On Monday we asked the seemingly innocuous question, “If great travel writing is people writing, what is writing that has people and places and food?” We said we were stumped for an answer, but we were being coy. Great writing about people and places and food is called by a name, a person’s name. It’s called M.F.K. Fisher.
The late, great jazz guitarist Jim Hall once said of the later, greater jazz guitarist Freddie Green, “If you pruned the tree of jazz, Freddie Green would be the only person left.” Similarly, if you pruned the sprawling, unkempt trees of travel writing and food writing back not to the roots but to a place just above the roots where the tree could prosper and spread, you would cut it back to M.F.K. Fisher.
There’s a simpler way to put it: If you love food and travel and love reading about them, you must read M.F.K. Fisher. Everything else, from The New York Times to this modest blog, is optional.
The first thing you must understand about M.F.K. Fisher was that she was a marvelous writer. She was the favorite prose writer of the poet W.H. Auden for a very good reason: Her prose was elegant without being overblown, rich without being showy, honest and blunt when the occasion called for it, earthy on occasion, but always, always shot through with the thrills and sadness people and places and food could supply.
Fisher wrote about food the way people who truly love food partake of it. These people rarely are dainty and precious with a dish that they love; instead, they devour it with all their senses, set to it the way a lover sets to his love, wholeheartedly and exuberantly.
Consider this passage from Fisher’s classic essay Three Swiss Inns:
“The trout lay staring up at us, their eyes hard and yet somehow benevolent. Our heads drew nearer to the pan, willy-nilly, pulled by one of the finest smells we had ever met. We sniffed and murmured. Frau Weber beamed. Then she scolded at the girl, who ran from the room for little white potatoes and a great bowl of hot buttered peas from the garden. The mother served the fish herself, and then disappeared proudly.
“It was, of course, the most delicious dish that we had ever eaten. We knew that we were hungry, and that even if it had been bad it would have been good … but we knew, too, that nevertheless it was one of the subtlest, rarest things that had ever come our way. It was incredibly delicate, as fresh as clover.
“We talked about it later, and Frau Weber told us willingly about it, but in such a vague way that all I can remember now is hot unsalted butter, herbs left in for a few seconds, cream, a shallot flicked over, the fish laid in, the cover put on. I can almost see it, smell it, taste it now; but I know I could never copy it, nor could anyone alive.”
In that passage you see the third thing needful for understanding Fisher’s greatness. Her writing had three components, ingredients as simple as those of a honest meal in Provence. They were what we had mentioned before, people and places and food, but she didn’t segregate them the way most modern writers do, leave the food for its own paragraph, place the setting at the top, and if the people appear at all, they’re in a quote towards the bottom, or, most egregious of all, left to close out the story with a cymbal crash that sounds like every other cymbal crash ever crashed. Fisher combined them with a skilled chef’s hand, described a living, breathing person presenting a glorious dish to another breathing person in a writhing, teeming landscape, and then thrilled over the scene in a way that still excites.
Here’s an example of that from Two Kitchens In Provence, an essay too wonderful to dismiss as “classic”:
“With the mistral surging and leaning against the windows and the chestnut trees and the red poppies in the meadows, and the spiritual food a part of the whole, we would eat at breakfast canned grapefruit juice, large bowls of café au lait with brown sugar, slices of Dijon gingerbread with sweet butter and Alpine honey; at noontime whole new potatoes boiled in their jackets in a big pot of carrots-onions-sausage, which we’d eat later, sweet butter, mild cheese, and a bowl of green olives and little radishes; then for supper the vegetable broth, with the sausage cut in thin rings, the whole new carrots and onions drained and tossed with a little butter and chopped parsley and celery tops from the farmer’s garden, and a bowl of three cans mixed together of peaches-pears-pineapple, all with hot, delicious, somewhat charcoalish toast made on one of those flat grill things our parents used at least forty years ago. The next day, there would still be some clear broth, and I would make a jelly from the fruit juices. And I would start over again—probably a big salad, which I would soak in the fountain to rid it of most of the innumerable critters that are considered correct for country produce in Provence, and then a pot of hot small artichokes to eat with melted butter and lemon juice, and sliced tomatoes that had lasted two days after marketing instead of only one because the mistral was blowing, and then maybe soft-boiled eggs from the shepherdess for supper.”
Fisher’s writing never lies dead. It’s the trout swimming in the icy tank at the start of Three Swiss Inns. It is always in the process of being made into something greater than just strings of words. And while her meals can be disarmingly simple – How To Cook A Wolf, written during World War II, writes almost as rapturously of a protein loaf called “sludge” made of ground vegetables, oats and a smidgen of ground beef – and described in prose to match, you never doubt for a second that they could be consumed and savored with the greatest gusto.
Fisher can be set to and devoured completely, down to the bones and tails, like a season of House of Cards, but she’s best consumed in meal-sized portions. Get a copy of Serve It Forth from the library. Pour a glass of wine, an icy Chablis or a earthy red. Have a “piece of good soft-form reblochon cheese from the Savoy – the kind that the houseman I had when I was living in Switzerland used to smuggle across the Lake of Geneva on dark nights.” Make yourself comfortable and read an essay or two, but not more than three. Mix bites of rich, pungent cheese with wine so cleanly made that you can taste the soil that nurtured the grapes. When you’re finished, put the wine in the sideboard and the book on the shelf, to be enjoyed again – and with any luck and with good sense, again and again.
The title of Fisher’s 1982 compilation, As They Were, is telling. People and places and food are fragile. They’re always decaying and only at their peak for a short time. Writing preserves them in a way salt or cold never could. For that, and for M.F.K. Fisher, we are completely grateful.