|Ruth Reichl on MFK Fisher
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Ruth Reichl on American Food
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Why did people slavishly follow French cuisine?
I think it’s because if you go back to the roots of America, we were founded by Puritans who had no pleasure in food. There is an almost anti-epicurean tradition at the very base of America. For much of the middle part of American history, people who wanted to overcome that went to France. For me, what’s exciting about what is happening today in food is that we’re finally embracing America. We have become a food culture, but we very much were not. So you have someone like [Angelo] Pellegrini. I find him remarkable. His book was actually written the year I was born . He has what I now consider a modern American aesthetic of food. But people in America weren’t thinking like that in 1948. It was a culture of hamburgers and frozen food. The industrialisation of food was just about to start. And here you have this man saying, “Wait a minute! Why are you spending all this time on your lawns? Pull them up! Plant some food!”
Yes, I noticed the references to tinned or canned vegetables in some of the books you chose.
In the middle of the 20th century, that what’s American food was! Canned food, frozen food and then 10 years later you get the “I hate to cook” book. Then the women’s movement came in and there was a whole backlash against cooking. If you’re going to look for people who cared about food at that particular point, you have MFK Fisher going to France and discovering food. She was brought up in a Quaker town.
Shall we start with her book then? You’ve chosen a collection of five of her shorter books called The Art of Eating. It’s part memoir, part musings on food.
MFK Fisher was a wonder and a huge influence, and someone I got to know pretty well at the end of her life. She had this epiphany when she went as a young bride to France and discovered food – to me, in the best possible way – and brought that back to America. What I love about her is that she’s really a wonderful writer. She’s very thoughtful about the subject of food – it’s a subject that she embraces and takes on. For someone like me, growing up in the 1950s, if you wanted to read this kind of stuff about food, there wasn’t anybody else.
I read the chapter “Consider the Oyster” last night, from 1941. Were Americans generally not eating oysters at that time?
If you go back in American history, oysters were the food of poor people. New York was filled with oyster saloons in the 1800s. They were so abundant and so plentiful that we ate them all up – and they went from being the food of the poor to being almost impossible to find.
Although there are recipes in it, it’s not a cookbook is it?
No, it’s a book about taking pleasure in food.
How to Cook a Wolf
Krissy Clark, American Public Media, JULY 19, 2008
How much money are you going to spend feeding yourself this weekend? The average American spends about seven dollars a day on food. But as the economy slows, and food prices rise, that budget grows harder to maintain. The cost of food for a basic nutritious diet has gone up more than seven percent in the last year.
More families are turning to food stamps and food banks to get by. Americans are eating out less, and cutting coupons more.
It's enough to make the whole eating thing an anxiety-ridden affair, and that's not good news for digestion, or general well-being. What to do? Solace might be found in an old book.
The book is called "How to Cook a Wolf," but there were no real wolves harmed in its making. The wolf in question is the figurative kind, that comes sniffing at the door when times are tough, and food is hard to come by.
Author MFK Fisher wrote "How to Cook a Wolf" in 1942, in the midst of World War II, just as food rationing programs were kicking into gear in the United States. Strict limits were put on basics like sugar, butter, meat, and coffee, and war-time slogans encouraged American households to "make do, or do without."
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|Alphabet for Gourmets
Gourmet Magazine website has made available on-line the entire text of Fisher’s Alphabet for Gourmets, which was originally published, in serial form, in the pages of the magazine.
Let's hope we continue to have access - now that Gourmet Magazine in print version is no more.
Her Friends Remember - Page 1
MEETING M.F.K. FISHER
by Leo Racicot
Some books (sadly very few) cast a magic over us, and over the time and place we read them, that lasts a lifetime. One such book for me, the memory of which even now resurrects a certain summer many summers ago, and the front porch I read it on, during what seemed to me the most beautiful of weather days, was "As They Were" by an author I had never heard of: M.F.K.Fisher. The title still has the ability to thrill.
I liked the book, in fact, so much that I set off, after, in search of another of the author's titles: "A Cordiall Water". I had no luck finding it (all library copies were marked 'MISSING'). The book was out-of-print and a friend suggested I write the publishers to see if a copy could be had from them.
A month or so after, a package, brown-bundled and tied with plain, brown twine came in the mail. It was from the author herself, accompanied by a note thanking me for my interest in her books with a wish that I enjoy this one. Thrilled, I dashed off a "thank you" straight away. She wrote back -- a longer, more personal reply, and so developed between us (me here in Lowell, Ma; she, in California) a regular correspondence that evolved into years of indescribable joy in visiting her, knowing her, loving her...
