“To be happy you must have taken the measure of your powers, tasted the fruits of your passion, and learned your place in the world.” —George Santayana, quoted in the beginning of The Gastronomical Me
Once upon a time in New York City, I had a mad heiress friend who was a shimmering culinary sorceress (with one of the most quicksilver minds I have ever known). She once enjoined we, her guests, to “quaff immortality and joy” and revealed, when pressed, that the source of the dark and subtle mystery of her sauce had come from dust from a first edition of Les Fleur du Mal! We believed her.
I was nineteen when she gave me my first copy of MFK Fisher’s The Art of Eating (a ’70s compilation of five of her books) after sharing perfect pears and an eighty-year-old Chateau Yquem. She wrote an inscription that read, “Here’s to slow, voluptuous concentration and the rapturous capacity to create and discover magic.”
I think that book helped shape the person I was to become as well as forever change how I feel about food and the way I use it to relate to friends and loved ones. A close friend once told a new boyfriend of mine that I show love through cooking. I was touched and knew it to be so. There are conversations of tastes and sensualities to be shared and enjoyed, disasters to be laughed at, and all the while nourishing, nourishing.
MFK Fisher believed that eating well was one of the “arts of life.” She practiced what she preached and wrote more than twenty books beginning with Serve It Forth in 1937. What is so often said of her writing is that she transcended her format. She wasn’t a great cooking writer; she was a great writer. In 1963 W.H. Auden called her “America’s greatest writer.” The New York Times said, “M. F. K. Fisher was a writer who skirted classification. Her food writing read like love stories, her fiction like memoirs.”
When asked why she wrote about food, she replied:
The easiest answer is to say that… I am hungry. But there is more than that. 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 and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and the love of it and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one.
There is food in the bowl and more often than not, because of what honesty I have, there is nourishment in the heart, to feed wilder and more insistent hungers.
The New York Times review of her first book states, “It is erudite and witty and experienced and young. The truth is that it is stamped on every page with a highly individualized personality. Sophisticated but not standardized, brilliant but never ‘swift-moving’ or ‘streamlined,’ perfumed and a little mocking, direct and yet almost précieuse…”
I have read pretty much everything she wrote and each book left me richer. It is no wonder that everyone in the food world from Beard to Reichl did some small amount of genuflecting at her table while visiting her at “Last House” in California. Many culinary pilgrimages were made to see her there.
I include a list of some of her best so that you too may read and be nourished:
Serve It Forth (1937)
Consider the Oyster (1941)
How to Cook a Wolf (1942)
The Gastronomical Me (1943)
Here Let Us Feast, A Book of Banquets (1946)
An Alphabet for Gourmets (1949)
The Physiology of Taste [translator] (1949)
The Art of Eating (1954) [combines five of her books]
A Cordial Water: A Garland of Odd & Old Receipts to Assuage the Ills of Man or Beast (1961)
Map of Another Town: A Memoir of Provence (1964)
Recipes: The Cooking of Provincial France (1968) [reprinted in 1969 as The Cooking of Provincial France]
With Bold Knife and Fork (1969)
In her 1942 book How to Cook a Wolf, MFK Fisher wrote, “If I tell smiling people who sip at it that is made of mashed shrimps and especially buttermilk, they wince, gag and hurry away. So I say nothing and serve it from invisible hogsheads to unconscious but happy hordes.”
I have been making my version (I added the Madeira and onions twenty years ago) of her soup for many years when the thermometer hits the nineties and I need something cool and refreshing. No one has ever gagged! In fact it has always been an enormous hit. It takes five minutes to make and, with good buttermilk, it tastes rich as could be but is light and delicious. Vegetarians could skip the shrimp and still have a delicious dish.
Shrimp and Cucumber Soup (serves 4 generously)
1 ½ lb shrimp, chopped
2 scallions, finely chopped
1 T butter
3 T Madeira
1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
¼ c chopped dill
1 t dry mustard
1 t salt
1 t pepper
1 quart buttermilk
Sauté the shrimp and scallions in the butter and add the Madeira. Add the rest. It is best to allow to chill together for an hour then serve but you can serve as is if you are in a rush!