In the forward to The Gastronomical Me (1943), M.F.K. Fisher writes she is often asked why she writes about food and not love or wars. And her response is, “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it…” I find it interesting to read this, being in a time when food bloggers try to outdo each other’s photography and celebrity chefs coin ridiculous phrases and watching a baker crumble to murderous tears over the accidental inclusion of baking soda instead of baking powder is nightly entertainment. I can’t help but think that food has gotten away from us. That which nourishes us and sustains us, which bonds together families and communities, has somehow become a game to win. I can’t abide by that. So, it is utterly refreshing to read Fisher’s celebration of life and love and food, in her flawless prose, and feel once more connected to what we eat.
The Gastronomical Me is a collection of Fisher’s essays, as much as about her life as it is about food. She takes her through her first oyster as a girl in school, eating pies with her father, her visit to France, and her subsequent sea travels from the US to Europe. In all of this there is a reverence for the food she experiences in each place, something she learned after seeing disappointment in her uncle’s eyes when she is indifferent to what she would order in a fine restaurant: “And never since then have I let myself say, or even think, ‘Oh, anything,’ about a meal, even if I had to eat it alone, with death in the house or in my heart.” I dare say, we could use a little more of that line of thought in our food culture today.
In the midst of this food writing and history, as her essays are filled with her marriage and divorce and with inevitable encounters with World War II, we also get this feminist discourse on the subject of her eating alone in “The Lemming to the Sea”. It is so great, that I must quote it for you in full:
“More often than not people who see me on the trains and in the ships, or in restaurants, feel a kind of resentment of me since I taught myself to enjoy being alone. Women are puzzled, which they hate to be, and jealous of the way I am served, with such agreeable courtesy, and of what I am eating and drinking, which is almost never the sort of thing they order for themselves. And men are puzzled too, in a more personal way. I anger them as males.
“I am sorry. I do not like to do that, or puzzle the women either. But if I must be alone, I refuse to be alone as if it were something weak and distasteful, like convalescence. Men see me eating in public, and I look as if I ‘knew my way around’; and yet I make it plain that I know my way around without them, and that upsets them.”
Boom. As she declared in her forward, writing about food is writing about life. I wish we still thought this way today.
*The Gastronomical Me is part of the M.F.K. Fisher omnibus The Art of Eating.