M.F.K. Fisher: Dining Through Hardship and War With Simplicity and Sophistication – The 1940’s

Ouch. It’s January 2009, and wallets previously ready to fly open at the slightest beckoning call of the local free-range organic rabbit (head still on, bones intact, tiny tail bone looking rather pitiful now shed of its cute fluffy fur) for $7 per pound – which effectively makes the cost of the meat shorn of the bones somewhere around $15 per pound – those wallets are balking.

But it is not 1940. And we are not in London. And we are not kept busy in the ways the Women Firewatchers shown in the above photograph (from British Vogue in 1940 by Lee Miller) were kept actively busy at that time.

But getting back to the wallets of 2009. Some will still open. Many more will not.

Pain shows in the hearts and faces of men and women when facing their finances. Not only have their retirement funds been hobbled but food – right now – today! – is becoming more and more expensive. What’s a person to do?

This poverty is a different shape, here and now in 2009, than it has been in times past. For aside from the fact that the grocery stores are still filled to over-brimming with every product from almost everywhere in the world, there is the question of those wallets. Are those wallets as damaged as they have been in past times of hardship? Not being an economist, I can’t answer that.

But I do know that in past times though there may have been mortgage payments and utility bills and all the usual expenses of day-to-day life, there was no monthly cell-phone bill . . . there was no monthly cable or internet connection bill . . . there was no high health insurance payment due . . . there usually was not a second or third car payment bill due . . . and let’s not even start talking about the cost of a higher-education where funds must be saved or financed for the Masters or Ph.D rather than for the Bachelors degree – which now for the most part is about as useful to the job-seeker as a High School degree was in times past – useful, that is, as a mere nod into the door of a low-paying entry job.

In times of hardship one looks to times of past hardships for answers: what to do, how to survive. There’s also the sense of seeking reassurance that indeed, people did survive. They did live and love and eat and hate and plot and plan and dream and finally either regain their feet – or if not – simply go on living, somehow.

One of our most-revered writers on life, food, and hungers – MFK Fisher – wrote a huge body of work during the 1940’s during times of war and some hardships. Consider the Oyster (1941) was written as she and her husband Dillwyn Parrish fled a war-torn Europe to come back to the US. Dillwyn was dying – in a most painful way – in a way where his body was slowly, bit by bit, being claimed by Buerger’s disease. How to Cook A Wolf was published in 1942 – the year when the rationing (already in place in England) finally came to US shores.

Tires were the first item to be rationed in January 1942 because supplies of natural rubber were interrupted. Soon afterward, passenger automobiles, typewriters, sugar, gasoline, bicycles, footwear, fuel oil, coffee, stoves, shoes, meat, lard, shortening and oils, cheese, butter, margarine, processed foods (canned, bottled and frozen), dried fruits, canned milk, firewood and coal, jams, jellies and fruit butter, were rationed by November 1943.[3] (Source wiki-rationing-US)

How To Cook A Wolf is full of information about how to survive when there is little to survive on. I’ve read this book more than once, in varying circumstances. The time I most appreciated it was when I moved to Paris into a wonderful apartment whose heating system required the insertion of coins into a small box on the wall. It seemed apt to read MFKF then and there.

Much of what is in this book will not be accepted by today’s readers, looking for answers in terms of ‘what to eat’ when the pocketbook is hurting. Gently given advice to ‘Go fishing for your dinner‘, or to ‘Gather wild foods for the one daily meal’, and ‘Eat mush‘ (recipe provided) come to mind.

In 1943 MFKF published The Gastronomical Me – to my mind the greatest of her works. Here is life, punctuated by food. Food is the thing that binds, that ties, that rocks, that cradles – a river that the larger themes of existence flow upon, with the prose of MFKF as wind goddess moving it all along.

Then followed a novel, then the translation of Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste, and An Alphabet for Gourmets.

There are many ways to face being pinched by the dollar. As for myself, I won’t try cooking and eating mush – unless I really have to. And I am grateful that my days are not spent scanning the skies for warplanes and fires.

But I will read MFK Fisher. And not just only (or not even substantially) for the advice she gives (though some of it is good).

I’ll read her just for her words, alone. They’re better in some ways than even the most perfect slab of Kobe beef.

