in which i am dead inside: my favorite food writer

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It used to be that all food writers wrote the same. When somebody tells me that their favourite food writer is M.F.K. Fisher, I’m like, ‘OK, you’re dead inside.’ That kind of writing is so stultifying. It’s like being stuck on a bus next to somebody’s grandmother for five hours.

Josh Ozersky, interviewed in GQ, 2013

Fisher’s autobiographical The Gastronomical Me (1943) includes the one of my favorite personal essays in the entire world, a tale of Fisher’s first oyster in 1924 that’s so cold and awkward and strange and familiar to those of us who have shivered in the New Yorker unhappy WASP narrative forever and ever and ever so much it’s like a family diamond or that first icy sip of a martini in a posh bar, and yet it’s warm and messy, oozy around the edges, going bad. It turns out, instead, to be about a dark, passionate, illicit underbelly of life that’s nearly Joycean in scope, one that the reader and narrator just get a glimpse of and then it’s gone again. I teach it to college freshmen from time to time and they never get it because they read skimmingly and trippingly, if at all.

So I as the professor, vicariously through these youngsters, get that pleasure again and again: what is happening here? Did we miss something? What are these hot glances and melting touches and tears and intemperate bravado – all hot, hot feelings in this piece that’s supposed to be about chilled shellfish, passed on a tray by servants in white gloves? It’s the pleasure of reading.

You miss that? You see Fisher as stultifying, dead inside, stuck on an Elderhostel tour. You miss that icy crust between what’s cold and what’s hot, what’s old and what’s new, what’s acceptable and what’s deviant.

You see it? You see the difference between Fisher and every single other food writer in her genre, her brilliance and subtlety, a critique of a society and class and feminine sexuality and the very circles in which Ozersky undoubtedly moves. It’s not about food at all.

Another example from the same work, though I could easily choose another.

In “To Feed Such Hunger,” Fisher explores the rifts in polite society even more oddly than in the oyster tale. Here, the narrative plays out a scene bristling with European cultural and political relationships in 1930, embodied in a foreign couple who end up in the same French boardinghouse as the American narrator. He German, she Czech, they fill the air with “moist Germanic hissings” and a host of displeasurable metaphors in “a strange kind of love affair” that involves food in an exquisitely subtle form of masochism.

Even the dullest critic will understand the personified animosity between the French and the Germans, the American’s awkward meddling among the European nations, but there’s more for the careful reader. Much more. Fisher mentions Klorr’s devotion to Uranism, a term she says she had to look up (and thereby suggests the reader should, too), and ends the piece in a litter of peeled grapes, champagne, and cake with a trembling Mademoiselle Nankova suffering a feverish episode of sur-excitation sexuelle.

This is most certainly not the same old food writing in the American mid-century. Not then, not now.  I can’t think of a single food writer who even barely grazes issues like this, much less one who writes of them well.  I am baffled by Ozersky’s “[T]hat kind of writing,” because it sure ain’t a genre I’m reading, and I teach this stuff.  I suspect “that” might mean ladywriting, and that, oh god for the last time already, is missing the entire point.

And speaking of favorite food writers, my favorite food writer who is still alive and kicking is the subject of a new, promising film on food in Los Angeles called City of Gold. Yes, that would be without question the Los Angeles Times‘ maestro of all that is edible, Jonathan Gold, who once, upon hearing I was looking for new texts to teach, sat me down for three hours and told me about every single worthwhile food writer ever, including, of course, la belle Fisher.

[This was originally published in a slightly different form at story.jml.is, a writing blog operated by none other than my friend, the force of nature, Jonas Luster, where I’ve been experimenting less frequently than I would like with new work.]

the exchange of two baked goods, a morality tale

On the day I baked M. F. K. Fisher’s War Cake (below) to fortify my culinary literature students working on their final papers, a former student stopped by my office to give me a lovely loaf of cinnamon raisin bread.  Better to receive than give, in this case! I turned it in to a simple bread pudding with cream and walnuts (above).

Fisher’s War Cake is a coffee cake-style sweet loaf with raisins cut into pieces to resemble currants.  She adapted it slightly from popular World War I ration-friendly cakes that she had eaten in her childhood.  I found one almost identical recipe in Amelia Doddridge’s propagandistic cookbook, Liberty Recipes (1918).  The name of the cake in that book — Eggless, Milkless, Butterless Cake — kinda gives you the idea of the studied joylessness with which Doddridge crafts her recipes.  The first step, boiling shortening and sugar together with the raisins and spices, softens the fruit.

Even renamed the slightly less bleak War Cake, this is not Fisher’s finest moment.  Without any binding agent, the cake crumbled to bits when I tried to cut it.  Luckily, I teach kids forced to eat dorm food, so they didn’t mind eating the crumbs.  I substituted currants for the raisins and used local whole wheat flour for a bit more flavor, but held off as hard as I could and didn’t add nuts or butter, even though I was sorely tempted.  And I felt pretty bad that the class before mine had a giant box of Safeway donuts for their last week treat.  War, huh, yeah.

What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

But back to that raisin loaf.  My plan was to serve the pudding with some homemade crème fraiche and brandied apricots, but I realized I must have drunk myself into forgetful oblivion with the last of the apricots when I was on that bender a few weeks ago.  The crème fraiche stubbornly refused to set up during the day, too, so we ate the pudding with slightly sour cream and some rather deliciously fizzy and/or possibly poisonous apricot-brandied cherries.

The crème fraiche, by the way, had set up beautifully by the time I woke up this morning, and it was amazing with leftovers.  I strongly recommend making your own.