MFK Fisher’s “The Gastronomical Me”

On my night table sat two new books, purchased–somewhat irresponsibly–in hardcover: “Heat” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” My rule about hardcover is this: only buy something in hardcover if you’re going to read it right away. Well I read the first few chapters of “Heat,” thoroughly enjoyed them but felt that because it was based on an article I’d read several times (a profile of Mario Batali which appeared in The New Yorker a few years ago and which immediately became one of my favorite pieces of food journalism) the book didn’t feel very fresh. It felt like yesterday’s leftovers whipped into something new and delicious but still–at its core–leftovers. And then “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which everyone is raving over, is crisply written and smart and brainy but, as I turned the pages, it felt too nutritious, too good for me, too “this will improve my understanding of food” as opposed to something sexy, seductive and naughty. What was I craving? What did I need? A soft female voice called from the other room, the room where I keep my food books on a wobbly bookshelf. I followed the sound, the deep resonant voice and when I found its source, I knew this was what I needed, precisely the kind of book I need to read right now in my life: MFK Fisher’s “The Gastronomical Me.”

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher is an artist, a true artist, a craftsman with words who can tell a story so deftly that it sears itself into your brain permanently: her memories become your memories, her stories become your stories and suddenly you can’t remember if it was her grandmother or your grandmother who made jams in the kitchen, when you were young, while you watched and tasted the strawberry froth left over in the bowl. Was that you or Mary Frances on a cruise ship sailing back from Europe with Germans on board saluting Hitler as the waiter brings out dinner?

There’s a dream magic to this book–it’s so careful and smart and yet loose and funny in a way that only a real artist can make it. And the stories! These stories are unforgettable. Whether pulling her sister out of a convent to take her out for beer or riding a train into Austria with a political prisoner on board who makes a run for his life with deadly results, this is not a food book: it’s an action movie, it’s a poem, it’s a celebration and yet a deeply honest account of a human life. And, my God, what a life. To have lived a week in MFK’s shoes would fill many of our lifetimes.

There’s no snobbery to this book, there’s only honesty. It’s a very hard book to write about because it’s so personal. It submerges you into the mind of a profoundly intelligent, deeply passionate person and if you’re lucky enough to spend time there, you’ll come out changed, with your vision clearer and your lust for living (and eating) enhanced. And as it goes back on the shelf in the other room and I return to those books on my nightstand (which have been trumped by a book on 9/11, “The Looming Tower,” which feels like a responsible thing to read these days), I know that her voice might still call to me, beckoning me to return to the soft embrace of her prose, the cool snap of her humor, the clear tonic of her imagery. And though many books will grace my nightstand as I get older, one thing’s for sure: there will always be room on there for Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher.


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