An added bonus? They are sustainable.
Live recording of Billie Holiday from the 1940’s: Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do


14 thoughts on “M.F.K. Fisher: Dining Through Hardship and War With Simplicity and Sophistication – The 1940’s

  1. I agree that while “Much of what is in this book will not be accepted by today’s readers”, (and, hopefully, will never again need to be), the style of “How To Cook a Wolf” might arguably be the model for what has come to be known as “food writing”, and would read just as naturally in a current blog as in a sixty-five year old book.

    {Imagine MLKF blogging!}

  2. Well, the content of the book is mostly good for today’s readers who are trying to avoid the wolf at the door (my points above being used as exception to the rule and to bring the point of the 1940’s vs. ‘now’ home) (after all, the same things have been useful in kitchen economy since time began, basically) – but I’d have to argue that the style of writing might actually turn the reader of today away before they got to the useful stuff.

    I’ve heard that younger people are not particularly fond of MFKF (with exceptions) – and I can see why, after reviewing The Art of Eating over and over again. MFKF’s style is very expositional . . . which I think is the central point of why you are saying HTCW is the model for what has come to be known as ‘food writing’. She often ties her content to the larger themes of life, which had not been done or had not been known to be done by a woman writing about food – and though I believe there were bits and pieces of this existing in literature and in other languages than English – they were not journalistic efforts.

    Basically she took writing about food out of the very small compressed expression that the ‘women’s pages’ would allow – and expanded it into quite another thing than had been commonly seen.

    Not that there still isn’t a lot of food writing that still is of the ‘woman’s pages’ ilk. There is. The majority of it is. The only difference being that it’s not named as such nor is it so cute and cuddly. But effectively it’s the same animal. Guys do it now too, so it’s not so exclusively a girlish sort of thing. πŸ™‚

    But back to her writing ‘style’. It is literate. At times it is said that she is overblown. If you look at the currently fashionable styles of writing about food (think of some currently fashionable food writers) you won’t find that overblown style nor will the sense of ‘literary’ be there. ‘Literary’ is not something a lot of people like. They like quick and snappy, and to many of the younger generation (accustomed now to IM’ ing and texting and now twittering) MFKF’s style seems moribund. I can see this point.

    Would she have been a good blogger? I’m not sure. The most popular bloggers keep it short and sweet, snappy and useful. You can’t read the internet as you would a book or other soft document. It would have been very interesting and wonderful to see, though. πŸ™‚

    But anyway – what an incredibly prolific decade that was for her! Amazing.

  3. I must admit to having read only Consider the Oyster. I think I need to catch up on my MFKF.

    Something that comforts me in these trying economic times is the wisdom of my grandparents. They practiced the art of growing their own food, of butchering their own pigs and using every bit of them, of catching and cleaning their own fish, of cutting down thistles in the swamps and serving them with dinner. These are the things they taught me when my hands were small, but my mind was open. I’m so glad for what they taught me and I’m glad that I was listening.

  4. Like Make Roux, I’ve read only one of MFK’s books, The Gastronomical Me, a memoir of sorts.

    In The Gastronomical Me, she does present moments that have Make Roux’s point to them: homegrown-and-local food and its role in a more solid personal & social ethos. I’m thinking of her earliest memories, of the peach pie especially, and of her second marriage, to Chexbres, in their home in Switzerland with garden, kitchen, local vineyards, bakers, and so on.

    I don’t think, though, that she advocates this as a simplicity, because, I think, she wouldn’t see any “this” there. All’s in motion in The Gastronomical Me, all’s changing. Instead of in the food itself, she sees a steady “this” in the way people behave with each other over and through food/meals. And she’s really quite upset by the end of the book. The inward-looking pull possible in being-together-with-simple-life led her and Chexbres into a willful blindness towards the international politics of the late 1930s — they wake up to this in the late chapter on their train ride into Italy.

    For her, I think, food does not “heal,” it instead forces occasions that reveal in fact, in memory, in intent. The peeled grapes on the woman’s belly, peeled by her fascist boyfriend. The drunken anomie in Mexico at the end. And so on.

    I think MFK wants to advocate that, rightly conceived and rightly carried off, a meal can help force connections to grow, to begin, to resolve. Maybe, maybe. I’m skating too fast, and my knowledge of MFK is too limited to feel that I’m really right here. In any case, enough of The Gastronomical Me is about sophisticated meals/food that fail to nourish human intercourse, and about stupid foods that, on occasion, do — e.g., what they ate in college.

  5. Reader X,

    Having read nearly everything available by and about MFK Fisher over the years, I find your statement that “a meal can help force connections to grow ….” to be a very consise and astutue observation.

