Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Art of Eating

Recently, Warren Lutz asked me if I could suggest some books for him to read. Warren is a strong contender for Best Writer I Work With (you will hear of him, I assure you -- here's a taste), and he wasn't after something fun to fill an afternoon. He wanted the good stuff, the kind of writing that makes you want to reach a little further, try a little harder.

My immediate response was to go to the shelf and pull out The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher.

It would be reasonable to suggest that my regard for this book is tinted by nostalgia -- I first read it on Christmas vacation during the fourth grade. My mother and I had taken a trip to go Christmas shopping in Berkeley, taking advantage of the still-exotic BART train. On the ride home, I complained that I was hungry; my mother passed the book to me, open to the chapter called How To Be Cheerful Though Starving.

Mom knew that would shut me up. I have always been a sucker for prose and M.F.K. Fisher is an absolutely first-class prose stylist. (Note: the phrase 'absolutely first-class prose' is third-rate and cliched. But true.)

This book is a mixture of history, food essay, and memoir, all swirled and mixed. There are recipes; to regard this as a cookbook is simply inaccurate. This is an exceptionally fine work of literature, one which provides the pleasures of exquisite craft, sensitivity, and refinement in the service of a powerful and distinctly feminine intellect.

But while this book serves the intellect well, with passages dealing with everything from historical observations to the deliberate cultivation of a relationship with food, it is the emotional presence of Ms. Fisher which grounds the book, providing it with its most consistent element.

While it does not have a narrative, this is one of those books that provides one with a real sense of the wealth of life, of the profusion of joys and sorrows that constantly attend our existence. Love and death, sickness, madness, violence all have their turn on stage, but this is a reality rooted in the need to provide food for yourself and those you love, and it is through the alternately cold and loving demands of domestic life that all of history and all of Ms. Fisher's life are eventually filtered.

What I'm saying, this is a book rich and wise and singular. Much of my ability to enjoy life has its roots in the lessons provided by Ms. Fisher's elegant and practical Epicurianism.

This is not a book to read straight through. It consists of five volumes of loosely-connected essays. Serve It Forth alternates memoir and history, Consider the Oyster adds natural history to the mix and focuses on one food item (this one was my favorite as a child, although I hate seafood), How to Cook a Wolf was done as a series of satire-laced advice columns during WWII. The Gastronomical Me was my least favorite as a child, but as an adult I have a greater tolerance for its estrogen-redolent atmosphere of romance and sexuality. If you don't require explicit descriptions, the eroticism here has a dark, nasty punch. An Alphabet for Gourmets happily wanders the field.

Which is what I'd suggest to the reader. Leaf through it, pick around, read an essay at a time until you feel compelled to bite off larger and larger pieces. Some books are company; this book -- wise, sweet, coldly practical, possessed of the wry musty humor of a true scholar, fiercely, achingly vulnerable -- is a true friend.

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