It used to be, when it came to food, people had a sort of devil-may-care just-put-the-food-in-your-damn-mouth attitude. This is no longer the case. Today there is more culinary-related material to sift through than ever before: Books! Magazines! Zines! Websites! Cookbooks! GOOP! If you live in one of the country’s many rapidly gentrifying cities, there is probably a new restaurant on your block every 15 minutes. On TV every day there is a new cooking show followed by a cooking competition show followed by a four-hour block of Rachael Ray talking to a backyard ghost about empanadas (log on to rachaelray.com to see Rachael and the ghost compete to make nachos).
Also, there’s Preserve.
Everyone in the year 2015 with a disposable income and epicurean pretensions has something to say about food: how we should be eating it and how we should be thinking about eating it, and how we should be thinking about thinking about eating it. Before you feel like you have to publish an eggshell-colored periodical to hand out at Anthropologie until you get kicked out, why not take some solace in reading a writer who will not only impress your foodie friends, but who will bring you lessons on life, love, misery, and more? I’m talking about M.F.K. Fisher, the greatest food writer in the English language.
Fisher was born in 1908 in Albion, Mich., and grew up in Whittier, California, where her journalist father was a co-owner of Whittier News. She spent time at Whittier College, UCLA and Occidental College, but left without a degree in 1929 to accompany her new husband Al Fisher to Dijon, France. It was in Provence—the region and cuisine that Fisher would return to again and again in her writing—that she discovered her love of food, an experience well-documented in one of her exuberant memoir, Long Ago In France. Returning to California, where her husband accepted a teaching job at Occidental, she embarked on a collection of essays that would be published in 1937 as her first book, Serve It Forth.
It would be the beginning of a multi-decade career, during which she’d write fiercely and elegantly about everything from her childhood in California to frugal cooking to her own painful emotional struggles. (Contained within her body of work are over two dozen recipes for oysters, ranging from the satisfyingly facile to the dangerously complex.) Her oeuvre is a working guide to a well-lived life, blemishes included; she is a model for any writer with aspirations or any reader with tastebuds. She is, without question, the person I’ve been most inspired by in my own writing. If you’ve never read her, do yourself a favor and start this week. Allow M.F.K. Fisher to take you back to the basics, before kale and pour-over coffee were staples of every person’s diet this side of the Atlantic. Here is my guide to most everything she’s written.
How To Cook A Wolf
How To Cook A Wolf is M.F.K. Fisher’s wartime tribute to eating frugally (but fully) at times where money and resources are sparse. Though they were written during World War II, the book’s lessons on combatting an empty stomach or entertaining guests with a handful of simple and easy-to-get ingredients remain relevant—down to the best way to feed your dog or cat when you have precious few dollars.
Also, how to eat pigeon:
“I have eaten a great many pigeons here and there, and I know that the best was one I cooked in a cheap Dutch oven on a one-burner gas-plate in a miserable lodging. The wolf was at the door, and no mistake; until I filled the room with the smell of hot butter and red wine, his pungent breath seeped through the keyhole in an almost visible cloud.”
Who to Buy It For: A friend with a small kitchen and a tiny budget, or anyone you know who has the ingenuity to make a “Baked Ham Slice” or a one-dish meal such as Southern Spoon Bread; anyone who has ever experienced hunger but not cheerfulness simultaneously; a WWII historian.
Consider The Oyster
Be honest with yourself: Do you have any idea how oysters have sex? I learned about oysters’ sex lives within the first minute of picking up the first ever M.F.K. Fisher book I read, Consider The Oyster. This is the shortest of all of Fisher’s works and is an immaculate example of the author’s delicate and informative prose. The book’s first line is proof enough:
“An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life.”
Oysters tend to be heralded for their simplicity, but Fisher provides over 20 ways to cook them— in particular Pain d’Huitres, or oyster loaf, which Fisher’s mother used to secret away with her chums at boarding school. Read:
“It was made in a bread loaf from the best baker in the village, and the loaf was hollowed out and filled with rich cooked oysters, and then, according to my mother’s vague and yet vivid account, the top of the loaf was fastened on again, and the whole was baked crisp and brown in the oven. Then it was wrapped tightly in a fine white napkin, and hidden under a chambermaid’s cape while she ran from the baker’s to the seminary and up the back stairs to the appointed bedroom.”
Who to Buy It For: A reader with a short attention span; a friend who insists on doing oyster happy hour every Thursday; a fisherman; a lover winkwink; any David Foster Wallace fans who don’t quite know his influences.
Serve It Forth
Over the years, Fisher proved to be not just a vivid memoirist and passionate cook, but also a winning scholar of culinary history. She famously translated Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s famous gastronomical text The Physiology of Taste to much acclaim, but for the fan of historical food trivia, nothing beats her first book, Serve It Forth.
On what the ancient Egyptians ate:
“Ox meat was roasted or boiled, but many kinds of little birds, and even quails and ducks, were salted and eaten raw. And melons in increasing variety made fine the poorest fare, with grapes and figs and dates, and barley beer, and sweet wine in great pottery vases glazed with blue.”
A suggestion on what to do after eating ancient Grecian chicken chronicled in Apicius:
“To cool your enraged palate after this strange dish you would most probably be served a goblet of red wine mixed with spices and sea water.”
Perhaps the most beautiful paragraph in the history of humanity:
“In Dijon little gingerbread orange slices are stuffed with marmalade and glazed, or great square loaves are sliced several times and spread with apricot jam before they are put together again. Or currants and candied fruits are baked in the loaves. Or they are left plain, the be sliced very thin and be spread with sweet butter for tea.”
