The Art of Eating
M.F.K. Fisher
Wiley Publishing, Hoboken, New Jersey (USA), 2004
749 pages, including index

When we are past fifty, especially if we have kept up this pathetic pose of youth-at-table, we begin to grow fat. It is then that even the blindest of us should beware. Unfortunately, however, we are too used to seeing other people turn heavy in their fifties: we accept paunches and double chins as a necessary part of growing old.

Instead, we should realize this final protest of an overstuffed system, and ease our body's last years by lightening its burden. We should eat sparingly.

It is here that gastronomy, or an equivalent, can play its most comforting ròle. Even in crude form the desire for a special taste or sensation has often helped an old man more than his critical family can know. They may call him heartless; he in his turn may as logically be acting with good sense, like the ancient sailor whose much-loved son was lost at sea. When at last some one mustered courage to tell the father this tragic news, the old man looked at him coldly for a minute, glanced out the window at the blown sea, and then snapped, "Dad blast it, where's my dish of tea? I want my tea!"

For many old people, eating is the only pleasure left, as were the "endless dishes" and "uncreasing cups of wine" to the agead Ulysses. And between gobbling down an indistinguishable mess of heavy meat and bread, or savouring a delicate broiled trout or an aspic full of subtle vegetable flavours, how few of us would choose the distressful insomnia that follows the first for the light rest of the second?

(M.F.K. Fisher: The Art of Eating, pp. 9-10)

Talleyrand said that two things are essential in life: to give good dinners and to keep on fair terms with women. As the years pass and fires cool, it can become unimportant to stay always on fair terms either with women or one's fellows, but a wide and sensitive appreciation of fine flavours can still abide with us, to warm our hearts.

(M.F.K. Fisher: The Art of Eating, p. 11)

Twenty-eight hundred years before Jesus broke bread for his children, a wise emperor in China thought of his. Shennung was his name, and before he died compiled a great cookbook, the Hon-Zo. In forty-seven centuries we have not learned much more about food than it can tell.

While Shennung's millions died and lived, humans all over this world were eating according to their fashions, but principally because they had to. From the north still came a faint snarl of hungry blond men gnashing at rae meat, and an occasional whiff of carrion, that sweet wild sickening smell. But all around the Mediterranean and to the east, a ring of good things was sprouting. Gradually fig trees were planted, and then grapes, and wheat grew because men made it. New pleasures were born for the warm brown people.

(M.F.K. Fisher: The Art of Eating, p. 12)

As the art of eating grew in Greece, men began to write about it. Artemidorus Aristophanius left recipes, some of them very strange to us and as often generous of good suggestions. More than one modern cook has tried his method of using sour young grapes instead of vinegar, and has been well pleased.

Athanaeus, too, gave in his Banquet of the Learned several good ideas to present-day chefs. His recipes, however, are more literary than practical —or even appealing. Few of us save the most precious would enjoy his voluptuous dish of bird brains, eggs, wine, and spices, pounded with very fragrant roses and cooked in oil. When the cover was lifted from this dish, its sweet excessive perfume, diffused throughout the supper-room, made all the guests drop their eyelids with pleasure. And one of them quoted poetry.

It was Athenaeus who wrote sternly of the duties of a good cook. For the most part the Greeks were not unusually gifted in cookery. Housewives managed to provide plain, wholesome food for their establishments, and for special occasions imitated the aristocrats and called in professional chefs. Of these, Sicilians were the most famous. Their services were rented at enormous fees, and they were recognized as an impportant part of the increasingly complex Greek culture.

(M.F.K. Fisher: The Art of Eating, p. 15)

Central heating, French rubber goods, and cookbooks are three amazing proofs of man's ingenuity in transforming necessity into art, and, of these, cookbooks are perhaps most lastingly delightful. Many an old belly has been warmed by the reading of them, and for one secret from them, steaming ruddy brown on plate, how many youthful pleasures have been counted well lost!

However, cooking in itself is, for most women, a question less of vocation than of necessity. They are not called to the kitchen by the divine inner voice of a Vatel or an Escoffier. Rather are they lured there, willy-nilly, by the piping of their husbands' empty stomachs.

They cook doggedly, desperately, more often than not with a cumulative if uninspired skill. Occasionally one gathers about herself a local renown for tarts or bonbons or meat pies. More rarely she builds up a reputation for epicurean appreciation —this last with the help of an ample purse, of course, and a good cook in her kitchen. Finally she writes a cookbook, and often it is a good one, in spite of Dr. Sam'l Johnson's dictum that such a thing is impossible from any female. It is emintently practical, like Mrs. Simon Kander's perennial volume which points "the way to a man's heart" between its oilclothed boards. Or it is very faintly literary and much more expensive to follow, compiled, say, by Mrs. William Vaughan Moody or the delightful author of La Cuisine de Madame.