    I’m sure you and Make Roux would both enjoy reading more MFKF.

  6. MakeRoux, I know exactly what you mean. There is a deep security in knowing those things, and knowing that those things are not only do-able but that they have been done and done without pain or horror attached but rather with just a knowing-ness and gratitude for that knowing-ness.

    There’s a bit of MFKF online read-able, but not much. Here’s a link to a piece of Gastronomical Me which is on Google Books within another book: You can click around a bit on this google book to see some more of MFKF – and the pieces chosen, you’ll note – are differently focused than those in ‘Consider the Oyster’.

    I do hope you’ll hunt up ‘The Art of Eating’ which is a compilation of many of MFKF’s food works and see if you do like it. πŸ™‚

  7. ReaderX – an interesting take on Gastronomic Me. No, I don’t think she advocates the simple life through local foods as a philosophy to follow.

    I saw a post on a Slow Food site recently that called MFKF ‘The First Slow Food Advocate’ based on her writings and I almost choked – I was quite sure that the author of the post could not have read more than a few minor selections of MFKF’s writings and certainly did not review the overall body of recipes offered by her in her complete body of food-writing works.

    I don’t think that MFKF is upset at the end of The Gastronomic Me based on waking up to the outside world, though – and feeling that their wilfull ignorance of it was a mistake. I think she is upset that she simply can not maintain her inner world any longer. World politics played its part in creating an external drama but the end of the inner world she had created with her second husband was necessarily over due to his imminent death – which she saw happening bit by bit day by day. Her mooring was being cut loose with sharp and bitter jolts, by the simple fact that another person was not going to be there any more, shortly.

    No, she does not do the ‘food as healing’ thing – does she. Food is not only succor but something acted through in all the ways one can act in life.
    Astonishing that she managed to get away with this. The people who like to talk about recipes over the back fence as if the right recipe for chili will make a perfect world in one easy lesson probably would detest reading her when she writes like this.

    Not a simple woman at all.

    You should read more of her, though – to get the whole flavor. There is more than the war years and the pain.

    I’ve found a bit more things on MFKF that were interesting to me over the past few days – I’ll try to post links to them a bit later.

  8. SB – I admire your loyalty to MFKF. It is warranted. It says as much about who you are as it does about her work, I think. A steadfast friend, you are. πŸ™‚

  9. Well, I won’t argue the cause of the effect of MFK’s crisis was exclusively an inpact of the political crisis impinging on her private drama with “Chexbres,” her second husband. She, however, does offer this as a strong cause for her private bubble popping. I’ll have to dig up my copy of The Gastronomical Me and quote her exactly and in context, though, just to be certain myself.

    Those closing chapters of the book remove her from private life, send her back and forth across the ocean, and into Mexico, were the book and story end in something approaching high energy rot, if there were such a thing.

    Political references, political contexts, politically involved or victimized people/characters only show up in these later chapters, even though the her life up to this point included historical contexts of the Great War, the onset of the Great Depression, and the highly-charged cultural politics of Europe — about which only a whisper reveals, in the episode of the fascist’s peeled grape.

    I think that she does this shift intentionally, because it looks so darn useful as a narrative device: innocence into experience, simplicity to complexity, the self into the world, pleasure into pain. That last chapter is a doozy of pain. (I’ve just been informed by a line of little dots that I have misspelled “doozy.” Did I?)

    Her audience was mid-war (WW2), and would have memories of and desires for simplicity, innocence, private life, and pleasure, but would also, by then, be wrestling with how to deal with the realities of responsible life in a world that permitted none of those.

    Her preface to the book is overt about the historical context of her authorship and of her readers: it’s wartime, and the war destroys, and, well, preparing and eating meals to be shared is a good way, even an essential way, to assert humanity against this darkness.

    I think I might say this a little differently if I tried to say it again — a clever way to say that I am not sure exactly what “it” is that I just tried to explain.

  10. She’s readable in many ways, ReaderX. To the reader who wants ‘just food, pretty food, nice food, delightful food’, that can be found. To the reader who seeks meaning through food, that can be found. To the reader who seeks insight into life during political upheaval, that can be found. To the reader who seeks romance, that can be found in droves. To the reader who seeks gorgeous prose – the same.

    MFKF has shifted into different shapes at different times as I’ve read her over the years. I found it interesting to read the Derwin piece linked above since MFKF clearly states that she does not consider herself a ‘food writer’ yet that is what she is touted as – in context of history. It was also interesting to hear her say that when she writes it sometimes sounds as if it were not real, even when it was real – because of the way she writes (which, as you note, must take full use of narrative effect with a wide swath of romanticism thrown in to firmly close the deal).

