I love reading about food. Cookbooks, blogs, essays, you name it. And since everybody eats and therefore thinks about food, you can find writing about food from novelists and poets, housewives and scientists, the affluent and the grossly underpaid. Young writers, old men, women who don’t necessarily think of themselves as writers, and some women – like the brilliant essayist M.F.K. Fisher – who changed the way Americans not just write but also eat and think about food.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of M.F.K. Fisher’s contribution to American culture, especially to American letters. The poet W.H. Auden once said of her: "I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose." No everybody knows her writing, but they know her legacy – for example, one of her most charming and fascinating books is a slim volume called Consider the Oyster. Her writing is effortlessly intelligent, which I admire very much, and it’s fiercely charming, which I also love. Without Consider the Oyster, the nineties and early naughties might not have seen the publication of similar meditations on a single food, its history and economic import, its culinary and cultural importance – books like Cod or Salt. Author David Foster Wallace certainly knew his M.F.K. Fisher – he cribbed her title for the essay he wrote for Gourmet magazine, ostensibly about the Maine Lobster Fest but really about ethical eating and the nature of pain, “Consider the Lobster.” When he compiled a whole book of essays, including that one, he used the title again for that volume. M.F.K. Fisher made some very astute culinary observations. (For example, she observed that almost everything about an entire cuisine can be reasoned or explained by considering the fat that cuisine predominantly uses in its cooking – the French preference for butter, which smokes at a very low temperature, explains a lot of the ingenuity that cuisine requires; Italian use of olive oil, which smokes low but not as much so as butter, determines many of that cuisine’s flavor combinations; many Asian cuisines prefer peanut or other nut oils that smoke at a very high temperature, so many of those cuisines include traditional dishes that exploit the possibilities inherent in cooking at very high temperatures. Some would argue that the Chinese “wok he” or “soul of the wok” is really just a clean enough oil over a hot enough fire.) But M.F.K. Fisher didn’t really write about food – it was ostensibly her subject, but mostly, she wrote about people. How to Cook a Wolf is about rationing during wartime, so it's also about wartime. And it's about courage, fortitude, and human resourcefulness. It's about dignity, and it's about identity. And all of her books work like this.
Below is a short excerpt from the essay “Borderlands” which can be found in her collection, Serve It Forth. In the essay, she’s in Strasbourg with her husband, Al, who’s away most of the day on business. The weather isn’t particularly great, so she spends a lot of time in their hotel room. She writes in the second-person imperative, maybe a bold move for a lady writer back then, and still she artfully maintains the very lightest touch:
In the morning…sit in the window peeling tangerines, three or four. Peel them gently; do not bruise them, as you watch soldiers pour past and past the corner and over the canal towards the watched Rhine. Separate each plump little pregnant crescent. If you find the Kiss, the secret section, save it for Al.
Listen to the chambermaid thumping up the pillows, and murmur encouragement to her thick Alsatian tales of l'intérieure. That is Paris, the interior…While she mutters of seduction and French bicyclists who ride more than wheels, tear delicately from the soft pile of sections each velvet string. You know those white pulpy strings that hold tangerines into their skins? Tear them off. Be careful.
Take yesterday's paper (when we were in Strasbourg L'Ami du Peuple was best, because when it got hot the ink stayed on it) and spread it on top of the radiator. The maid has gone, of course - it might be hard to ignore her belligerent Alsatian glare of astonishment.
After you have put the pieces of tangerine on the paper on the hot radiator, it is best to forget about them. Al comes home, you go to a long noon dinner in the brown dining-room, afterwards maybe you have a little nip of quetsch from the bottle on the armoire. Finally he goes. You are sorry, but --
On the radiator the sections of tangerines have grown even plumper, hot and full. You carry them to the window, pull it open, and leave them for a few minutes on the packed snow of the sill. They are ready.
