GUEST REVIEW: Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher
Dear Ms. Fisher,
You are one of the greatest food writers of the 20th century. But I didn’t know it when I first came across you work 2003, completely by chance, in a vacation condo in Corpus Christi. The bookshelf in the condo had a few magazines on coastal living and three books by you. That night, after I’d put my baby to sleep, I sat in the bathroom-‘all the other rooms were filled with snoozing relatives-‘and read your tightly wound account of a once-superb waiter become alcoholic and dismal, a punch-to-the-stomach tragedy in a dozen pages.
At the end of my three-day stay, I was seriously tempted to take your books home with me. I didn’t. But I never forgot the strange, stark powers of your narrative. So when I saw The Art of Eating, an omnibus collection of five of your best-known books, in early 2007, again accidentally, while looking for a copy of Larousse Gastronomique to help with my research into 19th century French cuisine, I began reading immediately.
Or rather, I began reading The Gastronomical Me, the fourth volume in The Art of Eating and your memoir, immediately, because as much as food history and food anthropology interest me, what I wanted even more were stories from your own life, like the one about the waiter that had stayed with me ever since.
Some books are like wine, flavorful and easy to imbibe. Your memoir is not wine. It is rather like a fierce eau-de-vie, distilled until every sip is fire, and then set on ice-‘your cool, spare, unsentimental voice. Because it is so potent, its impact so hard and swift, I did not devour your book, but read it slowly, carefully, in portions of one or two chapters.
The Gastronomical Me begins with this paragraph, as is more or less to be expected, for a memoir with the word "gastronomical" in the title:
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 four.
Food, yes. Yummy food too. But you do not linger on the jam fuzz. There is no pornographic description of its airy texture or its fruity taste, nor any instruction to the ignorant among us how to achieve such delicious fuzz at home. Instead you went on to say:
Women in those days made much more of a ritual of their household duties than they do now. Sometimes it was indistinguishable from a dogged if unconscious martyrdom. There were times for This, and other equally definite times for That. There was one set week a year for "the sewing woman." Of course, there was Spring Cleaning. And there were other periods, almost like festivals in that they disrupted normal life, which were observed no matter what the weather, finances, or health of the family.
Many of them seem odd or even foolish to me now, but probably the whole staid rhythm lent a kind of rich excitement to the housebound flight of time.
Thus the tone of your book is set. It is not really about the food, despite its title. Or rather, it is only about food in the sense that life itself is about food, that we spend so much of our waking hours cooking, eating, feeding-‘or hungry. We eat when we are happy. We eat when we are bored. We eat when we are lonely beyond endurance. And we still must eat when the world slowly tilts into violence and madness.
And so it was that the great love affair of your life unspooled against the violence and madness of WWII. You rarely referred to the war directly, but it was there, heavy and ominous. And what matter-of-fact details you chose to write of it stuck into me like knives, especially this brief bit about two Jewish women who lived their lives at sea:
The two most discreet girls on board were what was spoken of quite casually by the officers as "water babies."
They were married, both of them, to men in concentration camps. They seemed to have plenty of money, and for safety and probably from habit they had not set foot on land since they escaped from Germany. Instead, they went back and forth from Europe to America, sometimes for months on a single ship, making one trip as the First Officer’s girl, the next as the Second’s, and so on.
Somehow, your laconic allusion to the strange lives-‘and livelihood?-‘of these two women affect me more than any books or movies about the Holocaust I’ve ever across. I cannot forget them. I think of them in their endlessly waterbound days, in the seemingly insular security of an oceanliner. I think of the gaiety they project that amuse and attract the ship’s officers. I think of the way they almost believe in the gaiety and the security and the rootlessness of their existence, as if they never had a life in pre-war Germany, never married men who were dead or dying in Dachau.