Who to Buy It For: a cook interested in culinary history but only tolerant enough to learn through conversational communication; a traveler; your boyfriend if you’d like to test if he’s actually taking your book recommendations (this book is particularly good for pop quizzes)
The Gastronomical Me
This is Fisher’s most beautiful memoir, and the book through which most people know her. It contains some of the best, most succinct, and most inimitable lines about food, and it’s embedded itself so deeply into my memory that I can’t eat a lot of the foods Fisher describes in her memoir without thinking of them exactly as she has described them.
The memoir’s first line, on strawberry jam:
The first thing I remember tasting and then wanting to taste again is the grayish-pink fuzz my grandmother skimmed from a spitting kettle of strawberry jam.
On the food at boarding school:
“I don’t remember, because all that we thought about then, or could recall now if we ever dared to think at all of those days, were the hot crisp fried halves of young chickens, stiff and tempting. We could have all we wanted, even three or four, and we could eat with our fingers, and yell, and gobble. It was wonderful.”
On preparing cauliflowers:
“There in Dijon, the cauliflowers were small and very succulent, grown in that ancient soil. I separated the flowerlets and dropped them in boiling water for just a few minutes. Then I drained them and put them in a wide shallow casserole, and covered them with heavy cream and a thick sprinkling of freshly grated Gruyère, the nice rubbery kind that didn’t come from Switzerland at all, but from the Jura. It was called râpé in the market, and was grated while you watched, in a soft cloudy pile, onto your piece of paper.”
An Alphabet For Gourmets
A is for dining Alone, P is for Peas, Y is for Yak. In a format that plays nicely with readers who haven’t grown out of children’s books and for the pragmatist who would prefer to have colorful musings categorized, An Alphabet For Gourmets is Fisher’s most fun book. Not to mention, she touches on all the essentials: cooking for kids, eating kosher, eating in excess, and, of course, zakuski, the Russian term for hot and cold appetizers.
On dining alone:
“There are few people alive with whom I care to pray, sleep, dance, sing or share my bread and wine. Of course there are times when this latter cannot be avoided if we are to exist socially, but it is endurable only because it need not be the only fashion of self-nourishment.”
This recipe for Raspberries Romanoff, archived under V is for Venality:
1 pint carefully sorted raspberries
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup kirsch
Chill berries. Beat cream stiff, gradually adding sugar and kirsch. Mix lightly with berries, chill thoroughly, and serve in tall thin glasses, with thin unsugared wafers if desired.”
As They Were
One of the things I love most about Fisher is her skill at cutting people down to size with her insightful descriptions and blunt declarations. As They Were, one of her more direct memoirs, covers her family and friends and husbands and children in obsessive detail as she chronicles her life from California to France and onward. This memoir also features excellent first-hand details of a meal aboard a ship.
On her babysitter:
“My sister Anne and I never liked her much, one way or t’other, but I cannot remember why, for she read to us and was not sly or a tattletaler.”
On a chef’s accomplishment aboard a small ship:
“It was a replica, about as long as a man’s coffin, of the cathedral at Milano. It was made in white and pink sugar. There was a light inside, of course, and it glowed there on the deck of the little ship, trembling in every flying buttress with the Mexican ground swell, pure and ridiculous; and something about it shamed me.”
Long Ago In France
Fisher spent a good portion of her life living in and coming back to France, and her stories about the years she spent in Dijon with her husband, Al, are both her sweetest, and the most painful to read. Her tiny apartment, which she details lovingly, is drawn with such mastery, it can feel frustratingly small to the reader; and her spats with Al are as concerning as any between a friend and her husband. Long Ago In France is delicate like an eggshell. I would suggest reading Fisher’s memoir over Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast any day.
On the pleasures of France:
“And in two minutes my mouth was full of fresh bread, and melting chocolate, and as we sat gingerly, the three of us, on the frozen hill, looking down into the valley where Vercingetorix had fought so splendidly, we peered shyly and silently at each other and smiled and chewed at one of the most satisfying things I have ever eaten. I thought vaguely of the metamorphosis of wine and bread.”
M.F.K. Fisher among the Pots and Pans by Joan Reardon
Bonus round! There are a great number of books, essays, and collections published that memorialize and praise MFK Fisher, as well as cite her as an influence. While Anne Zimmerman’s An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher is a delightful dive into Fisher’s life and letters, for the uninitiated, Joan Reardon’s compact look at MFK Fisher’s kitchens is a grand place to start.
The book is illustrated by Avram Dumitrescu, showing in exquisite detail all the kitchens and houses that Fisher cooked and lived in. The portraits (as well as photographs) are intimate accompaniments to stories such as this one:
“Because the students were allowed to purchase one chocolate bar every day, Mary Frances was able to accumulate six or seven during the week. Then, on Saturday, she would leisurely and deliberately eat all of the bars in the solitude of her room, sometimes alternating a bite of chocolate with a bite of a salty cracker and at other times unwrapping them one by one and slowly eating the pieces while reclining on a heap of pillows, sultan-style.”
In Amanda Hesser’s foreword, her assessment of Fisher’s well-traveled life is astute: “I’ve often had the impression that she reveled in the hardships of a place. Only a few times in her life did she have a kitchen with four walls.” An added thrill of Reardon’s book is that she painstakingly updated several of Fisher’s own recipes for the modern cook.