All afternoon you can sit, then, looking down on the corner. Afternoon papers are delivered to the kiosk. Children come home from school just as three lovely whores mince smartly into the pension's chic tearoom. A basketful of Dutch tulips stations itself by the tram-stop, ready to tempt tired clerks at six o'clock. Finally the soldiers stump back from the Rhine. It is dark.
The sections of the tangerine are gone, and I cannot tell you why they are so magical. Perhaps it is that little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl, that crackles so tinily, so ultimately under your teeth. Or the rush of cold pulp just after it. Or the perfume. I cannot tell.
The premise of this delightful essay is very simple: “Almost every person has something secret he likes to eat.” I suppose we think right away of “guilty pleasures” – which might mean, to some, foods that one ought not to eat because they’re unhealthy (Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream, for example) and to some, because the pleasure is childish and a little embarrassing (I confess, I kind of love Cheetoes. Even the sticky orange powder that gets all over your fingertips and face and makes them feel oddly, chemically numb. Gross, I know. But there you have it). There’s also secret eating that’s just about weird preparations – this elaborate ritual for a little tangerine, or for my Mom, the pleasures of crushed ice. For Christmas one year, I got her a kitchen device that looks like a pretty little baseball bat, specifically designed for breaking up ice in a bag. She eats it almost by the bowlful every single day. I love edamame in the pods, but I love it the most when I dip it in a little bit of rice vinegar before I suck the salt off the pods, pop them open with my teeth, and scrape out the little al dente green pods with my tongue. The little extra sting is just so fine.
I was reading this very essay aloud to Craig when we were in Rome. I was learning to cook, really cook, for the first time. As part of this little education of mine, I was reading everything I could about food. Partly in response to the essay, partly in response to his own noticing one morning how the oil from a citrus rind mists visibly into the air every time you tear it, and partly from occasions and musings we will not ever really know, Craig wrote the poem below:
Meditation on a Grapefruit
To wake when all is possible
before the agitations of the day
have gripped you
To come to the kitchen
and peel a little basketball
To tear the husk
like cotton padding a cloud of oil
misting out of its pinprick pores
clean and sharp as pepper
each pale pink section out of its case
so carefully without breaking
a single pearly cell
To slide each piece
into a cold blue china bowl
the juice pooling until the whole
fruit is divided from its skin
and only then to eat
precisely pointless a devout
involvement of the hands and senses
a pause a little emptiness
each year harder to live within
each year harder to live without
Writing about food is, above all, sensational. Not in a “spectacular” or “maudlin” way – though it can be those things. But in its pure, palpable engagement of the language that reaches into the human brain and evokes smell, taste, touch, sound, sight. Language becomes its own organ of perception, writing like this – say “lemon” or “rosemary”. Or say “sinking your front teeth into a sliver of raw jalapeno”. Can’t you smell it? Taste it? Doesn’t it make your cheeks pucker, the tip of your tongue tingle? Writer David Abrams talks about this kind of writing in his book, The Spell of the Sensuous. He says, “To make sense is to release the body from the constraints imposed by outworn ways of speaking, and hence to renew and rejuvenate one's felt awareness of the world.” Great writing, really great writing does this for us. It gives us the everyday world anew.
One of my favorite books of poetry of all time, Birds, Beasts and Flowers by D.H. Lawrence, (another book I was reading often and again during that year in Italy) offers up a splendid example of just this.
Medlars and Sorb-Apples
I love you, rotten,
I love to suck you out from your skins
So brown and soft and coming suave,
So morbid, as the Italians say.
What a rare, powerful, reminiscent flavour
Comes out of your falling through the stages of decay:
Stream within stream.
Something of the same flavour as Syracusan muscat wine
Or vulgar Marsala.
Though even the word Marsala will smack of preciosity
Soon in the pussy-foot West.
What is it?
What is it, in the grape turning raisin,
In the medlar, in the sorb-apple.
Wineskins of brown morbidity,
What is it that reminds us of white gods?
Gods nude as blanched nut-kernels.
