An A to Z of M. F. K.
November 25, 2008 8:05 PM   Subscribe

A, in M. F. K. Fisher's case, is not for apple—it's for dining alone. The full text of her 1949 series An Alphabet for Gourmets is now available online. [via]

"I is for innocence…and its strangely rewarding chaos, gastronomically. "
posted by AceRock (17 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
"I do not know of any one in the United States who writes better prose." W. H. Auden

well that's a pretty good endorsment.
i read many of her books years ago. maybe time to reread them...
posted by billybobtoo at 8:20 PM on November 25, 2008

The book she wrote to help housewives cope with World War II rationing - How to Cook a Wolf [included in The Art of Eating] - has renewed relevance. Unfortunately.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:23 PM on November 25, 2008

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher is one of my very few heroes.

Really it's just her, Jesus Christ, Dorothy Day, The Woz, Rob Halford, Flannery O'Connor, Joe Strummer, Chester Himes, Fela Kuti, Galileo, Samuel Beckett, Chuck D, Grace Jones... Ok shit I have a lot of heroes, Mary is chief among them. Please I beg you, do consider the oyster.

R is for romantic…

…and for a few of the reasons why gastronomy is and always has been connected with its sister art of love.

Or perhaps instead of reasons, which everyone who understands anything about digestion and its good and bad endocrinological effects will already know, I should discuss here, with brief discretion, a few direct results of the play of the five senses, properly stimulated by food, upon human passion. The surest way, if not the best, is to look backward…

Passion, here at least, means the height of emotional play between the two sexes, not the lasting fire I felt for my father once when I was about seven and we ate peach pie together under a canyon oak…not the equally lasting fire I felt for a mammoth woman who brought milk-toast to me once in the dusk when I was seventeen and very sick…not the almost searing gratitude I felt for my mother when she soothed me with buttered carrots and a secret piece of divinity fudge, once when 1 had done wrong and was in Coventry…and not the high note of confidence between two human beings that I felt once on a frozen hillside in France, when a bitter old general broke his bread in two and gave me half.

This other kind of passion that I speak of, romantic if ever such brutal thing could be so deemed, is one of sex, of the come-and-go, the preening and the prancing, and the final triumph or defeat, of two people who know enough, subconsciously or not, to woo with food as well as flattery.

The first time I remember recognizing the new weapon, I was about eight, I think. There was a boy named Red, immortal on all my spiritual calendars, a tall, scoffing, sneering, dashing fellow perhaps six months older than was I, a fellow of withdrawals, mockery, and pain. I mocked back at him, inadequately, filled with a curious tremor.

He followed me home every afternoon from school, a good half block behind, and over the giggles of my retinue of girl friends came his insults and lewd asides to a train of knee-britched sycophants. We must have looked very strange to the relics of the Quaker settlers of our little town, who pulled aside their parlor curtains at our noise, but if our pipings were still audible to their ancient ears they would not have felt too shocked, for as I recall it all we said, in a thousand significantly differing tones was, Oh yeah? Huh! Oh yeah?

My friends gave me advice, as doubtless Red’s gave him, and our daily marriage-march continued until February fourteenth, that year, without much variation. Then Red presented me with the biggest, fanciest, and most expensive Valentine in the class box. We knew, because it still said 50c on the back, in a spidery whisper of extravagance marked down thoughtfully in indelible pencil by the bookstore man, and left carefully unsmeared by my canny lover.

Thanks for this Acerock.
posted by Divine_Wino at 8:36 PM on November 25, 2008

I'd never heard of Ms. Fisher until I met my wife (then my friend). It's now a dream of ours--some might call it a mission-- to find the right restaurant to be able to sit in all day and do nothing but order food and talk. When we met DaShiv, she made him leave Portland with a copy of one of M.F.K.'s books (I believe it was The Art of Eating because he was wanting to read more about food).

Thanks for this.
posted by sleepy pete at 9:42 PM on November 25, 2008

Wow. I have never read any of her stuff, but after a brief skim of A and B, I can tell this is going to be lots of fun.
posted by goingonit at 9:46 PM on November 25, 2008

Very nice to see - M. K. Fisher has always been one of my favorites. When disappointed or otherwise down, I think a lot about the friend's letter she recounts, about the simple, poor lunch of vineyard workers -

Roasted snails! Raw wine!

I noticed that they crossed themselves before eating, gratefully.

Humility and gratitude for are good lessons even for unbelievers like me. I think that is what I love about her writing - even as she revels in delicacies and richness, the enthusiasm seems built on a sense of wonder about food, that it should appear on the table at all, the good life it can be part of. Her stories from the period during and just after WWII, though they are often about making do in much reduced circumstances, reveal it even more clearly. Worldly as she is, she seems endlessly surprised - and grateful - for how rich life can be.
posted by peachfuzz at 11:17 PM on November 25, 2008

I bought The art of eating after reading about it on MeFi. Where cookbooks go into the "how" she delves deep into the "why" of food, aside from the nutrition, of course. Well worth the read for anyone who cooks, and maybe anyone who eats.
posted by Harald74 at 11:58 PM on November 25, 2008

Thank you so much, AceRock! I'm going to format these for my Kindle so I can savor the reading of them.
posted by taz at 3:36 AM on November 26, 2008

Thanks for that. I initially thought this was a Cypress Hill thread. A to the M F K, homeboy.
posted by gman at 4:24 AM on November 26, 2008

I just literally got a copy of How To Cook A Wolf yesterday, and started reading it on the subway -- books I read in public rarely make me smile broadly or even laugh, but she did, three times, in the space of twenty minutes. I had never heard of her up until a week ago, and now I'm hooked.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:38 AM on November 26, 2008

Oh fabulous and duly bookmarked. I love MFK Fisher and it occurs to me, reading this, that perhaps I should stop trying to get my omnibus copy of her work out of the hands of the friend I lent it to four years ago, buy another one and be thankful that I managed to share her with somebody else. She is awesome and never gets old.
posted by mygothlaundry at 6:51 AM on November 26, 2008

Another MFK fan here, glad to see her wonderful writing available online!
posted by languagehat at 7:13 AM on November 26, 2008

You Fisher-on-food fans may want to try out John Thorne. He's more contemporary (i.e., still ailve), and -- along with wife Matt Lewis Thorne -- writing a newsletter and sometimes updating a [sorry, John] terrible web site at The Thornes, like Fisher, are very practical about food, but they take time to think about its sources and emotional resonances while they eat. Good stuff for the cold months.

Try "Serious Pig" for a cross-section of his essays and a couple of reviews, or read the conversation from The WELL a year ago:
posted by wenestvedt at 8:42 AM on November 26, 2008

If I could only read one food writer, it would be Calvin Trillin, but MFK Fisher is a close second.
posted by turaho at 9:10 AM on November 26, 2008

Thanks! I've keep meaning to reread MFK, and this is as good a place to start as any.
posted by OmieWise at 9:39 AM on November 26, 2008

Oh - so wonderful - my favorite MFK Fisher piece of all time - you can read it here - called "I was Really Very Hungry". I can't decide where to recommend you start - there is a wonderful recording of it read by Tovah Feldshuh, from Symphony Space's Selected Shorts - but I'm not finding it for sale. Its one to savor.
posted by AuntLisa at 9:55 AM on November 26, 2008

I really tried to like this, based on the posters here whose taste I respect, but I'm afraid I found these pieces insufferably mannered and twee and couldn't manage more than two before giving up.

Is there some other example of her work that a newcomer might like?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:04 AM on November 26, 2008

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