MFK Fisher writes, “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 hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one.”
In my thinking, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher embodies the gold standard for food memoir writing: I think of her as the grandmother of the modern gastronome. I admire her writing ability as much as her vivacity and wit. About Fisher, Ruth Reichl has noted, “She actually makes you pay attention to your next meal, feel more alive because you’re doing that. When you read her you understand that you need to respect yourself enough to focus on the little things of life. She celebrates the everyday by making it seem momentous.” Perhaps that is why I have read Fisher’s 744-page tome, The Art of Eating, at least five times, and I feel certain I’ll read it at least that many times again. Her writing brings forth sensations of immediacy and delight, rendering even the humblest canned potatoes in such an appreciative manner that it’s difficult to see them otherwise. Among her many literary accomplishments, she translated a little book called The Physiology of Taste by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.
It’s no secret that I converse with the dead. They never actually converse back and sometimes they’re not actually dead, but I routinely imagine conversations with those who I feel as if I know intimately just by recognizing and coming to love and admire their personalities through their writing. Their words come to me as I prepare my ingredients. Julia Child makes frequent appearances in these imagined scenarios, particularly in regard to omelets and roasts (I can almost hear her trill now), but Fisher maintains a fixed presence in my kitchen… and I’m thankful for it.
When I’m cooking, I like to imagine that Mary Frances is working right alongside, observing my methods with a stringent but passionate eye. Does she approve of my resourcefulness? Would she add more of a certain ingredient? Her recipes are simple, straight-forward, and scrumptious. They are also, by modern standards, steadfastly cost-conscious, since many of the recipes were written in response to challenging historical times, such as during WWII. In her later life in the Sonoma area, she was said to offer delicious meals of simple elegance: proscuitto with sweet melon, cucumber sandwiches, cold and delicious wine. What meal would I make for a writer (and eater) of Mary Frances’s fame?
Foremost, there would be cheese. I live in a rural area that suffers from an appalling lack of cheese purveyors, so it’s common for me to make cheese pilgrimages to bigger, northern cities. What would Mary Frances think if she saw my basket, full of chevre, fontina, feta, brie? Would she think my purchases wanton and excessive? Or would she give my selections a thorough inspection and chuckle knowingly? Would she appreciate the distances I am compelled to travel in pursuit of my greatest food passion? I like to hope that, being the sensualist she was, she would nevertheless approve of a dinner of fine, tangy goat cheese or a perfectly melting gruyere sauce, if such things were paired with simple, unfussy accoutrements. It’s hard to gauge the high standards of a ghost.
Cheese is expensive and perishable, as Anthony Bourdain has abundantly pointed out. “Properly aged, stored, served, and handled cheese is even more expensive,” reiterates Tony. “Every time you cut into an intact cheese, its time on this earth becomes limited. Every time you pull one out of the special refrigerated cave it lives in, you are killing it slowly. Every time you return it, partially served, back to the refrigerator, you are also killing it.” For Mary Frances, I’d kill the cheese gladly.
I ascribe to Alice Trillin’s Law of Compensatory Cashflow, which, her husband writes, “holds that any money not spent on a luxury one considered even briefly is the equivalent of windfall income and should be spent accordingly.” That is why I’m willing to skimp on some things – go generic, go without – so that I can justify dropping sixty dollars on once-monthly cheese pilgrimages.
In the spirit of Trillin’s gastro-economics, there would also have to be wine for Mary Frances: a really nice red – nothing with oak notes, though (they make me gag, which is definitely not acceptable in Mary Frances’s company), and maybe a chilled Riesling or Sauternes for dessert. The rest of the menu would look something like this:
Crusty bread, as hot and crusty as possible
Salty butter and little gems of roasted garlic
Warm tomato salad with olive oil, salt, and pepper
A bowl of briny mixed olives
Brie – lots of it
Slices of Genoa salami
Fruit – a big bowl of macerated mixed berries, some tangy green apple slices
In other words, my perfect imaginary meal with Mary Frances would have been something closer to a picnic, preferably eaten under the shade of a tree on a mild spring day. Minimal preparation, but precise: bold flavors, varied aromas and textures. In her spirit and memory, I would serve it forth… and make it good.