Strangely, half-sinisterly flesh-fragrant
As if with sweat,
And drenched with mystery.
Sorb-apples, medlars with dead crowns.
I say, wonderful are the hellish experiences
Dionysos of the Underworld.
A kiss, and a vivid spasm of farewell, a moment’s orgasm
Then along the damp road alone, till the next turning.
And there, a new partner, a new parting, a new unfusing
A new gasp of further isolation,
A new intoxication of loneliness, among decaying, frost-cold leaves.
Going down the strange lanes of hell, more and more intensely
The fibres of the heart parting one after the other
And yet the soul continuing, naked-footed, ever more vividly embodied
Like a flame blown whiter and whiter
In a deeper and deeper darkness
Ever more exquisite, distilled in separation.
So, in the strange retorts of medlars and sorb-apples
The distilled essence of hell.
The exquisite odour of leave-taking.
Orpheus, and the winding, leaf-clogged, silent lanes of hell.
Each soul departing with its own isolation.
Strangest of all strange companions,
More than sweet
Flux of autumn
Sucked out of your empty bladders
And sipped down, perhaps, with a sip of Marsala
So that the rambling, sky-dropped grape can add its
Orphic farewell, and farewell, and farewell
And the ego sum of Dionysos
The sono io of perfect drunkenness
Intoxication of final loneliness.
medlars in Sicily
And here’s another marvelous food poem about more than just food, one of my favorites of Pablo Neruda’s “Elemental Odes” to things like “Tomatoes” or “My Socks” or “A Large Tuna in the Market”:
Ode to Salt
in the salt cellar
I once saw in the salt mines.
I know you
won't believe me
but it sings
salt sings, the skin
of the salt mines
with a mouth smothered
by the earth.
I shivered in those
when I heard
in the desert.
In its caves
the salt moans, mountain
of buried light,
crystal of the sea, oblivion
of the waves.
And then on every table
in the world,
we see your piquant
upon our food.
of the ancient
holds of ships,
the high seas,
of the unknown, shifting
byways of the foam.
Dust of the sea, in you
the tongue receives a kiss
from ocean night:
taste imparts to every seasoned
dish your ocean essence;
wave from the saltcellar
reveals to us
more than domestic
whiteness; in it, we taste finitude.
One of my favorite films of all time is the film Babette’s Feast. In it, a once-affluent French noblewoman is whisked out of Paris to escape the guillotine, and finds refuge in a profoundly austere northern European religious community. To earn her keep, she goes to work cooking the most hideous-looking food – big brown fish dried on a clothes line and lumpy porridge made from stale bread and flat beer, and so forth. It turns out, our French heroine was once a famed cook, and she slowly but surely begins to revolutionize the community’s food – gathering and adding fresh herbs, boiling delicate broths, roasting small birds. Of course, this begins to create a real stir in the community, some of whom are relieved and grateful, others of whom wring their hands with anxiety, worried that by taking pleasure in their meals, they might be endangering their immortal souls. Any temptation to attach to the world, after all, distracts from a desire for God. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will tell you it includes a triumphant meal. And that my cat, her name is Babette.
I suppose the lesson of the film is simple – food is gift. And a talent in the kitchen is a gift, just like a talent on the violin or a talent for numbers. And gifts should be enjoyed. Not hidden under a bushel.
Another marvelous food film is the little flick Big Night, about brothers trying (and failing) to open a restaurant. In the final scene, after much porny food footage, the brothers – who’ve been fighting and who won’t speak to each other – silently make and share some scrambled eggs (frittata-style).
Such a simple little dish, scrambled eggs. But really, magical, when done properly – soft, pillowy, savory, rich. Filling but not heavy, homey but not coarse. Food is about a lot of things – memory, family, culture, history, faith, health, offering, acceptance, adventure. And language. And also, what language cannot do.
 Lazar, David Conversations with M. F. K. Fisher' at 22 (University of Mississippi Press 1992)