SLAVES OVER THE STOVE: Part VIII

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When I began writing Something We Dreamed, I was also starting a SUNY research project. In this eighth post, I continue to share what I discovered.

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M.F.K.

“When I was little, I longed desperately to eat catsup from a bottle. It was, of course, strictly forbidden because the sauce was not made in our own kitchen (and anyway, bottles were vulgar, especially on the table). I still think I may never really get enough catsup”
– M.F.K. Fisher, True Food: Wholefoods for Modern Times, 1988

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POET OF THE APPETITES:

M.F.K. Fisher

AS AUTHOR JOAN REARDON notes in the preface to her biography of Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher — Poet of the Appetites — M.F.K. was not the first person to put culinary memories on paper. M.F.K. remains, however, possibly the single greatest influence in what has become a lucrative industry: literary writing that interweaves recipes with fiction and/or personal recollections.

Fisher’s The Art of Eating (a fat book collecting five of her earlier titles) has inspired generations of writers.

Without M.F.K.’s “sensual and intimate” writings, we might not have modern food-focused (and recipe-infused) books such as Laura Esquive’s Like Water for Chocolate, Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking, or Nora Ephron’s Heartburn (see notes below).

Fisher’s first book, Serve it Forth, was influenced by research the author conducted in the early 1930s at the Los Angele’s public library.

According to her biographer, Reardon, Serve it Forth’s essays incorporate aspects of Fisher’s personal life with tales of ancient Roman and other European “food and feasts [as]…described in the library’s collection of historic texts and early-twentieth century translations.”

In 1939, Serve it Forth’s U.K editors assumed “M.F.K.” was a man “who did not write about the pleasures of the table in correctly female and home economics fashion.” When meeting Mary Frances for the first time, the author claimed the men said, “no woman could possibly have written” such a book. [It should be noted that Fisher’s biographer challenges the idea that the editors were unaware of the author’s sex: “The claim that she was breaking new ground as a woman writing about culinary history pleased Mary Frances." In fact, a central theme of Reardon’s occasionally mean-spirited biography is that Ms. Fisher was “self-absorbed” and “constructed a mythology about herself as a writer."]

IN THE EARLY 1940s, Fisher had lived through much turmoil in her private life and published The Gastronomical Me – considered to be the “most personally revealing” of her books. Rave reviews appeared in leading periodicals of the day including Book Week which noted the volume had

“a prevailing sense of tragedy—death and the intimation of death against which one fortifies oneself by grasping at the sharp, sensuous joys of food and love.”

As America entered the Second World War, M.F.K. wrote recipes for eating frugally including ‘War Cake’ made with bacon grease (since butter was scarce) and which was supposedly “loved by hungry children.” She also wrote movingly about a wartime economy that was blasting holes in home-front pocketbooks, kitchens and hearts:

“It is easy to think of potatoes, and fortunately for men who have not much money it is easy to think of them with a certain safety. Potatoes are one of the last things to disappear, in times of war, which is probably why they should not be forgotten in times of peace.”

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NEXT UP: The French Chef: Julia Child

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Want to learn more? Check out:

  1. M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating (New York: Vintage Books).
  2. M.F.K. Fisher.com
  3. Jeannette Ferrary’s M.F.K. Fisher and Me: A Memoir of Food and Friendship (St. Martin’s)
  4. Joan Reardon’s Poet of the appetites: the lives and loves of M.F.K. Fisher. (New York: North Point Press.)
  5. Jonathan Yardley’s “Laurie Colwin: A Story Too Short but Still in Print,” The Washington Post.

NOTES:

  1. Like Water for Chocolate is a love story set in Mexico, interspersed with recipes, that was made into a popular film.
  2. Laurie Colwin, who died in 1992 at the young age of 48, was a writer for Gourmet magazine.
  3. Nora Ephron, who is now a film director in Hollywood (Julie & Julia), wrote about food (including recipes) in the popular novel skewering her real-life (philandering) husband: Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein.

How to Cook a Wolf

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Stretching MeatBAD BOY BOURDAIN’S rant about expensive foodstuffs got me to thinking about M.F.K. Fisher and her eloquent instructions for war time cooking (see How to Cook a Wolf, copyright 1942).

I may still be employed (for a few days), but I’m already panicking about keeping the wolf at bay (food, as you may have guessed, is never something I leave to chance). Thank goodness I still have bookshelves piled high with the wise words of cooks who have lived through much harder times.

The well-traveled writings of Paddleford and Fisher, especially, are offering up deeper comfort than ever before. Fisher’s descriptions of leisurely lunches in quaint French auberges — which I found so romantically intriguing in the past — have now given way to a fascination with instructions for grinding up cheap meat and whole grain into vitamin-rich pastes.

I hope I’ll never have to buy a bottle of Kitchen Bouquet to color up my own paste concoctions (a la M.F.K).

If need be, I’d rather sell off my cookbook collection.

Tony Bourdain’s Les Halles cookbook would be one of the first to go. I’ve owned the book for years, yet it has never inspired me to cook a single recipe. For nourishment, I much prefer Mr. Bourdain’s serious writing: Typhoid Mary, the story of America’s most infamous cook, is at the top of my all-time-favorites list.

EAT IT UP: Food Buzz You Should Be Reading/Watching Today

  1. Waste Not, Want Not: The Sun Times
  2. Typhoid Mary: Villain or Victim?: Nova
  3. Great Depression Cooking: You Tube
  4. Cooking for Less: OC Register