M.F.K. Fisher's THE GASTRONOMICAL ME, reviewed by Claire Kohda Hazelton
Published by Daunt Books (May 2017)
"Food leads to friendships, cultural exchange, love. Food sustains and gives meaning to life, while life places Fisher on the path of new food."
M.F.K. Fisher was a prolific writer on food; or, more accurately, she was a prolific writer on life, for food, for her, was life. In The Gastronomical Me—first published in 1943 and now in a new edition with an introduction by Bee Wilson—we learn that life is made up of cravings and hungers. Cravings are for things that may not be essential, but are enriching: Fisher craves praise from her mother after her first cooking experiment; craves the company and approval of the most intelligent girl in her school; craves to be in her husband’s arms while on a boat, travelling to see him; craves comfort and warmth after staying in a cold, “filthy” flat in Dijon. Cravings of the heart are fulfilled slowly and with savour—much like cravings of the belly. Hungers, though, are fed rapidly, suddenly, in the blink of an eye—like food eaten for sustenance—or not fed at all; Fisher hungers love and finds her husband, Al, and then, later, her soulmate Chexbres. When Chexbres dies, she hungers his return, but is left unfed. In this section, food, to match, finds few descriptions and seems to fail to comfort.
Fisher understands and learns everything through food. Oysters teach Fisher courage as a young girl, a lesson that manifests literally in a dance with the most intelligent girl in school; she learns to study through early experiments with poisonous berries and curried eggs; she learns patience through shopping for ingredients at the specialty food shops and stalls in Dijon. Food leads to friendships, cultural exchange, love. Food sustains and gives meaning to life, while life places Fisher on the path of new food. There are a multitude of beautiful moments where food reflects, enhances and shapes experiences, and vice versa—Fisher drinks champagne on a boat with her husband, at the height of their “insulating” shared love: “[the champagne] was sweet and warm, and little gnats swarmed over the glasses in the steaming dark”; in Dijon’s market, free Gruyère from Jura is grated “in a soft, cloudy pile, onto [Fisher’s] piece of paper”—a trout served in an “agonising curl” au bleu (blue from being boiled alive)—marks the book's transition into darker and more melancholy tones.
Fisher writes in an evocative and rich narrative style. Smells, flavours, textures of dishes become potent—almost tangible—in the setting of meetings amongst friends and imminent friends-to-be, of dinners shared with lovers in empty restaurants, of the quiet meditation over dinners relished alone in the bowels of a ship. In turn, Fisher’s electric prose moves between intense, vivid recollections.
Amidst it all—this warm, beautiful, sublime description of experiences and food shared—is a word that appears multiple times throughout the text: voluptuous. Fisher ate alone “thoughtfully and voluptuously” and, later, “slowly and voluptuously"; lips are “voluptuous,” soufflés “sigh voluptuously.” What other word is so ideal for writing on food, and the experience of eating it? The first definition of Voluptuous as an adjective describes food that might be opulent, shapely, well-formed, even sensual. The second definition of voluptuous, as an adverb—voluptuously—describes the very process of eating: with pleasure, in a moment of hedonism, as a luxury. It is a word at the forefront of this book, and at pivotal to all of Fisher’s experiences with food. Were it not for the risk of sounding dull, perhaps she would have used it to describe each and every meal enjoyed in these pages.
“It was the most delicious dish we had ever eaten,” or phrases to that effect, also frequently prefix descriptions of multiple meals. Of course, not all of these dishes could be “the most delicious.” She writes with an air of hyperbole to demonstrate the inimitable enjoyment, beauty and thrill of the moments in which the dishes take centre stage. The word “delicious” in these instances describes not only the wines and meats and cheeses and fish, but the friends, countries, cultures, restaurants, strangers, climates, and so on that they are enjoyed in and with. By describing each of these moments in the same way, as the “best,” Fisher is, conversely, highlighting their uniqueness and incomparability.
Fisher is singularly candid in this memoir. A strange, slightly unsettling moment occurs between two pages. In the first, Al—Fisher’s husband—is at the centre of every shared experience, and is the source of that insulating love described earlier. But then, on the next page, as though a switch has been turned somewhere in between, Al has all but disappeared, replaced by Chexbres, “the only man in the world I knew.” This moment is sad—even shocking for the reader—but it is frank and honest. From the point Chexbres enters, Al’s name is only mentioned once or twice more. While some might perceive this to be cold and brutal, it reflects Fisher’s thoughts—her feelings have transferred to someone else, and, consequently, so has the food she enjoys, her experiences, and her writing. When Chexbres is dying, Fisher is equally candid, writing how, as she went to “get medicine for him, [she] figured coldly to last as long as he did.”
This is, quite simply, a beautiful book. It does, of course, what other books on food do: it weaves human experience—a huge array, at that, with love, fear, death, marriage, travel, etc.—with meals enjoyed, disliked, made, made-up, and cared for. However, it does so in a way that makes the reader savour every word—every description of people, food and places. This savouring extends beyond the page; as Fisher teaches friends and family to truly experience mealtimes—or, in her words, to eat “voluptuously"—we learn to savour and cherish the flavours and relationships we experience in our lives, too. This book is not only for those obsessed with social, emotional and material pleasures of food; Fisher’s memoir is ungendered and universally relatable. As we learn from her writing, we all live to satiate hungers and cravings.