Tuesday, January 24, 2006

BOOKS: Better Living Through Gourmanderie

You know how, when you're eating an outstandingly delicious meal, you find yourself reminiscing about other outstandingly delicious meals you've eaten? And the entire dinner conversation turns into you and your companions egging each other on to greater and greater heights of gustatory ecstasy?

That doesn't happen to you? You have my pity. But there's hope for you yet! Read on.

An Alphabet for Gourmets by MFK Fisher (#2)
I love food. I love food writing. Why it took me so long to read MFK Fisher, I have no idea. But I've just finished An Alphabet for Gourmets, and I can only describe myself as satiated. Of course, I'm also eating a Cadbury Easter Creme Egg as I write this, which may be a contributing factor. Honestly, what do they put in these things... crack?

Extensive background on Fisher (1908-1992) can be found here, but suffice to say for our purposes that the woman knew food and didn't mince words about it. Imagine, if you will, the cutting wit of
Dorothy Parker married to the innate sense of being right of Miss Manners, and imagine this precision lens applied solely to the art of cooking and eating. That's about as good an analogy as my modest descriptive powers will allow.

As you may have guessed by the nature of my site, I love a good structural conceit as much as, if not more than, the next person, so I was predisposed to love this book. Each essay in this collection is arranged alphabetically, beginning with "A is for dining Alone" and ending with "Z is for Zakuski" (Russian hors d'oeuvres).

One of my favourite chapters was "J is for Juvenile dining" in which Fisher expounds on her wish that her young daughter will develop a broad and educated palate, as a necessary ingredient in a happy life. I can relate. We tend to give young
Master Sam a tiny taste of whatever we're eating, which is why, at the age of nine months, he's sampled more exotic foods -- from dahl to wasabi mayonnaise to homemade pasta -- than I had until I was 30.

Not surprisingly, I also loved "L is for Literature":
There is no question that secondhand feasting can bring its own nourishment, satisfaction, and final surfeit. More than one escaped war prisoner has told me of the strange peacefulness that will come over a group of near-famished men in their almost endless talk of good food they remember and wish to eat again. They murmur on and on, in the cells or the walled yards, of pies their sisters used to make for them, and of the way Domenico in Tijuana grilled bootleg quail, and of the pasta at Boeucc' in prewar Milan. They swallow without active pain the the prison's maggotty bread and watery soup, their spiritual palates drowned in a flood of recalled flavor and warmth and richness.
Isn't that gorgeous?

I also loved "P is for Peas" whose success can be measured quite simply in that it gave me a (as-yet unsatisfied) longing for fresh peas. They'll be in season again in... when? June? Dang.

The entire time I was reading this book, I was taken by memory after memory of foods and meals I've eaten, and I was amazed at how certain foods have become irrevocably linked to certain times and places. I can't think of liverwurst, for example, without remembering how
Rusty and I used to sometimes bail out of our afternoon classes fifteen years ago, early in our courtin' days. We'd go to an excellent deli near my place and grab veal schnitzel sandwiches and liverwurst and crackers and Swiss chocolate bars, and we'd take this feast and, if it was a warm day, we'd eat it on the flat roof outside the kitchen window in my attic apartment. What we did for the rest of the afternoon is none of your beeswax.

Or if you were to ask me what the best meal I've ever eaten is, I wouldn't even hesitate to answer. A few years back, our housemate,
The Don, gave us a generous gift certificate to this restaurant. Seeing the amount, we immediately insisted that all three of us could go together. The Don laughed knowingly and told us we should aim to go by ourselves and that, at best, his gift would merely take the edge off our bill. He was right, but man oh man, what a meal it was. It was a four-hour dinner service from a prix fixe menu, and while I couldn't tell you any of the individual dishes we were served, I can tell you that everything was magnificent. The food. The room. And the service! I finally understand all the fuss about European-style service!

More important, I finally understand all the fuss about posh restaurants in general. It's not about having an awkward experience with unfamiliar food in a stuffy environment, all for the purpose of showing yourself off to the other patrons and proving some arcane point to yourself. No, it's about the fact that lovely food served impeccably and benevolently in a beautiful room with a person you like (extra points if it's a person you love) at a slow, considered pace does something to you. You become expansive. You beam at each other. You talk. You listen. You become wittier, and you grow in your appreciation of your companion's wit. Your environment takes on a gentle glow that may or may not be caused by the carefully selected glasses of wine you're drinking with each course.

Good food served in good company transforms us, if only temporarily, into our best, idealized versions of ourselves. In short, it makes us better people. Unfortunately, we don't always have three hundred clams to lay down to remind ourselves of the existence of our perfect döppelgangers, but at least there are writers like MFK Fisher who can transport that person here at any time and place, and at a fraction of the cost.


Caro said...

As I sit here in southern Oaxaca it seems so strange that we should be reading the same authors at the same time. I was just finishing "Down and Out in Paris and London" by Orwell when his passionate chapter on how we really don't really need to go to restaurants got me thinking, "I bet Mary Francis (we're on a first name basis) would have something to say to that!" So I re-read "Long Ago in France: The Years in Dijon" about her first grown-up meal out with her husband. I love that woman, even if she makes me hungry.

Carrie said...

I'm so glad you liked it! Please check out Gastronomical Me. I'm working on it now and you will love it.

You description of young love and liverwurst made me long for a good sandwich (etc.).

landismom said...

Lovely, lovely post and "Good food served in good company transforms us, if only temporarily, into our best, idealized versions of ourselves." is a terrific line.

Anita said...

Ok, now I must get this book. Two copies, in fact - one for me and one for my best friend. We both love to read, but it is possible that we like food even more. Your description of the book is mouthwatering to say the least.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post. This bit...

"No, it's about the fact that lovely food served impeccably and benevolently in a beautiful room with a person you like (extra points if it's a person you love) at a slow, considered pace does something to you."

...was perfect. It's that intangible thing about a truly wonderful dining experience that I can't seem to explain to certain friends and/or family.

Anonymous said...

If you liked that one, you will absolutely ADORE How to Cook a Wolf.