Today is the birthday of M.F.K. Fisher, one of the finest food writers of the 20th century. She published 27 books, most of them still in print, which are mélanges of recipes, family stories, travel memories, and her general philosophy about food and dining. I read cookbooks all the time. I’ll read ones that are nothing more than recipes just for inspiration and to conjure up tastes of the world. But the ones I linger on are those that are more than just recipes; books that are full of poetic memories of beloved dishes. M.F.K. Fisher excelled at this style of writing. When you read her writing you immediately want to rush out and buy the ingredients for one of her dishes – or buy a ticket to the south of France.
Food became an early passion in Fisher’s life. This, despite her maternal grandmother Holbrook who lived with her family until her death in 1920. During that period, Holbrook was a source of tension in the household. She was a stern, rather joyless person, and a Campbellite who firmly believed in overcooked, bland food. She was also a follower of the dietary restrictions at the Battle Creek Sanitarium (see May 31 post). Fisher would later write that during her grandmother’s absences at religious conventions:
“We indulged in a voluptuous riot of things like marshmallows in hot chocolate, thin pastry under the Tuesday hash, rare roast beef on Sunday instead of boiled hen. Mother ate all she wanted of cream of fresh mushroom soup; Father served a local wine, red-ink he called it, with the steak; we ate grilled sweetbreads and skewered kidneys with a daring dash of sherry on them.”
Rather than describe her writing and her life, I think it best to give you a few choice quotations.
“There in Dijon, the cauliflowers were very small and succulent, grown in that ancient soil. I separated the flowerlets and dropped them in boiling water for just a few minutes. Then I drained them and put them in a wide shallow casserole, and covered them with heavy cream, and a thick sprinkling of freshly grated Gruyere, the nice rubbery kind that didn’t come from Switzerland at all, but from the Jura. It was called rape in the market, and was grated while you watched, in a soft cloudy pile, onto your piece of paper.”
“It is impossible to think of any good meal, no matter how plain or elegant, without soup or bread in it.”
“Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.”
“We ate terrines of pâté ten years old under their tight crusts of mildewed fat. We tied napkins under our chins and splashed in great odorous bowls of écrevisses à la nuage. We addled our palates with snipes hung so long they fell from their hooks, to be roasted then on cushions of toast softened with the paste of their rotted innards and fine brandy.”
“Breadmaking is one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with one of the world’s sweetest smells… there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.”
Here is one of her well known recipes (slightly modified), that was once part of a dinner held in her honor. It is at one and the same time simple yet sublime.
Poulet à la mode de Beaune
3 lb chicken (1.5 kilograms), cut into 4 pieces
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons brandy
1 cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
Preheat oven to 400°F (205°C).
Rub the chicken with the lemon and season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.
Heat the oil and butter together in a frying pan over medium-high heat and fry the chicken, skin side down, until golden (about 3 minutes). Turn the pieces over and fry the second side about 2 minutes.
Place the chicken in one layer in a large shallow casserole.
Discard all but 2 tablespoons of fat from pan. Add the mushrooms and sauté for two minutes over medium-high heat or until browned and softened.
Deglaze the pan with the brandy. Add the cream and tarragon and bring to a boil, scraping the bottom of the pan to incorporate any brown bits.
Tip the sauce and mushrooms into the casserole with the chicken and bake for 35 to 45 minutes or until the juices run clear.