When it feels like the world is too big, too cold, too heavy, too impossible, do you have an author you turn to for reassurance? For me it’s the food writer MFK Fisher who never fails to help me in finding solid footing. (Incidentally, I’m not the first Rioter to write about the impact that Fisher has had on our lives.) Over the last seven years, in eight different bedrooms, the same paperback 50th anniversary edition of her Art of Eating has lived within arm’s reach of my bed, a permanently on-call soothant for my reoccurring bouts of depression, anxiety, and general existential panic.
The Art of Eating is a hefty book (between its covers are Fisher’s five books of gastronomical essays) held up with by a backbone of sensibility that approaches the grand mysteries of life with the same wry, quiet determination that she applies to following a new recipe. Personally, I believe that it’s this kind of backbone that enables Fisher to tackle, experience, and understand just about any topic she turns her clear-eyed gaze upon (her essays range from sketches from her unusual life to several thorough examinations of an oyster’s life) while maintaining a perspective that can comfortably hold both the miraculous and the mundane. Reading Fisher is a reorientation for my brain that moves me from a massive, unknowable, indifferent universe to one where even the greatest mysteries are tangible, no longer mysteries that I experience but can also engage in. It’s not just a grounding moment but a reminder that there is in fact a solid ground for me to stand upon.
As a stand-in for those still searching for their MFK Fisher, or as a supplement for those who have found theirs, I’d like to offer a few quotes from The Art of Eating that exemplify the kind of sensible backbone that I find in her. To prevent me from just posting the entire text as one big quote I had to give myself arbitrary limitations and flipped through the book at random, looking only in the sections that I opened to for something that seemed appropriate. The quotes are varied, drawing from her autobiographical writings, meditations, and straight forward advice, while speaking (I hope) to her humor, her straightforward fake-it-till-you-make-it approach to life, her rooted sensibility, and her appreciation for the grand emotions that exist in everyday life.
“I remember when I was a college freshman my nearest approach to la gourmandize was a midnight visit to Henry’s (…) There I would call for the head waiter, which probably awed my escort almost as much as I hoped it would. The waiter, a kindly soul except on Saturday nights, played up to me beautifully, and together we ordered a large pot of coffee and a German pancake with hot apple-sauce and sweet butter. (“Salted butter ruins the flavor,” I would add in a nonchalant aside to my Tommy or Jimmy.)” (p. 8)
“[On baking bread] It is pleasant: one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with peace, and the house filled with one of the world’s sweetest smells. But it takes a lot of time. If you can find that, the rest is easy. And if you cannot rightly find it, make it, for probably there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel, that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.” (p. 247)
“I had four [bread pans] of my maternal grandmother’s: a good friend quietly liberated two, and an enemy the rest. I still have Grandmother’s black cast-iron “gem-tins,” and I plan to keep them.” (p. 247)
“There are many ways to love a vegetable. The most sensible way is to love it well-treated. Then you can eat it with the comfortable knowledge that you will be a better man for it, in your spirit and your body too, and will never have to worry about your own love being vegetable.” (p. 297)
“If you are used to drinking, and can, it is pleasant to have whiskey or a good stable wine in your cupboard. A glass in your hand makes the ominous sky seem very high above you.” (p. 341)
“If by chance you want to be out in the streets, benefit by many a Londoner’s experience [during wartime blackouts] and carry a little flask, since welcoming pubs are few and far between, and none too eager to open their doors even to old friends when unidentified planes are reported within sound of the listening posts.” (p. 341)
“For me there is too little of life to spend most of it forcing myself into detachment from it.” (p. 457)
“More often than not people who see me on trains and in ships, or in restaurants, feel a kind of resentment of me since I taught myself to enjoy being alone (…) If I am to be alone, I refuse to be alone as if it were something weak and distasteful, like convalescence.” (p. 518)