On Icons: M.F.K. Fisher and The Gastronomical Me


Three years ago I was heading off on a trip to England when I realized with total self-disgust that I had YET AGAIN packed completely inappropriate airport reading. I believe this time it was Ulysses and Sound and the Fury. Why do I do this?!? I think it’s because, when I’m about finished packing, and I’m gazing down at my carefully folded cashmere socks, (that I always bring for the plane because we’re told to on pretty much every lifestyle blog, right? But I never actually wear them because the act of putting them on in coach on an international flight requires more gymnastics than I’m capable of) I feel so prepared and serene that I think, hey—now’s the time to tackle one of those “big” books, you’ll be at the airport with nothing to do for hours! This—of course—is a completely wrong and stupid thing to think. What really happens is that I get immediately cranky, as I always do in any occasion that involves waiting in a line, and end up reading a Vogue that I buy from one of those sad coffee, magazine, granola bar stands. Thankfully this time M and I were flying out of Boston and we had time to make a quick pit stop at Brookline Booksmith on the way to the airport. In a moment of complete serendipity I snagged The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher and, well kids, mind blown.

I know it’s completely cliché, adolescent, and fan-girly to say this book changed my life, but… This. Book. Changed. My. Life. So much more than just food writing (and I like food writing!), The Gastronomical Me is about living passionately and fearlessly and is made utterly brilliant by Fisher’s ability to render the most mundane, sometimes even unpleasant experiences with complete and utter romance. After just one read Fisher officially ousted Anaïs Nin as high-priestess-rock-goddess-life-icon (don’t worry about Nin, I’m sure she’s found someone to cozy up to) and the book challenged Anna Karenina and Dalva for the title of favorite book. I’m not a big re-reader, but when I’m feeling vulnerable or unsure I throw this in my bag and glance through it throughout the day to remember what’s important. And hell, if that doesn’t work, Fisher taught me that even the worst day can be salvaged with a bottle glass of wine and some oysters.

The Gastronomical Me turns 70 this month (Slate has a great piece about it). Go read it! To get you started, I’ve included one of my favorite bits below:

We started a garden before the ground thawed, while the Italian masons burned their fingers on the cold stones for the new part of the house. We had to make all the beds in small terraces; hard work in the beginning, but wonderful to work in later, when the paths were set and the little patches lay almost waist-high waiting to be cared for. As soon as we could we planted, while we kept on building walls and cultivating the rich loam, and by the time my father and mother came to see us, at our apartment down on the Market Square in Vevey because the house was not yet ready, the peas were ripe, and the evenings were softly warm.
We would go up the hills from town after the working men had left, and spread our supper cloth on a table under the terrace apple tree, among all the last rubble of the building. As fast as Father and Chexbres could pick the peas, Mother and I would shell them, and then on a little fire of shavings I’d cook them perhaps four or five minutes in a heavy casserole, swirling them in butter and their own steam. We’d eat them will little cold pullets cooked for us in Vevey, and good bread and the thin white wine of the coast that lay about us.
The evening breeze would freshen across the long sweep of the lake, and as the Savoy Alps blackened above the water, and it turned to flat pewter over the edge of the terrace, the first summer lights of Evian far down toward Geneva winked red at us. It was always hard to leave. We’d put our things silently into the baskets, and then drive with the top of the car lowered along the narrow walled roads of the Corniche, until we came to a village where we could sit again on a terrace and drink bitter coffee in the darkness.

Leave a Reply