    I picked up my first MFKF book (which actually was ‘The Art of Eating’ – the compilation of her gastronomic works or her ‘foodwriting’) when I was fifteen years old, at the 41st Street branch of the New York Public Library.

    The cookbook section was not huge then, compared to other sections in the library – and it was housed in some dark old stacks in a building across from the main library on 42nd Street – it looked like a trade school, basically. Nondescript, rather grim, narrow glass doors entering into the place on the south side of 41st Street.

    I was working as a switchboard operator at the time – a really fun job as I remember it! The black wires with their brass connectors would snap and click clack into place as the calls came through . . . and of course then at lunchtime there was an hour to spend either buying cheap scarves or jewelry to fix up the day’s outfit – or! – there was the library.

    I liked humorists and design books. That’s how I ran into the cookbook/food book section. Thurber was there, close by the cookbooks – as were the books on couture fashion. So my eye wandered. And there was a book called ‘The Art of Eating’.

    Eating? Art? What a funny title! What a funny idea! So I picked it up and . . . well, wow. A new world.

    But I clearly remember that (having no reference point at all)(and not being the type, certainly not at that age, to read the introduction!) I thought the book was basically fiction.

    It really startled me in later years to discover that MFKF and her life, were real – and that she was writing of real things.

    I have to say she reads quite well as fiction.

    Now – in later years there were times when I’ve read her different ways. I’ve read her as a chef. As a woman. As a married woman whose marriages were not all that one might desire them to be. I’ve read her in context of thinking of her as ‘the other woman’ (based on the biographies about her) which she was, at times – an interloper in ‘Chexbres’ (Parrish’s) marriage, though nobody really knows the exact circumstances do they, though we do know how it all played out. I’ve read her as a mother, which she was. And as a single mother, which she was.

    If you read her as a counterpoint or examiner or vital part or eye into the scene(s) at the time of war and international politics, I’m certain that it is valid, and worthwhile, too! How to Cook a Wolf may be the book that deals with all this (through the lens of food-as-practical-thing) the most directly. Her tone is quite different in this one than in Gastronomic Me. There are hints of mysteries and moralities and life questions in HTCW but much, much less than in TGM. It’s a how-to manual – the war is taken into stride but the politics (I’ll go back and double-check to be sure) are not seriously addressed in this one – either in terms of an overhanging something ignored due to romance or as thing looked at directly and clearly understood in all its ramifications. Moreso, just a fact of life – something to be understood enough to get a decent meal on the table. Flatter, much. But good in a different way.

    She has quite a lot of prisms to gaze into.

    But if you do try to say it again, that will be fine too. There’s always another way to say it, and generally it’s quite fun to hear! πŸ™‚

    Oh! Almost forgot. The Gourmet archives have the text of An Alphabet for Gourmets available online! It’s right here at this link. I loved the form of that book . . .

  11. When I first read a book by MFL Fisher I discovered that I’d read her work before without knowing it!

    My parents had subscribed to the New Yorker magazine since the late 1940’s, and were one of only two families in a small town in Northern Minnesota to do so. I often state that I read the magazine before I could read by viewing its famous cartoons.

    MFLF was a frequent contributor to the New Yorker, which does not always aknowledge authorship of pieces appearing in certain sections of the magazine, and even if they did, the name wouldn’t have meant anything to me as a child.

    I credit the New Yorker with introducing me to many new ideas, thus influencing my tastes later in life. Food writing in general, and MFK FIsher in particular, would be a very good example of this.

  12. Well then, SB. You are more of a New Yorker than this ex-New Yorker who never read the New Yorker till she was a New Yorker.

    Secret Ingredients – The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink (which was published a couple of years ago) included three MFKF essays: The Secret Ingredient (obviously they liked the title of the essay enough to name the entire book after it!) from 1968 which is about a cook, a home cook who has ‘special powers’; The Trouble with Tripe which is about exactly what the title says (also from 1968); and Neither Censure Nor Disdain (God what a title!) also from 1968 which is about . . . .


  13. I thought about your earlier comment about foods eaten in college last night, ReaderX – as I listened at around midnight for the second night this week of screaming and hollering from up the block where the college kids were doing Keg Stands. To tell the truth it didn’t sound like a lot of fun. It sounded brutal.

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