I love good food and good writing, but I’m not one to seek out good food writing. It’s not that I dislike food writing — I often do enjoy it — it’s just not at the top of my list. (I feel similarly about travel writing, often great, rarely a favorite.)
So that’s why I’d never read anything by the celebrated food writer MFK Fisher until Jenny put The Gastronomical Me on my list of books to read this year. I’d had in mind for years that I’d like to read her, but I needed the nudge to get around to it.
Published in 1943, The Gastronomical Me is a series of Fisher’s reflections on her life and the food she ate throughout her youth and early adulthood. Not of the meals are triumphs. For instance, she tells of an early attempt at cooking “Hindu Eggs,” a curry sauce over hard-boiled eggs that she made for her sister from memory — and without any understanding of how much curry powder is appropriate. But then, as an adult, she learns to make beautiful meals in a tiny Dijon kitchen, where the cauliflower was smaller and less watery than what she found in America.
One of my favorite stories was of a meal at a restaurant in Burgundy. Fisher was hot and tired and wanting something light. The waitress picked up on her mood and offered fresh trout, instead of the roast lamb that was on the menu for that night. But she also kept adding — insisting on — extras, like an array of hors d’ouevres, a slice of pate, and an apple tart. Each course was simple and perfect, made beautifully with exquisite ingredients. I kept thinking how annoying the waitress’s enthusiasm might be but how great food could dissolve that annoyance. Because the waitress seemed to be totally in it for the love of the food, not to accumulate a large bill (although she did as well). There’s a lot of pleasure in simply sitting back and being guided by someone who knows what a good meal looks like.
Fisher writes very well about how good dining isn’t merely about the food. Not all of the meals she writes about sound amazing in isolation, but a satisfying meal after a long, hungry day has its own particular pleasure that isn’t all about the quality of the food. And not all of Fisher’s writing focuses on food. She spends as much time talking about the environment in which she dines. That’s especially true in her writing about her many journeys across the ocean from America to Europe. The food aboard ship gets hardly any attention, but the mood in the dining areas does. And here we can see how the atmosphere changes as the 1930s march on. By the end of the book, journeys to Europe are no more, and flights to Mexico have taken their place.
Among her stories of meals, good and bad. Fisher also shares tidbits about her life. But she does so only as its relevant to her primary subject. Although the reflections are in vaguely chronological order, she sometimes doubles back and elides certain major events. It’s not a straightforward autobiography. Her life is significant as it relates to the meals, but the meals (both the food and the atmosphere) take center stage.