The way you depict the most life-changing events of your own life, too, has that extraordinarily matter-of-factness about it. On committing yourself to leaving your first husband to be with your second-‘the love of your life-‘while crossing the Atlantic, you wrote:
Then came a small storm. I found myself standing alone in the cold moonlight, with spray everywhere and my black cape whipping, and my face probably looking a little sick but covering, I am sure, wild and unspeakable thoughts. Suddenly I seemed so ridiculous, so melodramatically Mid-Victorian about my Hopeless Passion, that I blushed with embarrassment, straightened my hair, and went down to the bar.
Chexbres was there, of course. We celebrated, with the first of ten thousand completely enjoyable drinks: I, my release from my own private soap-opera, and he, my God-sent recovery from what was to him an inexplicable case of frigid and sour-pussed ill humor. Everything was all right after that, for as many more years as he was on earth, and I lived secure and blessed for those years too, through many terrors.
But he would die all too soon. You never named his illness. You never told us what he did, what he looked like, where he was from, how you met him, or how he died. You never even used his real name. And it never mattered. I knew you loved him beyond measure because you wrote this:
Chexbres studied the winds, the soil, the way the rains came, and he knew more about how to grow things than the peasants could have learned in a thousand years, in spite of their cruel toiling. He felt truly apologetic about it.
The infinite pride in those words. It was enough.
The days of your happiness had a gleam to them, like sunlight on water. And when Chexbres’s health failed, and you both knew his days were numbered, that happiness lost its pastoral brightness, but acquired an intensity almost like despair.
Again on an ocean crossing, you wrote:
We got up late, and went after bathings and shavings to the Lounge, where we sat in soft chairs by the glass wall and looked out past the people sunning themselves to the blue water. We drank champagne or sometimes beer, slowly, and talked and talked to each other because there was so much to say and so little time to say it.
There was a singular strength to such love. It isolated and protected.
We were past the pain and travail, that was all. We were inviolate.
I believed in that bubble of love. I wanted it to be, as you said, inviolate. But alas, even consuming love could not shield you from everything. On a train crossing from Switzerland into Italy, something happened. There was a broken window with jagged glass, and water all around that window and all over the station-‘the aftermath of a successful suicide: an escaped and recaptured political prisoner had chosen to cut his throat on the glass rather than to go back to prison. You wrote:
By the time we got to Milano everything was almost alright again, but for a few minutes the shell cracked. The world seeped in. We were not two ghosts, safe in our own immunity from the pain of living. Chexbres was a man with one leg gone, the other and the two arms soon to go-a small wracked man with snowy hair and eyes large with suffering. And I was a woman condemned, plucked at by demons, watching her true love die too slowly.
-I felt illimitably old, there in the train, knowing that escape was not peace, ever.
That is one of the most heartbreaking passages I’ve ever read. And I was all the more devastated because for much of the rest of the chapter leading up to this shattering moment, you talked only about food, the comfort and familiarity of a good luncheon cooked and served by a galley staff who knew you well. Like you, I never expected that lovely quotidien calm to splinter, to expose your vulnerability so utterly and mercilessly.
At this point, it is incumbent upon me to point out that the entire book is not wrenching to this degree. There are other more amusing interludes, stories that warmed the heart, and even passages of sheer gluttonous delight. It would also be remiss of me not to say something of your trenchant prose, which I love. The book is full of little gems like this:
-like the concert-grand piano in the Ladies’ Salon, painted a rich creamy pink (with mother-of-pearl keys), so that it looked like a monstrous raspberry in the pistachio mousse décor.
The Hansa was a tidy, plump little ship. There was something comfortable about her, and at the same time subtly coarse and vulgar, like a motherly barmaid married to a duke in an English novel.
I cannot say whether The Gastronomical Me was pessimistic or optimistic. I think it is a true portrayal of life, ordinary and extraordinary turn by turn. It is as you said, in a quote I love so much that I placed it at the very front of Delicious,
When I write about hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth, and the love of it-and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied.
And for that, The Gastronomical Me is, and will always be, one of my favorite books.