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Book Review: With Bold Knife and Fork by M.F.K. Fisher

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If I were to host one of those hypothetical dinner parties with the guest list that breaks the barrier between the living and the dead, one of the first envelopes I addressed would bear the name M.F.K. Fisher. I first made Ms. Fisher’s literary acquaintance in her memoir The Gastronomical Me and was enchanted by the encounter. Here was a woman who lived a life of her own choosing in an era – like our own – of expected conformity, and who recounted and tallied her experiences through food: a foodie, avant de la lettre.

While The Gastronomical Me describes the life of a young, adventurous woman seeking – in the words of another Fisher work — The Measure of Her Powers, in With Bold Knife and Fork, newly released by Counterpoint Press, Fisher’s voice is that of a blunt-spoken, mildly eccentric aunt, the grande dame moving with flair into a new era but bringing with her steamer trunks packed with the experience of her past.

The introduction to With Bold Knife and Fork is notable for its clarity, practicality, and brevity.

This book is about how I like to cook, most of the time, for people in my world, and it gives some of the reasons. These have made life enjoyable, so they may be of interest to other human beings.

That’s it: no frills, no philosophizing. The dry humor and sly emphasis on the “may” echoes clearly, however. This sense that the author is laughing gently with (or perhaps at) the reader wanders through a book that bursts with flavor, wit, and wisdom. Although structure, shape, and cover are those of a cookbook, With Bold Knife and Fork is a unique creature: cookbook, yes, but also memoir, anthropology text, history, travelogue, and opinion column. From “The Anatomy of a Recipe” to “The Secret Ingredient” the chapters shape themselves in classic cookbook fashion around the various courses and food groups. However, the names of the chapters give the first clues that no standard grouping of recipes lies within.

Consider the section on appetizers, “Teasers and Titbits” – no, that wasn’t a typo. “I started for the second or third time to write about what are correctly called titbits … which puritanical dictionaries prefer to spell tidbits to protect the salacious.” Here is a surprise, the humor, and a flash of the strong opinions forthcoming. In fact, “[increasingly] I regret the custom of presenting elaborate canapés, mistakenly called hors d’oeuvres in our country … I feel almost violent about this … and when I start to talk or write about it, I am apt to grow malicious, scoffing, or plain peevish.” This segues into a strangely diverting anecdote about dips and Fisher’s mounting hysteria on the subject that can only be soothed with “an out-of-date newsweekly and a glass of dry vermouth.” Once she settles down, Fisher rolls the chapter into a discussion of, and anecdotes about (presumably approved) appetizers. Recipes appear, as they will throughout the book, in the margins near the corresponding paragraphs.

The quirky chapter titles delight on their own, but it is even more fun to track down the source, often obscure, for each title within the chapter. Who would think that a chapter on fish would be called “How to Spring Like a Flea,” or that meats would be “A Proverbial Matter?” A personal favorite is the chapter on “Hunger and Enjoyment” entitled “Once a Tramp, Always…” Inexplicably, this section lies between the chapter on rice and grains, and that regarding eggs.

Within the chapter, it is often difficult to see the progression of Fisher’s thought until one has read all the way through. Those expecting a brief description of a course and then the nuts and bolts of recipes may be first alarmed, then charmed by Fisher’s seemingly aimless rambles into history, culture, and most often the land of her memories. However, it behooves the reader to pay attention. The eccentric aunt is far sharper than she appears, and the knife of her prose always has a keen edge and a sharp point.

For my own part, I would have been delighted to come across With Bold Knife and Fork solely for its inclusion of the recipe for “Nut Tree Bread.” This “titbit” gave me my own M.F.K. Fisher moment as it drew me into my own Northern California childhood where the sun filtered through the atrium windows of the iconic restaurant, and an appetizer of marshmallow fondue warred with the presence of my own little loaf of bread (and real knife!) for my delight. The Nut Tree restaurant may linger only in memory, but With Bold Knife and Fork provides a similar experience of nostalgic perfection – flavor, comfort, surprises, and diversions in ideal balance.

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