M.F.K. Fisher's The Gastronomical Me is something of a hybrid of a book. It's part memoir and part travelogue, though not wholly either, and with food at its heart. It is a series of essays presented mostly chronologically that shows the making of a true gourmand, which is what Fisher was. Her writing is exquisite and sensual and often very witty. I felt a little bit of a fraud reading it, since my idea of a delicious meal in no way mirrored Fisher's experiences, but it was still a delight to read even if I am something of a philistine when it comes to eating.
My first encounter with Fisher came a few years ago when I read one of her essays in Philip Lopate's The Art of the Personal Essay. I knew I was on to something good and now I'm sure of it. So sure I've been acquiring her memoirs and essay collections and hope to add her diaries to my pile soon, too. I've heard The Gastronomical Me is one of, maybe even her best, book, but with some authors even a so-so book is head and shoulders above the rest, so I'm going to keep reading.
The world she lived in and wrote about has changed and disappeared, but it's one I seem able to read about endlessly. First published in 1943 when she was only 35 the book is made up of loosely connected essays from her childhood in California to her marriage and the years they lived in Dijon (the gourmet capital of France?) and on to her life after her divorce. She doesn't reveal everything, as a matter of fact much of her life is quite subtly presented making me as curious about what she doesn't write about as about what she does. Her essays criss cross the ocean as she travels by ship, living mostly in France and Switzerland until the war comes and changes everything.
Each essay is dated beginning in 1912 with her first food memory and following through to 1941 covering various milestones of her life--people and places as they're associated with her experiences with food.
"The first thing I remember tasting and then wanting to taste again is the grayish-pink fuzz my grandmother skimmed from a spitting kettle of strawberry jam. I suppose I was about four."
Her grandmother had a lot of food issues, so she was expected to eat and mostly served a bland diet.
"My grandmother, who oddly seems to have been connected with whatever infantine gastronomy I knew, spent the last thirty years of her life dying of some obscure internal ailment until a paralytic stroke finished her in four days. She was a vigorous woman, tight with repressed emotions, and probably had a 'nervous stomach.' She spent a lot of time in sanatoria, often genuinely ill, and when she was with us, we had to follow her dietary rules, probably to our benefit: no fried things or pastries, no oils, no seasonings."
But there were moments of inspiration, which probably set her off on the track she was to follow in life.
"Ora was a spare gray-haired woman, who kept herself to herself in a firm containment. She took her afternoons and Sundays off without incident or comment, and kept her small hot room as near as her person. The rest of her time she spent in a kind of ecstasy in the kitchen."
"She loved to cook, the way some people love to pray, or dance, or fight. She preferred to be let alone, even for the ordering of food, and made it clear that meals were her business. they were among the best I have ever eaten . . . all the things we had always accepted as food, but presented in ways that baffled and delighted us."
"Grandmother hated her. I don't know any real reasons, of course, after such a long time, but I think it was because Ora was not like the friendly stupid hired girls she thought were proper for middle-class kitchens. And then Ora did things to 'plain good food' that made it exciting and new and delightful, which my grandmother's stern asceticism meant that Ora was wrong."
"My little sister Anne and I had come in Ora's few weeks with us to watch every plate she served, and to speculate with excitement on what it would taste like. 'Oh, Mother,' we would exclaim in a kind of anguish of delight. 'There are little stars, all made of pie crust! They have seeds on them! Oh, how beautiful! How good!'"
I especially loved reading the parts about Dijon in the 1930s when she and her first husband were living there, he as a student and she as a careful observer of French society. Over time they became part of the community. Fisher conveys the feeling that the people of Dijon are serious about their cooking and meals and once it was accepted that the Fishers were just as sophisticated, they were invited to join in and invited out.
"Probably the most orgiastic eating we did while we lived there was with teh Club Alpin. Monsieur Biarnet proposed us for membership soon after he had decided for himself, over the dinner table in his stuffy little dining room, that we were amusing and moderately civilized. It was supposed to be an honor, as well as making it possible for the club to get better rates on its feasts by having a larger number of members, and certainly it was a fine although somewhat wearing experience for us."
Although the reason for the club is ostensibly to travel around the region to walk and hike, more time was spent exploring the restaurants and eating. She writes about the lengthy meals including one on Ascension Day, which lasted a full six hours. Imagine.
She only hints at some of the personal things that were going on in her life. The essays creat a mosaic of her life and the reader is left to infer from what she does write about, a little of what she has also left out. It's a style that works for me. I feel like I know Fisher just a little bit, even if all the details haven't been filled in. That'll come later as I read more.
"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 the love and the hunger for it, and the 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."