March 18, 2005

The Gastronomical Me

The Gastronomical Me
M. F. K. Fisher


(March 18, 2005)

M. F. K. Fisher was the American food writer before James Beard and Julia Child -- in the time, that is, when Americans didn't care much about food, and this 1943 autobiography is notionally structured around memorable meals.

It's interesting to see how little food there actually is here, and how little Fisher feels it's appropriate for her to say about it. She dines through France, Switzerland, Mexico, and across the US, but she seldom mentions a restaurant and even more rarely talks about a cook. She drinks quantities of wonderful wine, but almost never tells you what she's drinking or what you might want to drink. When she does name a restaurant, the motive is sentiment or scene-building -- she names restaurants in Dijon much as she names the flowers in her garden, to reinforce sense of place rather than to suggest you might want to eat there sometime.

What works here, besides an occasionally-lovely turn of phrase, is Fisher's odd (and sometimes fascinating) mixture of candor and reticence. She's got the earthy honesty of the old American West -- she was born in California in 1908 and, in a story that's supposed to be about oysters she briskly explores the hothouse sexuality of an isolated, tony girl's boarding school as if, arriving as a freshman, she already knew it all and so do you.

Fisher has a skilled, elliptical knack of leaving the big emotions and the impossible scenes offstage. She acquires, then loses, a husband suddenly and without much comment. She sees Europe crumbling around her in the 30's and sees it clearly, but she tells it in the interstices, in the social complexities of being nice to a relative's dull, languorous, and stupid girlfriend who likes to spend her summer afternoons watching the German border guards kill refugees who are trying to swim from the Nazis into her favorite French beach resort.