(M.F.K. Fisher: The Art of Eating, p. 17)

In general, however, a potato is a poor thing, poorly treated. More often than not it is cooked in so unthinking and ignorant a manner as to make one feel that it has never before been encountered in the kitchen, as when avocados were sent to the Cornish Mousehole by a lady who heard months later that their suave thick meat had been thrown away and the stones boiled and boiled to no avail.

"Never have I tasted such a poor, flaccid, grey sad mixture of a mess," says my mother when she tells of the potatoes served in Ireland. And who would contradict her who has ever seen the baked-or-boiled in a London Lyons or an A.B.C.?

The Irish prefer them, evidently, to starvation, and the English, too. And in mid-western Europe, in a part where dumplings grow on every kitchen-range, there are great cannon balls of them, pernicious as any shrapnel to a foreign palate, but swallowed like feathery egg-whites by the natives.

They are served with goose at Christmas, and all around the year. They are the size of a toddling child's round head. They are grey, and exceedingly heavy. They are made painstakingly of grated raw potato, moulded, then boiled, then added to by moulding, then boiled again. Layer after layer is pressed on, cooked, and cooled, and finally the whole sodden pock-marked mass is bounced in bubbling goose broth until time to heave it to the platter.

Forks may bend against its iron-like curves, stomachs may curdle in a hundred gastric revolutions; a potatoe dumpling is more adamantine. It survives, and is served to ever-renewing decades of hungry yodelling mouths.

(M.F.K. Fisher: The Art of Eating, pp. 23-24)

It has been said that the foundation of all of French cookery is butter, as that of the Italian is olive oil, German lard, and Russian sour cream. In the same way water or drippings may be designated, unfortunately, as the basis of the English cuisine, and perhaps the flavour from innumerable tin cans, of American!

(M.F.K. Fisher: The Art of Eating, p. 58)

The twentieth century may yet be remembered as one of monstrous mass-feeding. Certainly the nineteenth will never be forgotten for its great contribution to gastronomy —the restaurants.

After the Revolution, Paris found itself practically kitchenless. Scullions had fled, or fought for their new estate; great chefs had scuttled to safety with their masters; most important, the money that had bought rare wines and strange exotic dishes was gone now from the hands that had known so well how to spend it.

Paris recovered quickly enough. Her citizens, uncomfortably Republican and somewhat more affluent than before, cast about restlessly for a new, a significant diversion.

It was not hard to find. Word was noised abroad that in the cellar of Number So-and-so, Rue Such-and-such, the ex-chef, Jean Durand, was cooking again.

What! Durand, the inventor of petits pois aux noisettes grillées, the great Durand who for twenty years had made famous the table oif the ex-Marquise Sainte-Nitouche, ex-mistress of the even more ex-Duke Volte-face? But certainly not that Durand who once corrected Citizeness Marie Antoinette for adding mustard to a salad dressing before she had put in the salt? Impossible!

But-but can anyone go to Number So-and-so, Rue Such-and-such? Hah! Then I, Jacques Maillor, and I, Pierre Doudet, shall order the ex-chef of the ex-marquise to prepare a good dinner. It is expensive? Pouf! It is certainly worth the pleasure of eating what the damned aristos used to!

(M.F.K. Fisher: The Art of Eating, p. 91)

The simplest way to eat an egg, if you refuse to swallow it raw, even in its fanciest high-tasting disguises, is to boil it. Rather it is not to boil it, for no more erroneous phrase ever existed than "to boil an egg."

There are several ways not to boil an egg so that it will be tender, thoroughly cooked, and yet almost as easily digested as if it were raw.

One fairly good one is to drop the egg gently into simmering water, first running cold water over it so that it will not crack, and then let it stand there in the gentle heat for whatever time you wish. It will cook just as fast as if the water were hopping abouit in great bubbles, and it will be a better-treated egg, once opened.

(M.F.K. Fisher: The Art of Eating, p. 231)

There are as many different theories about making an omelet as there are people who like them, but in general, there are two main schools: the French, which uses eggs hardly stirred together, and the puffy soufflé, which beats the white and yellow parts of the eggs separately, and then mixes them.

Then, of course, there is the Italian frittata school, which mixes all kinds of cooked cooled vegetables with eggs and merges them into a sort of pie; and a very good school that is.

Moreover, there is the Oriental school, best exemplified by what is usually called foo yeung in chop-suey parlors and is a kind of pancake of egg and bean-sprouts and and and.

To cap the whole thing, there is the school which has its own dependable and usually very simple method of putting eggs in a pan and having them come out as intended. Brillat-Savarin called them oeufs brouillis and I call them scrambled eggs.

