May it Please the Palate: M.F.K. Fisher taught us about food and life

My cooking heroes were Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, and Jeff "The Frugal Gourmet" Smith (before he was busted as a pederast).

I hadn't heard of Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher until a few years ago. Then I bought "The Art of Eating," praised by Child, Alice Waters, Maya Angelou, and James Beard, among others, and I was transformed.

More than a cook, more than a writer, MFK recognized the connections we all share:

''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 the hunger for it... and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied... and it is all one.''

--"The Art of Eating"

Born in Albion in 1908, steeped in the Art during an extended period living in Dijon, France in the '30's, MFK wrote more than 20 books, with names such as "Consider the Oyster" and "How to Cook A Wolf."

A few of these books, and several articles, are compiled into "The Art of Eating."

"To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art."

--"Serve It Forth"

MFK's irreverence and wit cannot be described. I devoured every delicious quote and highlighted it in my dog eared copy.

"Central heating, French Rubber goods, and cookbooks are three amazing proofs of man's ingenuity in transforming necessity into art, and, of these, cookbooks are perhaps most lastingly delightful." - Serve It Forth

She comments on the eating cycle of a boy to old age, the typical American society cookbook, roast pigs and sentimentality, bad English desserts, and secret eating obsessions.

She regales us with anecdotes about French kings and their chefs.

She defends the potato as a complement to a main meal, noting that "to be complementary is in itself a compliment. It is a subtle pleasure."

This principle she illustrates with the story of a chef who prepared an elegant dish of sole, whose dinner was complimented thusly: "The Chateau Yquem was excellent." The chef beamed with pride, explaining to his staff that the wine would not have tasted good unless the main dish were perfect.

(Note well, lawyers - you are only as good as your support staff.)

She makes simple eating pleasures sound magical, such as eating tangerines: "Peel them gently; do not bruise them ... separate each plump little pregnant crescent. If you find the Kiss, the secret section, save it for [your loved one]."

The libertine MFK Fisher quoted Seneca as saying, "When shall we live, if not now?" She left her first husband for the husband of her best friend, her beloved Timmy, who died young after an illness.

She bounced thereafter from one relationship to another, men and women. Joan Reardon, in her biography of M.F.K. Fisher, "Poet of the Appetites," links MFK's account of tasting her first oyster ''with her initiation into boarding school crushes and lesbian relationships."

This is not quite a stretch, as we hear MFK describe the boarding school Christmas dinner:

"They put a plate in front of each of us. We all looked mazily at what we saw, and waited with mixed feelings until Miss Huntingdon had picked up her fork (where, I wonder now, did Mrs. Cheever even find one hundred oyster forks in a California boarding school?) before we even thought of eating. .. Olmstead said casually, "How charming! Blue Points!"

"Jesus," Inez said softly. Well, here goes. ... "Try one, Baby-face. It ain't the heat, it's the humidity. Try one. Slip and go easy." She cackled suddenly, watching me with sly bright eyes.

"Yes do," Olmstead said.

"I laughed lightly, tinklingly, like Helen in "Helen and Warren", said "Oh I love Blue Points," and got one with surprising neatness in my mouth.

"At that moment the orchestra began to play, Olmstead laughed, and said to me, "Come on Kennedy, Let's start the ball rolling, shall we?"

"The fact that she, the most wonderful girl in the whole school and the most intelligent, and the most revered, should ask me to dance when she knew very well that I was only a Sophomore, was so overwhelming that it makes even the dream-like reality that she had called me Kennedy, instead of Mary Frances, seem unimportant.

"The oyster was still in my mouth. I smiled with care, and stood up, reeling at the thought of dancing the first dance of the evening with the senior class president."

--"The Gastronomical Me," 1943

Ms. Fisher was not restricted to men and women, once writing "How to Be Content with a Vegetable Love," quoting the English poet W.S. Gilbert. She notes, "Almost all vegetables are good, although there is some doubt still about parsnips (which I share)."

After rhapsodizing over the sublime taste of the pink skinned tiny new potato, she exuded, "There are many ways to love a vegetable!"

"How to Cook a Wolf" was first published in 1942, at the height of wartime shortages and rationing. It referred not to the literal, but the concept of making the most out of everything.

For example, she explained how to stretch eggs, either with breadcrumbs, "or in a soufflé, add one cup of puffed cereal to the three separated eggs, and you will have food for four people [... at least three of whom, I feel impelled to add, you dislike intensely and hope never to see again.]."

In "I is for Innocence," (from "An Alphabet for Gourmets"), MFK describes "the ghastliest meal I ever ate in my life.

"There is no point in describing it, and to tell the truth a merciful mist has blurred its high points. There was too much spice where there should have been none; there was sogginess where crispness was all important; there was an artificially whipped and heavily sweetened canned milk dessert where nothing at all was wanted.

"And all through the dinner, in the small, hot, crowded room, we drank lukewarm Muscatel, a fortified dessert wine sold in gallon jugs, mixed in cheese-spread glasses with equal parts of a popular bottled lemon soda. It sounds incredible, but it happened."

From this meal MFK concluded there is "indeed a gastronomic innocence ... he had not pretended with me nor tried to impress me. I looked into the little gray eyes of my friend and drank deep and felt the better for it."

An MFK Fisher recipe is more like a story, like the oyster stew made without either cream or milk, obtained from "three gentle sisters, who spoke sadly at first, and then with that kind of quiet inner mirth that rises always in members of a family who have lived together for several decades, when they begin unexpectedly to remember things."

She describes an oyster stew from a nonchalant cook at the Doylestown (PA) Inn, who worked three separate copper pots - one with fresh shelled oysters, another with hot frothing butter, and a third with steaming milk - all eventually blended together with a dash of salt and red pepper.

She concluded, "It was as good as he had said, the best in the world, and as all the other people had told me ... mildly potent, quietly sustaining, warm as love."

--"Consider the Oyster"

Mary Frances Kay Fisher died in 1992. She has been regarded by some as the first real food writer. She knew it wasn't just about the food, but about the hunger.

If I can convey that concept in even the smallest way, then please join me, my friend, for some fresh oysters and spot of Muscatel.

Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard and Walker, P.C., a litigation firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment litigation.

He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for "Current" magazine.

Published: Thu, Aug 4, 2011

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