try eating two or three things, I said, so plentiful and interesting and so well cooked that they are satisfied. And if they aren’t satisfied, let them stay away from our table, and our leisurely comfortable friendship at that table.

I talked like that, and it worried Al a little, because he had been raised in a minister’s family and taught that the most courteous way to treat guests was to make them feel as if they were in their own homes.”

Gives you a sense of Fisher’s voice, her sass. She’s funny and practical and likable.

Here’s one of those character portraits that impress me so. She’s describing a waitress:

“She was very thin, and something about her was out of a drawing, out of an El Greco. Her eyes were bigger than human eyes, and slipped upwards and sideways; and her mouth was pale and beautiful. She was shadowy…a bad liver probably…but mysterious-looking. She wore black always, and her long hands picked up sizzling platters as if they were distasteful leaves from a tree. She had a light voice; and there was something good and fine about her, so that I always warmed to her.”

This is what I mean by Fisher’s female insight. Here we have a mix of the woman’s physical description, with those eyes and the way her long hands picked up platters, combined with the supposition about her liver, and the way Fisher feels about her. It reminds me of how a woman might talk with a friend over a cup of tea–if the woman had impressive gifts for description.

And here’s another waitress, only this time rendered in dialogue. This comes from an entertaining essay called “I Was Really Very Hungry” about a memorable meal that Fisher did not want, but which was thrust upon her by a maniacal waitress.

“‘You cannot, you cannot, Madame, serve old pastry!’ She seemed ready to beat her breast as she leaned across the table. ‘Look at that delicate crust! You may feel that you have eaten too much.’ (I nodded in idiotic agreement.) ‘But this pastry is like feathers–it is like snow. It is in fact good for you, a digestive! And why?’ She glared sternly at me. ‘Because Monsieur Paul did not even open the flour bin until he saw you coming! He could not, he could not have baked you one of his special apple tarts with old dough!'”

Funny. Fisher captures dialogue especially well.

And another portrait:

“One time we took Michel to the Raisin. He was the kind of short, virile, foxlike Frenchman who seems to have been born in a beret, the kind who is equally ready to shoot a wild boar, make love, or say something which seems witty until you think about it.”

It’s all good, but it’s the “seems witty until you think about it” surprise at the end that really does it.

And another, this time a girl Fisher’s younger brother has brought to visit, with whom he is obsessed.

“But the little blonde girl did not make a part of any of it. The game was too much for her, and the food was boring. She drooped wearily against the long crude table beside the alley, and whenever David seemed for a minute to forget her, she let her hand fall slowly toward him, let her soft pink fingers uncurl. It was wordless, and it was like the crack of a whip. He would drop anything…his bread and honey, the pins he was setting up, and come dazedly to watch her lift the fresh cigaret to her mouth and wait for him to light it.”

It’s all so carefully observed–I’m convinced of the girl’s dreadfulness. I especially like “It was wordless, and it was like the crack of a whip.”

On being driven home from the market in Provence in a taxi:

“Sometimes I would want him to go faster, for I could almost feel the food in the baskets swelling with juice, growing soft, splitting open in an explosive rush toward ripeness and disintegration. The fruits and vegetables in Provence are dying as they grow–literally leaping from the ancient soil, so filled with natural richnesses and bacilli and fungi that they seem a kind of summing up of whatever they are. A tomato there, for instance, is the essence of all tomatoes, of tomato-ness, the way a fragment from a Greek frieze is not a horse but horse itself.”

I love the analysis, especially the analogy in the last line.

Here’s her ending to the essay “Gare de Lyon”, about the restaurant in that train station.

“It comes down, I suppose, to a question of where one really chooses to be, and for how long. This is of course true of all such traffic hubs such as railway stations, but nowhere is there one with a second floor like that of the Gare de Lyon, so peculiarly lacy and golden. It has, in an enormous way, something of the seduction of a full-blown but respectable lady, post-Renior but pre-Picasso, waiting quietly in full sunlight for a chat with an old lover…”

That last line–and the whole essay–is a convincing argument for how much travel has changed. It makes you long for that respectable lady.

