Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Gastronomical MFK Fisher

Each morning, before I begin working on Communion, I read a page or two (or ten, if I'm low on self control) of MFK Fisher. I don’t do this in the hope that her talent will rub off and I will write like her; I am aware of my own limitations, and of her unique talent. I do this to be inspired, and to be reminded how filled with truth and beauty food writing can be. And yes, it does give me a goal to aspire to.

My favorite MFK essay is Borderlands, from Serve it Forth. I think the part about the tangerine is the most seductive piece of writing I have read. But right now I am enamored with The Gastronomical Me. When I first read this book in my early 20s, I was captivated by the romance of the settings and the food. Nearly twenty years later, I am impressed with the complexity. MFK turns a simple description of a meal into an exploration of human nature in all its many forms, both lovely and ugly. The essay Measure of My Powers, 1936-1939 devastates when MFK’s brother’s girlfriend describes vacationing on the beach at France and watching the guards shoot refugees trying to swim to shore: “It was all right, though … the tide always carried the bodies farther along toward Bordeaux, where they’d wanted to go anyway.”

MFK can also sum up a person in a single sentence. “A tall, beautiful girl dressed like a Paris mannequin,” or, “The lame pharmacist, who had widowed himself four times by his own vitality.” Every morning, after I’ve read her and as I start writing, I am filled with hope, and with awe at the power of words.

Although I am working on a few recipes right now, I’m not going to include one with this post. Instead, I’m going to encourage you to pick up your favorite volume of MFK Fisher's writing and re-read it, or, if you haven’t read her yet, I’m going to encourage you to make one of the most important discoveries of your reading life.

For used copies, go to ABE Books. This is a good place to hunt for early editions. I got a wonderful first edition of Elizabeth David’s Italian Cooking from here.

For new copies, support an independent bookstore by ordering The Gastronomical Me and Serve it Forth from the Cook’s Library in Los Angeles or the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. I’m partial to the latter, since this is where I first discovered MFK, when I was a bookseller. It is also where I was when I heard of her death. I spent that afternoon crying in the receiving department, and I don’t think I’ve fully recovered. The only consolation is that her work is more beautiful and satisfying with each reading.


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A Month of Birthdays, & Roasted Fall-Vegetable Hash

Contrary to the three-week-long midlife crisis I had a few months ago, I was happy to turn 40. The 40s seem like such an interesting decade, and it’s always fun to start fresh—my 30s were fabulous, but they had some moments I would definitely call “do-overs” on if only I could! I’m sure I’ll say the same thing about my 40s when I hit 50. In any case, because 40 is such a big deal, I don’t feel terrible about hogging the entire month of September for my celebration.

The festivities began with 5 days in New York City with Bette (who flew in from Seattle), Julie, Vickie, Sarah, Michelle, and Hillary (who flew in from L.A.), Jen (who drove over from Long Island), and Blair & Scott (who made us come to them in Brooklyn). Our Big Apple fest included a grand dinner at Buddakan, and a wine drenched 10 p.m. dinner at Arturos, among the many memorable meals. Four weeks of celebrating finally reached its peak on the 30th (I milked the month for all it was worth) with a bash at my cousin Jeanne’s house here in L.A. Given the momentous occasion, I would have been justified in hiring a fancy caterer, but it wouldn’t have been a true Fay fête if it wasn’t a potluck. From the summer weekend getaway potlucks at my Gram’s cabin in Pine Glen when I was a kid, to the themed gourmet potluck parties we’ve been throwing at Jeanne’s for the past three years, there is no better way to get your family and friends to go all out in the kitchen. It was incredible how much food showed up for my birthday party, and how good all of it was.

