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Short takes

(article, Christina Eng)

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In a career that spanned six decades, the writer M. F. K. Fisher talked of food and friendship, of cooking and eating. She described simple meals prepared with fresh local ingredients, finding comfort at the table. She inspired generations after her to do the same.

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Books such as Consider the Oyster (in which she paid tribute to the mollusk), How to Cook a Wolf (on ways to dine well even when times were tough), and The Gastronomical Me (a sentimental coming-of-age tale) helped to establish her as a genuine authority and food-literature icon. Available in the collection The Art of Eating, these individual books remain popular sellers. 

Fisher’s A Stew or a Story: An Assortment of Short Works, released in 2006, is a collection of more than 50 brief stories, essays, and articles she penned during her lifetime for different publications, including House Beautiful, Bon Appétit, and Ladies’ Home Journal. (She passed away in 1992.) 

It showcases Fisher’s breadth, editor Joan Reardon explains in the preface, offering “valuable insights into her early culinary interests, her amazing sense of place, and her keen appreciation of feasts and celebrations.” It allows us to pick and choose bite-sized morsels, like sweets from a box of chocolates. 

Reardon — the author of the new [%bookLink code=0520255550 "M. F. K. Fisher Among the Pots and Pans: Celebrating Her Kitchens"], which marks the centennial this year of Fisher’s birth — organizes the anthology in a fairly straightforward manner. 

There are nonfiction essays, for example, by Fisher on food items she adored. There are pieces about places she called home – from southern California, where she grew up with her parents and her younger sister, Anne; to northern California, where she stayed on and off with her daughters from the 1960s through the 1980s; and to France, where she lived a number of times in between. 

[%image feature-image float=left width=400 caption="A Sonoma Valley view that M. F. K. Fisher might have known."]

And there are details of memorable meals, big and small, indoors and outdoors, shared with family and close friends, events where she “\[made\] food the centerpiece in the art of good living.”

“In Nice, Snacking in the Flower Market,” for example, which appeared originally in the New York Times Magazine, focuses on one of her favorite regional French foods: socca. 

A thin flatbread made primarily of chickpea flour, socca is served hot by street vendors in open-air markets in the south of France. It is also available “in the caves,” Fisher writes, “those below-ground restaurants where working people eat.” 

“That socca is made of chickpeas is significant,” she continues, “because chickpeas are traditionally associated with Mary Magdalene, who is a leading citizen of Provence, especially Marseilles. The legend is that when the Magdalene and her cohorts, Les Saintes Maries, were kicked out of Jerusalem, they \[went\] to Provence and were kept alive by a miraculously endless pot of cooked chickpeas.”

To further satisfy our curiosity, Fisher integrates into her prose a recipe she devised for homemade socca.

“Napa and Sonoma: The Best of Both Worlds,” first published in Food & Wine, highlights experiences she had years ago in northern California. In it, she compares one valley to the other, having lived in St. Helena in Napa County as well as Glen Ellen in Sonoma County.

For Fisher, both areas were extraordinary. “The minute you turn off Route 101, going north from San Francisco toward Vallejo,” she writes, “you know that you are heading for the Napa Valley, away from soft coastal fogs and into air that has a special fragrant snap to it.”

Her cottage in Glen Ellen, built after her daughters had moved from St. Helena, sat on the edge of a friend’s vineyard. From it, Fisher looked “westward across meadows and hills to Jack London’s mountains, a great stretch of unattainable peaks that turn sensuously rose-gold at dawn, and as blue-black as onyx in stormy weather.” Her decades-old observations on the landscape still hold true today. 

“Tomane Junction, or Christmas 1965,” which made its debut in True Food: Wholefoods for Modern Times, turns out to be yet another lovely read. Centered on a holiday get-together gone awry, it, too, is nicely paced and compelling, and proves in the end what we have often suspected: that cooking disasters can lead to amusing stories. 

But Fisher’s longer fictional pieces, such as “Legend of Love” and “A Possible Possession,” are less engaging. They do not immediately capture or hold our attention the way her essays do.

This is minor criticism, of course, for an otherwise impressive volume of remarkable food writing. For those of us who have not read Fisher extensively, it serves as a terrific introduction, an amuse bouche perhaps. For others familiar with her work, it provides even further opportunities to enjoy the deliciousness. 

p(bio). [christinaeng@hotmail.com "Christina Eng"] is a writer in Oakland, California, and a frequent contributor to Culinate.


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