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.


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