For my own part, I made the ever popular Prosciutto Involtini; Edamame with Smoky Salt (Le Palais des Thés’ Thé du Tigre ground in my mortar & pestle with good sea salt); and a Roasted Fall-Vegetable Hash modified from a recent issue of Food & Wine. I made the hash because I’m in that moody, sentimental, in-need-of-comfort-food autumn head space, despite living in L.A. where it’s still stinking hot in the middle of the day. I blame all those years in Seattle for instilling a seasonal clock in me. And fall has always been my favorite season, with its last hints of summer and crisp evenings that promise winter to come. I also made the hash because I’ve been wanting an excuse to use the fall produce in the markets. This easy dish met all my requirements. I recommend it for Sunday brunch or a Thanksgiving side.

Roasted Fall-Vegetable Hash


- 1 lb. butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice (the original recipe calls for a half lb. squash and half lb. brussel sprouts, quartered, but I don’t like brussel sprouts)
- 3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 lb. thickly sliced bacon, cut into 1/4-inch dice (I used turkey bacon, which was fine, but doesn’t crisp the way real bacon does)
- 1/2 lb. sweet onions such as Vidalia or Texas sweets, finely chopped
- 1 small Granny Smith apple—peeled, cored and cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 10 sage leaves, thinly sliced crosswise
- 1 cup apple cider (I had a cider fiasco—I couldn’t find any—so used Trader Joe’s sparkling apple cider, which worked)


- Preheat the oven to 400°

- On a large rimmed baking sheet, toss the squash with 2 Tbsp. of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast the vegetables for about 20 minutes, or until tender.

- In a large, deep skillet, heat the remaining 1 Tbsp. of olive oil. Add the bacon and cook over moderate heat until crisp, about 5 minutes.

- Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 10 minutes.

- Stir in the apple and cook until it starts to soften, about 2 minutes.

- Gently stir in the roasted squash and sage, then pour in the cider.

- Simmer over moderately high heat until the cider has almost evaporated, about 10 minutes.

- Season with salt and pepper.

- Transfer the vegetables to a bowl and serve.

Recommended Fall Reading:

On the subject of autumn, check out this lovely essay by Orangette: Late September Sung in the Key of Salad

Last but not Least:

Because I was feeling so sentimental at my party, I couldn’t make it through my birthday speech, so the next day I sent an email out to everyone who came. I want to print it here, because it was such a special night for me.

Dear Family & Friends,

Thank you so much for celebrating my birthday on Saturday night. For those of you who feel cheated out of a sob-filled birthday speech, read on, and feel free to imagine me weeping at my keyboard, to get the full effect.

I can’t tell you how happy it made me to see people from so many different parts of my life together in one place. Friends from my first days in L.A., the gals who did double birthday duty by spending 5 exhausting days with me in New York a few weeks ago, cousin friends, Paso Robles friends, an Alexandria House friend, friend from my time in Vietnam, cookbook collaborating friend, writing friends, oh so precious pregnant friend, brand new friends, even a jury duty friend, and of course my family. The party wouldn’t have been complete without two of my very best friends, my mom and dad, who flew in from Tucson.

Due to potential tear spillage, I didn’t have a chance to thank my sister, Julie, who went all out to find every unattractive picture of me ever taken and painstakingly glue it to a board. It was fun to see so many wonderful memories compiled in a single space … it’s certainly been a fantastic life so far, despite the many many many hair faux pas! As you know, my sis is my best of best friends, and I can’t thank her enough for putting so much time and thought into making my Getting Old Party special.

I also want to thank my cousin Jeanne for offering her house, not only for this party, but all the time. We Fays are far from our damp and moldy homeland of Washington State, and Jeanne’s house (although not damp and moldy) serves as my hearth in L.A. I couldn’t survive here without her friendship and hospitality—knowing the door is always open, whether I need a place to hide from the world or to throw a big messy birthday party that ends with singing to my cousin Bill’s guitar playing at 2 a.m.

When Vickie gave her toast, she said a very true thing—I do love my life. And it is because I am surrounded by intelligence, humor, beauty and love in the form of my wonderful friends.

Thank you!



(photo by Julie Fay)