The best definition of a perfect French omelet is given, perhaps unwittingly, in Escoffier's American translation of his Guide Culinaire: "Scrambled eggs enclosed in a coating of coagulated egg." This phrase in itself is none too appetizing, it seems to me, but it must do for want of a better man to say it. [This is said much more simply in its own language: une omelette baveuse.]

(M.F.K. Fisher: The Art of Eating, pp. 232-233)

Entry for the letter B (B is for Bachelor), from An Alphabet for Gourmets (1949):

...And the wonderful dinners they pull out of their cupboards with such dining-room aplomb and kitchen chaos.

Their approach to gastronomy is basically sexual, since few of them under seventy-nine will bother to produce a good meal unless it is for a pretty woman. Few of them at any age will consciously ponder on the aphrodisiac qualities of the dishes they serve forht, but sunconsciously they use what tricks they have to make their little banquets, whether intimate or merely convivial, lead as subtly as possible to the hoped-for bedding down.

Soft lights, plenty of tipples (from champagne to straight rye), and if possible a little music, are the timeworn props in any such entertainment, on no matter what financial level the host is operating. Some men head for the back booth at the corner pub and play the juke-box, with overtones of medium-rare steak and French-fried potatoes. Others are forced to fall back on the soft-footed alcoholic ministrations of a Filipino houseboy, muted Stan Kenton on the super-Capeheart, and a little supper beginning with caviar malossol on ice and ending with a soufflé au kirschwasser d'Alsace.

(M.F.K. Fisher: The Art of Eating, p. 584)

Then, E is for exquisite:

...and its gastronomical connotations, at least for me.

When I hear of a gourmet with exquisite taste I assume, perhaps too hastily and perhaps very wrongly, that there is something exaggeratedly elaborate, and even languidly perverted, about his gourmandism. I do not think simply of an exquisitely laid table and an exquisite meal. Instead I see his silver carved in subtly erotic patterns, and his courses following one upon another in a cabalistic design, half pain, half pleasure. I take it for granted, in spite of my good sense, that rare volumes on witchcraft have equal place with Escoffier in his kitchen library, and I read into his basic recipe for meat stock a dozen deviously significant ingredients.

(M.F.K. Fisher: The Art of Eating, p. 600)

More on being exquisite at the table:

It is the same with some of the dishes we still read about with a strange fascination, those cooked for the most dissipated of the Romans two thousand years ago. Doubtless many of them tried to astound their sycophants by serving whole platters of the tongues of little birds that had been trained to talk before they went into the pot. We do not remember the names of these men, nor anything more than the vulgarly idiotic waste. But what if one of those epicures, greatly in love with a proud lady named Livia, had taught a thousand birds to sing her name, Livia, Livia, to the moment of most perfect diction, and then had served forth to the lady a fine pie of their tongues, split, honeyed, and impaled on twigs of myrrh? Then, I think, that fat lover would still be known to us for what he was, an exquisite —a silly one perhaps, extravagant certainly, but with his own dignity about him.

(M.F.K. Fisher: The Art of Eating, p. 601)

And finally, under the same entry:

I continue to find many people, especially Englishmen and Americans, who because of their early gastronomical education (or lack of it) cannot enjoy a fresh salad before the entrée. Then I serve it after the entrée, but I try to suit the seasoning to what has gone before and make it bland in proportion to the wine being drunk. One thing I do not do is use lemon juice when we are drinking anything good —which to my mind is any honest wine ever bottled, of no matter what year or price. I use a good wine vinegar: I do not hold much with the fancy bottled tarragon vinegars and such, although herb vinegars have their own place in seasoning. Sometimes I cheat, silently of course, and use no vinegar at all, but an extra dash of soy, or of oyster sauce after lamb, for instance.

I almost never serve such fundamentally sharp things as tomatoes in a salad after meat, feeling that they, like vinegar, cut into the wonderful action of wine upon the tongue. Now and then I put in a pinch of good curry powder, or fresh minced anise, to baffle people. (I have yet to try hard enough to astonish them by using Paul Reboux's trick of tiny matchsticks of carrot and an equal quantity of tiny matchsticks of orange peel, which are of identical color but such different tastes!)

Mostly I depend on oil, the best I can buy. I like a heavy, greenish, very strong olive oil, from California or Spain. I do not like the highly refined oils I have been served, with such elation, from Italy: my palate is probably too crude for them. A few times in France I have eaten a salad made with the now rare walnut oil... delicious! I truly dislike American vegetable oils, but on the other hand I grew to enjoy the huile d'arachides, rather like our kosher peanut oil, which I used in Dijon and Switzerland between wars.

(M.F.K. Fisher: The Art of Eating, pp. 603-604)

Entertainment Factor: 8/10
Intellectual Factor: 8/10