Reading: M.F.K. Fisher, the greatest of them all

Quite a few people have pointed out that the title (and the subheading) of this site are quotes from M.F.K. Fisher, one of my favorite authors period, not limited to just food-genre writing. I've neglected to give her the proper attributions however. Here they are, finally:

The title "I was just really very hungry" is taken from the title of one of her travel essays, "I Was Really Very Hungry", which is included in As They Were.

The subtitle is paraphrased from the forward to the autobiographical The Gastronomical Me, which is included in the anthology The Art of Eating.

I first discovered M.F.K. Fisher, or Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, when the aforementioned essay I Was Really Very Hungry was included in an anthology of food essays. (I'm afraid I can't remember the title of that anthology, and it seems to have disappeared into lent-book-land.) It recounts a visit she made to a small restaraurant somewhere in France, and it's funny, observative, and full of the delights of delcious eating all at the same time. I didn't actually jump and try to collect her books immediately for some reason though. A couple of years later, as I was praising another book, The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten, to someone, who said emphatically that "noone can touch M.F.K. Fisher when it comes to food writing". I had to find out if that was true.

She was right. From the moment I started reading The Gastronomical Me, I was mesmerized. Mary Frances Fisher thinks about, and relates to, food in the way that I do, but certainly expressed her thoughts and feelings about it much better. The full quote from which the subtitle of this site is taken from expresses it best:

People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating, and drinking? Why don't you write about the struggle for power and security and about love, the way others do?

They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft.

The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it...and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied...and it is all one.

Writing about, and thinking about, food to the extent that "foodies" such as I do is almost pornographic in this day and age, perhaps even more so than it was in M.F.K. Fisher's time. I sometimes feel that food, and the consumption of it, is something too decadent and frivolous to think about. (That's one reason why I split off this food blog from my main site - which is more serious, talking about the usual subjects for me, like computers and CSS and stuff.)

As a woman, I feel especially that food is almost a taboo subject in some ways. An overweight woman is probably the most ostracised type of human being in most socities these d ays. As a woman, you're supposed to keep your body as thin as possible, consuming as few calories as possible. Each bite of something "not allowed" has a furtive feel to it: will that extra swirl of cream over my pie be compensated for by a few more minutes on the treadmill? Fans of classic American sitcoms may remember the classic line uttered by Rhoda in the Mary Tyler Moore show, as she took a piece of chocolate: "I don't know why I bother putting it into my mouth. I might as well apply it directly to my hips".

Another side of the food equation is that the preparation of it, for family, children, and others, often becomes a chore and burden. As much as I love food and cooking, when I am preoccupied with daily life it's a bother to even think about it.

But a few hours with Mary Frances as your companion and you realize again how comforting, and joyous, food can be, and how it ties you to warm (and other) memories, to family and loves of the present and past.

The other aspect of Mary Frances that I love is her cool detachedness and elegance, even while writing about the most intimate experiences such as the painful deterioration of her second husband (and love of her life). When one writes, be it for a humble weblog or anything higher, one can't help showing your private parts, methorically speaking. Personal experience often forms the nucleus of a writer's 'material'. But the degree to how you show the private parts, and how you show them, is quite a difficult line. For myself, my goal is to do it the way Mary Frances did it - with objectivity, passion, and never quite revealing all.

M.F.K. Fisher reading list

Be aware that a lot of M.F.K. Fisher books are collections of her essays, and so you will find some overlap of the odd essay here or there. Start with the first one, and progress further if you fall in love with her writing.

  • The Art of Eating is really five books in one. It contains the following works: Serve It Forth, Consider The Oyster, How To Cook A Wolf, The Gastronomical Me, and An Alphabet For Gourmets. Of these, the last two are by far the best in my opinion, though the rest are great also. I would read the books contained here in the following order: start with The Gastronomical Me, then take a lighthearted break with How To Cook A Wolf, go to An Alphabet for Gourmets, then finish up with the more heavily "historical" Serve It Forth and the rather light Consider The Oyster. If you can only get one M.F.K. Fisher this one is it.
  • Two Towns in Provence, recounts her time spent living in Provence with her two little daughters. A must for any Francophile.
  • As They Were, collected essays of an autobiographical nature.
  • Among Friends, recounting her early days in Whittier, California. Less food, more autobiography.

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