And one more, just because it’s the essence of M.F.K. Fisher, in three lines:

There might be one lamb chop left. It would not be good by noon. I would eat it cold for a secret breakfast, with a glass of red wine, after the family had scattered.”

Now I wish I’d started As They Were sooner. I want to keep reading, but it’s time to move on.

the plan for october:

Next up is Scott Russell Sanders. Years ago I read two of his essays, and I still remember their lyricism. I’m starting with A Private History of Awe.

8 comments… add one
  • Barbara Oct 10, 2009 @ 6:15

    Thanks for this, Patricia–Fisher one of those writers that I’ve always meant to read but never have–I think I started “The Gastronomical Me” once but never made much headway. I’m going to the library today and will try and get my hands on “As They Were.” I recently finished “My Life in France,” and it sounds like a good follow-up.

    And by the way, I don’t have a hillside full of lavender–just a few beloved plants–but it sounds wonderful to me. I can just imagine rolling around and getting a good noseful. Call me sentimental.

    • patricia Oct 10, 2009 @ 23:26

      Nice to hear from you again, Barbara! I’ve missed you and your blog!

      As They Were is a collection of essays that appeared elsewhere first. It’s a nice collection, but I’ll bet there are lots of other good collections too. I just think Fisher got better as she went–don’t we all–and Gastronomical Me wasn’t as good as what came later.

  • susan Oct 10, 2009 @ 8:59

    I’ve got a sketchbook for our trip–leaving today–what am I doing commenting on blogs when I am not packed?!–I couldn’t pass up reading the latest installment in the year of excellent essayists. And I hope I can make some character sketches half as evocative as “her long hands picked up sizzling platters as if they were distasteful leaves from a tree”. I am very impressed by the guests who are used to meals of 6 or 8 courses at home.

    • patricia Oct 12, 2009 @ 7:09

      Yes, I thought the same thing when I saw your comment: isn’t she leaving on her trip today? I’m honored to be a distraction!

      Ooh, character sketches on a trip sound like such a good idea! Pico Iyer says that upon arriving at a place, you should scrawl down your immediate reactions right away, while the place still seems foreign. Because it isn’t too long before you start getting used to it.

      I guess we have people like Fisher to thank for the fact that nowadays we don’t expect 6 or 8 courses when we visit someone for dinner…

  • Sam Oct 12, 2009 @ 18:31

    I’d never given essayists much thought as I’ve always preferred novelists. But I suppose you really had to have lived to be a good one of either.

    So I’ve taken your borrowed advice from Pico Iyer and scrawled some of my reactions to a place before I got too used to it. In doing so I finally discovered what’s over those mountains over there in the distance, but had to travel over 7,000 miles and then board a helicopter loaded with fuel to get over them. The answer: a mongrel dog chewing on a stick, a boy with a bloated stomach playing with an Amrat Cola bottle filled with dirt, an incredibly pristine purplish flower growing between two rocks, some comfortable looking sheep, an old man with a very large rifle–nineteenth-century British I thought. Monsoor said the old man would have already shot at us if it actually worked. Not the guru I had hoped to stumble upon to proffer up some transcendent meaning to my presence. And then more mountains. The fauna is remarkable for such a cold, dry place. I ponder a passage from M. Somerset Maugham’s The Razors Edge, and then pick up my pack and rifle and follow Monsoor down to a small creek with deep blue water to see what I could find. Winter’s coming. You can feel it in the air.

    Anyway, I thought I would close the conversation after over a quarter-of-a-century’s pause. I’ll check back in at the half-century mark.

    Somewhere in the Hindu Kush mountain range, Afghanistan

  • Tara Reese Oct 14, 2009 @ 21:54

    i love her. but you knew that.

  • melissa s. Oct 24, 2009 @ 13:57

    A friend just lent me Serve it Forth and How to Cook a Wolf yesterday. Total coincidence, and I remembered you mentioning the name so I took her up on the offer. I haven’t read them yet, but your review has piqued my literal appetite 😉

    • patricia Oct 24, 2009 @ 23:20

      Oh goody. I think both of those volumes have some good stuff in them. I’ll bet you’ll like her sass!

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