Friday, February 3, 2012

One From The Stacks: The Art of Eating

"First we eat, then we do everything else." - M.F.K. Fisher

In a departure from last week's post, which exposed the reader to one of the basest expressions of human passion – the will to conquer, I'd like to introduce you to this week's featured book, which celebrates what I consider to be one of life's highest pursuits and preeminent pleasures – the will to eat.

And I can think of no writer of the twentieth century that has offered a more poetic tribute to the goodness and beauty of food and drink than M.F.K. Fisher.

Born Mary Frances Kennedy in 1908 in Albion, Michigan, Fisher came of age both as a woman and a writer during one of the most glorious epochs for the enjoyment of gastronomical pleasures of the last century  – that is, the time between the two world wars, before anyone even conceived of something as banal as a frozen Salisbury steak (that happened in 1953) and when pure local ingredients were the only ingredients around. 

By the time she died, in California at the age of 83, Fisher had written some 15 books on food, travel and the art of gastronomy, as well as hundreds of stories for the New Yorker, and had produced an English translation of “La Physiologie du Goût” (The Physiology of Taste) by the eighteenth-century gastronome Brillat-Savarin, who once said “A dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.”

"The Art of Eating" is a compendium of five of her most enduring works: Serve it Forth; Consider the Oyster; How to Cook a Wolf (written during the victual depression of World War II); The Gastronomical Me; and, An Alphabet for Gourmets. In this last book she runs through all 26 letters –  with chapters on subjects ranging from Family and Gluttony to Turbot and Xanthippe (the abusive wife of Socrates), in which she takes on wives who nag their husbands during meals with the following scrambled egg “recipe for a shrew” -
“Beat eggs angrily until they froth; Add the water. Season without thought. Heat oil quickly to the smoking point in a thin skillet, pour in egg mixture and stir fast. Scrape onto cold plates and slam down on carelessly laid table.”
The Catch & The Feast
My copy of The Art of Eating is old and tattered and retains the faint musty odor of the library from which is was plucked – that of a dear family friend named Bill McGrail (its sentimental value granted it a reprieve during the Great Purge, when I sold my original book collection for less than it was worth to raise money for things I definitely didn't need.) 

McGrail was the type of gentleman that is, sadly, in short supply these days. He lived wife his wife Mary down the street from my grandparents in the haughty east end Long Island town of Remsenburg in a whitewashed cottage surrounded by overgrown astilbe and lavender and God knows what else.  A dozen half-wild cats -- which Mary gave names like Churchill and Roger Brown -- found refuge in a repurposed tool shed. The house is long gone now, having been torn down and replaced with a structure more suited to the neighborhood.

A hunter, fisherman and avid outdoorsman, he was also a  model of civility and class – an entrepreneur, bon vivant, epicure; he was the first person to impress upon me through example that a man's place is indeed in the kitchen...and the garden...and the marsh...and, of course, sidled up to the bar nursing a glass of single malt scotch (which, I'm ashamed to say, I've yet to acquire a taste for).  He could shoot a goose, dress it, prepare it to perfection with thyme and salsify, and then pick out the perfect Chateauneuf du Pape to go with it.  As proof, he and his first wife Joie published a book of essays and recipes in 1969 titled "The Catch and the Feast," which walks the reader from kill to table, with asides on conservation, family and the art of entertaining along the way.  A copy of it still sits on a table in our Remsenburg home. 

Bill is also the only person I ever saw pull off a pair of red tartan pants with his tuxedo and look dashing doing so.

Later in life when he knew he was dying,  Bill called on my father to pay him a visit and my sister and I went along. He was getting rid of his stuff, as dying men with lots of great stuff often do. The inside of his house was as curious as the outside. The stuffed heads of animals Bill had shot hung on the walls next to framed reproductions of German expressionists and African art.

We left that day with two things: an old bone-handled butcher knife that's 15-inches long if it's an inch and my copy of The Art of Eating, which Bill insisted I read. Dad kept the knife.

It took me a while to get to it but when I did I was sucked right in to Fisher's world of dinner parties and trans-Atlantic voyages, and awed by her seemingly uncanny habit of popping into far flung French bistros just as the jovial proprietor or his buxom wife was emerging from the kitchen with a tray of steaming gougeres and a cracking Sancerre.

Fisher married in 1928 and accompanied her husband Alfred to France where he was studying for his doctorate at the Faculte de Lettres at the University of Burgundy. Her description of life there convinced me I had been born half a century late, and too far west.

In The Gastronomical Me, she writes:
“We went as often as we could afford it to all the restaurants in town and, and along the  Cote d'Or and even up into the Morvan, to the Lac de Settons, to Avallon...and down past Bresse.  We ate terrines of pate ten years old under their tight crusts of mildewed butter. We tied napkins under our chins and splashed in great odorous bowls of Ecrevisses a la nage. We addled our palates with snipes hung so long they fell from their hooks, to be roasted then on cushions of toast sofented with the paste of theor rotted innards and fine brandy. In village kitchens we ate hot leek soup with white wine and snippets of salt pork in it.”  
I didn't know what  Ecrevisses a la nage was, but I couldn't wait to try it.

I did finally visit France (Paris, not Dijon) several years after reading "The Art of Eating." But as a 23-year-old student, Ecrevisses a la nage was not on the menu. I had to settle for baguettes and Beaufort, but to this day they were the best cheese sandwiches I've ever tasted. 

The Art of Eating (paperback)
By M.F.K. Fisher
Published by Vintage Books (1976)
Originally published in 1954 by The Macmillan Company
Introduction by Clifton Fadiman

Purchase date 1992? 
Purchase price: Gift from Bill McGrail (stamp on title page: “MC GRAIL 166-EAST 61ST STREET, NEW YORK, N.Y. 10021)
Condition: Fair (cover damage, all pages intact,
some yellowing)

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