Before the holidays I brought home a book of essays by M.F.K. Fisher. Unfortunately that's one book I didn't get to, but I'm interested enough in it I might just be persuaded to buy a copy of my own sometime this year. I was pleased to see she is included in The Art of the Personal Essay, so I'll get a taste of her writing after all. She's best known for her writings on food, though she didn't consider herself a food writer. She was quite prolific, too, as she wrote more than twenty books during her lifetime. Lopate writes:
"Certainly food was her primary subject matter, and her achievement was to use this seemingly mundane concern as a metaphor for the analysis of human appetite, disappointment, and rapture."
Her essays are not chatty and confessional according to Lopate. Her writing shows restraint yet can be "disarmingly and alarmingly honest."
Fisher may show restraint in her writing but she is not without humor. In "Once a Tramp, Always . . ." she writes about gastronomical cravings and asserting control over them. "There is a mistaken idea, ancient but still with us, that an overdose of anything from fornication to hot chocolate will teach restraint by the very results of its abuse." She gives an example of a son caught by his father smoking who then has to smoke to the point of illness in order to teach him how to "smoke properly". (Keeping in mind Fisher's dates are 1908-1992 and I'm guessing this essay was written sometime in the 1960s!). People will smoke and drink according to their own needs, but good manners usually have to do with "innate taste than of outward training." Cravings are something altogether different, and whether anyone can feel really and fully satiated either physically or spiritually.
"Somewhere between the extremes of putative training in self-control and unflagging discipline against wild cravings lie the sensual and voluptuous gastronomical favorites-of-a-lifetime, the nostalgic yearnings for flavors once met in early days--the smell or taste of a gooseberry pie on a summer noon at Peachblow Farm, the whiff of anise from a Marseille bar. Old or moderately young, of any sex, most of us can forgo the analyst's couch at will and call up some such flavors. It is better thus. Kept verbal, there is small danger of indigestion, and in truth a gooseberry pie can be a horror (those pale beady acid fruits, the sugar never masking their mean acidity, the crust sogging . . . and my father rhapsodized occasionally about the ones at Peachblow and we tried to recapture their magic for him, but it was impossible)."
Simply thinking or fantasizing about these cravings is enough, since there is no saturation point when the body screams-help! For Fisher just knowing she can indulge in her favorites, potato chips and beluga caviar, is enough to stop her from doing so. She goes on to talk about savoring these delicacies with a certain fondness recalling her first tastes.
"I am a mouse amongst elephants now, but I can say just as surely that this minute, in a Northern California valley, I can taste-smell-hear-see and then feel between my teeth the potato chips I ate slowly one November afternoon in 1936, in the bar of the Lausanne Palace. They were uneven in both thickness and color, probably made by a new apprentice is the hotel kitchen, and almost surely they smelled faintly of either chicken or fish, for that was always the case there. They were a little too salty, to encourage me to drink. They were ineffable. I am still nourished by them. That is probably why I can be so firm about not eating my way through barrels, tunnels, mountains more of them here in the land where they hang like square cellophane fruit on wire trees in all the grocery stores, to tempt me sharply every time I pass."
It's not just pleasant former experiences with food that she thinks back on. Sometimes the cravings are for the things she wasn't allowed. Raised in a conservative house she laments the fact that she was never able to eat real mayonnaise.
"My maternal grandmother, whose Victorian neuroses dictated our family table tastes until I was about twelve, found salads generally suspect but would tolerate the occasional serving of some watery lettuce in a dish beside each plate(those crescents one still sees now and then in English and Swiss boardinghouses and mansions of American Anglophiles). On it would be a dab or lump or blob, depending on the current cook, of what was quietly referred to as Boiled Dressing. It seemed dreadful stuff--enough to harm one's soul."
Fisher was never quite able to match a recipe, or receipt as her grandmother would surely have called it, with what she and her family were subjected to eating. In the end she decides that the contents didn't include all the things that make mayo such a pleasant thing to eat, like eggs, milk, sugar and mustard. Rather her grandmother's had to consist of cider vinegar, enough flour to make a thin paste and salt to taste. This, she says, is one recipe which has never been nor ever shall be tested!
By the way, the title of this essay was inpsired by the Mark Twain book, Tramp Abroad. In it he lists the foods he misses while he is on his travels, which consists of something like eighty items. In that lists Fisher finds one unusual mention. She finds she shares a natural affinity with Twain over it and reminisces over her one indulgence of it as a child. I won't tell you what it is, as this is a wonderful essay that is well worth searching out, so you can find out for yourself! Fisher writes in a clear, crisp and simple style and knows how to tell a good story. I really like her "voice" and will definitely be looking for that missed book of essays and maybe some of her other work as well. You can read more about her here.