As Stacey Harwood reminded me--when I said that food editors always go on about loving Fisher but then don't seem to want to print good prose--"Yeah, but they've never actually read her. Everybody always uses the same quote."
Fair point. So when she asked me to guest blog this week, it seemed only right that I should pay tribute to Fisher beyond the one usual quote (for the record, it's the one where she answers the question "Why do I write about food?" She says, "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...There is communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.")
Fisher was a sensualist. She wrote frankly about desire and about her several love affairs. Others know her mainly for How to Cook a Wolf, a collection on how to stave off hunger during the war days of strict rationing. But as the oft-quoted line itself punctuates, she's talking about something "more than our bodies." Folded into Fisher's essays are meditations on every kind of love, not just erotic, and every kind of hunger, not just libidinal.
To wit: in The Gastronomical Me, Fisher describes (in one of several chapters called "The Measure of My Powers") a meal shared, at age 19, with her uncle Evans and his son Bernard, both of whom she desperately wanted to impress. Her uncle has spent five days gently guiding her gustatory coming-of-age. Then, in Chicago, asked what she'd like to eat, she says, "Oh, anything...anything, thank you."
Instantly, she realizes her mistake: "I looked at my uncle, and saw through all my gaucherie, my really painful wish to be sophisticated and polished before him and his brilliant son, that he was looking back at me with a cold speculative somewhat disgusted look in his brown eyes."
Her "phony nonchalance" has disappointed him. She sobers herself and studies the menu with real effort. And then:
'Just a minute, please,' I said, very calmly. I stayed quite cool, like a surgeon when he begins an operation, or maybe a chess player opening a tournament. Finally I said to Uncle Evans, without batting an eye, 'I'd like iced consomme, please, and then sweetbreads sous cloche and a watercress salad...and I'll order the rest later.'
I remember that he sat back in his chair a little, and I knew that he was proud of me and very fond of me. I was too.
And never since then have I let myself say, or even think, 'Oh, anything,' about a meal, even if I had to eat it alone, with death in the house or in my heart.'
So, when Fisher says she writes about more than the body, she's saying the stakes never drop, not even for a second, not even during a sad meal taken alone. There is always someone's effort to consider--the cook, the waiter, the farmer--not to mention one's self-regard. She's writing about becoming an adult, with all the responsibility and delight that entails. The happy conclusion of the dinner is that both she and Uncle Evans learn that she has been worth his time and attention. That is a purely adult satisfaction.
And what a broad, generous vision of love and hunger, to say that they pervade all, so that nothing may be taken for granted.