I can tell you many good stories about her and her open-door policy salon, her family and friends but will start here with the story of the first time I made my way, at her invitation, to her fabled Glen Ellen and 13935 Sonoma Highway because the first visit was a real adventure but not, as you will see, the sort I expected. The flight out to San Francisco was, as I recall, fine but I hit the city during one of the most relentless rainstorms to swallow Northern California in twenty years. Oh...my...God!!!
I can still picture being soaked to the skin as I wedged myself into an equally wet phone booth at the airport where I tried to summon the courage to call Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher and let her know I was here. I was more than nervous. The voice that answered the other end of the line was a shock and a delight, both, and remained so for all our days together, for what I heard emerging from a woman in her late 60s was the voice of a little girl, musical in its pitch, like little, silver bells ringing. "This is Mary Frances", it said. I said it was Leo calling and that I was in San Francisco and what I heard next was not what I wanted to hear: "Well, dear. I'm so happy you came but I'm afraid we are completely flooded up here. We needed the rain but not this much of it. The roads leading up here are all washed away. I'm sorry, dear, but you'll have to go back home. There's no way up. Maybe some other time..."
"Maybe some other time???" I was not hearing this!! I had come 3000 miles to be told, "Maybe some other time"?I heard her start to hang up and so I hollered, "No! Wait! I'll find a way. I want to see you. I've come all this way. I......I....." There was a pause, then the child-like voice replied, "Well, Leo, if you think you can get here, I'm here..."
No one at the bus terminal ticket booth knew Glen Ellen, the tiny cow town about 60 miles north of San Francisco where M.F.K. Fisher lived. They kept shrugging and sending me from booth to booth. I was mad. I was sad. I was wet. Good luck came in the form of a bus line, Fedora, no longer extant (nowadays, you must take an airporter limo to get to Glen Ellen, if you can get there at all). Feeling relief, I bought my ticket, found the bus dock and boarded a rattle-y, old coach bound for Santa Rosa. Much to my dismay, and perhaps due to the recluse in me, my delight, I saw that I was the only passenger on the bus. Or should I say the only person crazy enough to be riding a bus in weather this vile? And so we setoff into the deluge: one bus, one bus driver, one killer storm and me. Oh...my...God!!!
The further out of San Francisco we went, the more I could see what Fisher had meant; all roads were beyond-belief bad and the rain became more and more like an iron wall of water. We could not see very well but we could see that a major road had been washed away and that we were banned from continuing on by a battery of workhorses. During the ride, I had told the driver whom I was going to see and how determined and excited I was about seeing her. Pshawing the washed-out road, the driver became suddenly imbued with a do-or-die John Wayne spirit and grabbing the wheel with the hams of both hands, he yelled,(I kid you not!), "I'll get ya there, come Hell or High Water!!") and veered the giant bus into the middle of a mud-filled field as if he were re-directing a VW bug or a Cooper. Once again --Oh...my...God!!! I thought: I am not going to meet M.F.K. Fisher because I am going to die.
But the shortcut led to the highway we needed and soon we were back on pavement, at least, and not mud and before long, as if in a dream, the kindly driver was depositing me in front of the Jack London Lodge in the center of Glen Ellen. Eureka!!! It took me the whole night to dry off, and I don't think I slept an hour, if that. I was restless with all kinds of emotion not the least of which was shyness at having to call M.F. in the morning and actually meet a writer who had become, for me, the greatest living writer of all. I was a wreck when I dialed her up and heard her girl's voice again. "Well, I don't know how you managed to make it", she said, incredulously, "but I sure am glad you have. I'll send Pat Moran up in my jalopy to fetch you. He'll be round in an hour or so."
Pat arrived right on time, a cheerful, mustachioed,30-ish fellow, tall like a tree, and just as cheerful. We had a good chat as we made our way up and over some of the wettest country I had ever seen.
Soon, we came to a gate leading off Highway 12,to a path lined with wildflowers of every color and kind, flattened by the weight of the rain but oh, so fragrant, and a tiny, white bungalow, stucco, hidden carefully amid a clutch of trees, and a pond, and a belltower and cows, and oh it was lovely until, as we reached the house and parked, Pat turned and said to me, "How many times have you been out here to visit Mary Frances?" And when I told him this was the very first time, that I had never met her, he gasped asthmatically and said, "Holy Jesus! You must be SCARED SHIT!!!" This, I can tell you, did nothing to relieve my fear and once more, dear reader, if I may be permitted to repeat --- Oh...my...God!!!
But she, the Mary Frances of my dreams, was lovelier than words can describe and more warm and welcoming than the sun that had finally come out from hiding. The years ahead would be filled with the rich and endearing gift of her friendship, her letters, her love. Not a day goes by that I do not miss her and wish she was here and I think, in some animistic way, she still is, and surely is with me now as I write this reminiscence of the first time we met.
