“An Alphabet for Gourmets” MFK Fisher (1949); 172 pages.
Started December 24, finished January 4.
I’ve been a huge fan of food-writing for years. Restaurant reviews and food articles are usually the first thing I seek out in magazines, and Ruth Reichl’s memoirs of her various stages of self-discovery are among my all-time favorite books. I readily admit that I read cookbooks (the collection of which has far exceeded an appropriate shelf allotment) for fun– far more frequently than I actually use them for cooking. And I think I’ve read “Heartburn” by Nora Ephron a dozen times. (Since it may be unfair to count that as one of my 50 books, but still something I want to recommend to anyone and everyone, I’ll just quickly talk about it right here: It’s Ephron’s fictional account of her very non-fictional divorce from Carl Bernstein, complete with recipes by the food-writer protagonist. For a sad story, it’s an unbelievably funny– and even empowering– book. And despite it being originally published in 1983, it’s not too dated. The movie with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep does not do the story justice- they play the characters as completely non-Jewish, which really irritated me; the film in general lacks the down-to-earth vibe and humor of the original. So skip the movie and get the book, it’s a classic is not to be missed.)
Anyway, one cannot read much food writing without finding lots of references to MFK Fisher. I can’t even tell you when or where I first heard of her, just that it seems like I’ve pretty much always understood that when it comes to classic food writers… She. Is. It. Years ago, I bought two collections of her works, thinking that I’d get to them eventually. Well, guess what. Eventually = 10 years. The ones that I own are massive 700+ page tomes– not exactly candidates for a read in a week. And really, not exactly candidates for fun reading, ever. ( “The Journals of MFK Fisher” has joined me on vacations at least 6 times…. And still never read.) The sheer largeness of the book was just too overwhelming.
But I recently had an epiphany: if a book is available individually, then it could still count as a read for one week– even if my personal copy happened to be bound in a collection together with four other works. I decided to start with “An Alphabet for Gourmets”. While some of her writings are much more personal, this one is simply an alphabetized series cuisine-related ruminations, with one or two recipes thrown in after each entry. The big question– is MFK Fisher worth the hype? Well, sort of. Her prose is absolutely gorgeous. When she writes about her family, her opinions on people and their habits, she is still so spot-on– amazing considering that this was published 60 years ago. The writing is clear, incisive, and amusing, and she was obviously a woman ahead of her time. But about food. Jeez. First, she’s pretty snobby when it comes to this topic, although I’ll forgive that because after all, food was her profession and she’s allowed. (It’s far worse to be a snob without the goods to back it up.) But, much of the cuisine that she wrote about (in this group of essays, anyway) is stuff that was fancy in the first half of the 20th century– so to me it’s either unappealing or just confusing. Fisher talked alot about what she called “honest bread” (which I am guessing is what we now think of as “artisanal bread”) in comparison to “puffy white stuff”. Of course this made me wonder if bad white bread existed in the same form in 1930 as it does today. (Does anyone happen to know?) Despite this book not exactly being a page-turner, it did make me want to keep reading MFK Fisher. She would frequently throw in a random line that made me want to learn much more about her personal life (“my true love and I were taking a walk and discussing a meal….” then she goes on to talk about the meal, not how she came to be with the true love! In another essay she mentions off-handedly that she had a few ex-husbands– to me reading about marital dischord is much more interesting than fish in aspic…) It’s a good thing that the other Fisher book that I’ve got on my shelf should actually cover some of the more People-magazine aspects of her life… thats right, it’s still waiting for me: “From the Journals of MFK Fisher.”
(But that will have to come later. For now I am finally reading another book that’s been travelling with me for years– also a classic, but one that weighs a lot less– “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Stay tuned…)