Wednesday, December 3, 2008

M.F.K. Fisher and Simple Food

I've been reading The Art of Eating for quite some time now due more to the fact that I have little time for leisurely reading than to the readability of the book. For it is, indeed, a splendid one. How to write about food? I'm not certain I can answer that. Brillat-Savarin did it, M.F.K. Fisher did it, and I am not certain that anyone else has ever done it or could ever do it with the same grace.

First of all, Fisher is amazingly practical. For a woman whose tastebuds must have been something fabulous, she constantly abdicates her expertise and good taste to the exhortation to her readers that there may be a better way of doing this, or feel free to leave out this or that, or (Montaigne-style) she insists that the only way to do something right is to experiment and come up with an individual perspective on food and cooking. But, most refreshing to me, she is one of the most open-minded foodies I have ever read.

The one issue I take with most self-proclaimed foodies (foodists, gourmets, whatever) is that they develop a more and more restricted view of what good food is. At first it's "oh, I'm partial to this brand of canned tomatoes," then it's "well, I only order the finest canned tomatoes from Italy," and before you know it it's "I insist my sauce be made from the finest local, organic, heirloom tomatoes--I prefer Cherokee Purple--and I only add the freshest of local, organic herbs and mushrooms," and then they go off on some rant (that tends to reek of existentialism) about the poor quality of food nowadays and how everything at the grocery store tastes like chlorine and how nice it is to not have corrupted tastebuds. Frankly, I tire of this monotonous discourse and try to avoid it. Yes, I prefer local, organic, fresh fruits and veggies, but I have had marvelous sauces concocted with the most mundane of canned tomatoes (try being a gourmet and a student who makes $8/hr). It is not, after all, solely the ingredient that makes something truly delicious. The cook and the inspiration are both forces to be reckoned with.

Fisher is brimming with ideas on how to make food exceptional even in times of hardship and shortage. I am currently reading "How to Cook a Wolf," which she published in 1942 after years of depression and war. She is always practical, but she never abandons taste and the importance of the joy of eating. She never proposes the absurd idea that food is just sustenance, and she does not allow a miniscule budget to dampen her well-fed spirit. She talks cheerfully about the most economical way to use the heat generated from a stove (which almost spookily mirrors Sharon's recent post), how to eat on a next to nothing budget, and, most importantly, how to avoid compromising flavor. She is a strong advocate of good, whole foods, and in one exerpt from a chapter entitled "How to Rise Up Like New Bread," she states "newspapers tell us, with government permission, that wheat costing some five cents a pound is 'refined' until it is not only tasteless but almost worthless nutritionally, and that the wheat germ which is thus removed is then sold for at least a dollar and a half and at the end put back into the bread, so that in loaves it can be sold for a little more than the ordinary price and called 'Super-Vitaminized' or 'Energized' or some such thing."

Does she not sound exactly like whole food champions today?...except that she said this in 1942...and we can only imagine how much less wholesome our food must be now (think Merita bread--the texture of a fine sponge and about as tasty).

She writes longingly of "round odorous healthful loaves," and calls mass-produced white bread "stupid bread." A woman after my own heart at last. But she is never high-falutin' (forgive me my little indulgences--popular idioms happens to be one), and she always always always calls for butter or fat and never margarine, which is something to be loved in a person (especially one who lived to be 84 years old and never missed a beat). One of my favorite things about her is that, every now and then, after a few pages of beautiful, passionate writing, she will say something truly breathtaking that begs to be written down in a quote book, such as "Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken." Really extraordinary.

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