The July 2008 issue of Gourmet magazine features an article on M. F. K. Fisher in celebration of her 100th birthday, July 3, by Dame Jeannette Ferrary of the San Francisco Dames chapter.
The following article, “True Confessions,” is an up-close look at her very private world. Dame Jeannette Ferrary knew the Grande Dame personally for 15 years and wrote the biography M. F. K. Fisher and Me: A Memoir of Food and Friendship.
Originally Published July 2008, Gourmet Magazine
This month marks the 100th birthday of M. F. K. Fisher, whose sensuous, evocative prose redefined food writing. Here, an exclusive, up-close look at her very private world.
Photograph by Paul Fusco/Magnum Photos
The art of eating: M. F. K. Fisher’s culinary landscape stretched from the cafés of Provence
to her kitchen at Last House, in Sonoma Valley.
It really didn’t look like much. The untitled book had a well-worn black cover and some clippings sticking out here and there. Inside, in scrabbly handwriting, I found the words Table Book, and as I slowly turned the pages, I began to realize the importance of this collection: Arranged by date, they were M. F. K. Fisher’s unexpurgated notes on those who’d come to visit, the food she’d served, the reactions of her guests, and her own reactions to them. The book had been at the bottom of a carton of gleanings from Fisher that had been sitting on my floor for weeks. One day (a few years before she died) she’d asked me to go through her library and take whatever I wanted, so I packed up a few boxes without looking too closely at things.
Now, I’d finally cleared my own overburdened bookshelves to make room for Fisher’s trove. I looked again at the book in my hands. From her first published work, in 1937, to her last volume of memoirs, published posthumously in 1995, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher insisted on good, honest food and good, honest writing. That said, she was also famously cryptic and charmingly enigmatic. This book might well have been her only confidant. I sat down immediately and began to read.
“PC a food addict,” Fisher noted in June 1965. He “stopped before dessert—claimed it was the first thing he had eaten for 2 weeks, except bread & water. He is very imitative—limited intelligence but brash.” Another guest “arrives stoned from party—late—no apologies.” Another had the “taste buds of an ostrich.” She was particularly adroit at the art of damning with faint praise. Of lunch with food writer James Villas, she notes, he “ate nothing—hungover? OK interview? Pleasant non-encounter—near miss.” But she also needed only a few words—“Provençal, lush, beautiful”—for a much enjoyed afternoon with Alice Waters and friends. For measuring success, Fisher invoked the classic standard of her friend James Beard: “It was a nice party. Nobody cried. Nobody threw up.”
Nothing seemed to annoy Fisher like fussiness. “Miss E. cannot eat a dozen things … because of a recurrent pain in the gall bladder, or she cannot chew them w/ her double clickers or she is prejudiced against them for unknown but probably racial reasons.” And, if fussiness was reprehensible, nonfussiness was even more irksome: “They will eat anything that is set before them,” she writes of two dinner guests. “They chomp right through, making appreciative noises on schedule.”
But whatever her criticisms of others, sometimes she turned her unflinching eye upon herself—and for good reason, since one year she almost poisoned her entire family at Christmas. “You are now entering tomane [sic] junction,” she wrote of the near-disastrous meal. “In my unreasonable desire to have everything culinary well under control, so that we could all sit around and talk and enjoy the baby and so on … I had blandly advised Bill to stuff the turkey at night, and roast it the next morning. I knew better. I was not thinking. This was dangerous enough, with quantities of raw oysters chopped in the warm dressing and packed into the very perishable carcass, and to compound my idiocy the weather turned very balmy during the night the bird sat on the back porch. A perfect prescription for … mass murder… ” She even imagined a headline: “Noted Gourmet Does In Family.”
Occasionally, Fisher included specifics about how she prepared a dish, as well as any shortcuts she had taken. She seemed to enjoy the fact that no one would ever think her capable of resorting to such “tricks,” because she was, after all, M. F. K. Fisher. “I followed the Rombauer recipe pretty well. Then I added two cans of Campbell’s Cream of Potato, which has the potatoes in little cubes … and as I added the pre-cooked asparagus tips I added about a half-cup of chopped parsely [sic] … all to add to the too-delicate flavor and make it look greener. Excellent! A lowdown trick, but worth it.”
Poring over every menu and marginal note in the book, I eventually worked my way through to October 3, 1977, the date of my very first visit with Fisher. Through squinted, reluctant eyes, I read the menu: “Wafers, chermoula, rolls, salad, lettuce, h.b. eggs, prawns, ww [white wine], coffee, shortbread.” So far, so good. “Very pleasant long lunch, interesting people.” Well, not overly enthusiastic, perhaps, but not too awful. On the other hand, I wonder what she meant by “long”?
Fascinated? More Friends Remember on Page: 1 2 3
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