Over the past six months or so, I have immersed myself in the kinds of books I want to write; that is, food books. Nonfiction, memoir, fiction, you name it. It seems very practical that in order to get myself closer to writing one of these books, I should throw myself headlong into that genre of literature, seeing for myself what is already out there and how these authors have gone about doing the very thing I want to do.
Enter: M.F.K. Fisher’s memoir The Gastronomical Me.
This memoir has been on my to-read list for quite some time because it is often held up as the food memoir that started food memoirs as we know them today. She paved the way for some of my favorite food memoirs, like Ruth Reichl’s books and even Julia Child’s memoir My Life in France, published in 2006, just two years after Julia Child’s death in 2004.
The Gastronomical Me is a lovely memoir. It follows M.F.K. Fisher’s life from her childhood, eating pie with her father and sister in a lovely essay titled “A Thing Shared” to her adult years, after her divorce, after the loss of her lover Chexbres, and into the later years of her life. She writes about food, yes, but more specifically, she says in the Foreword to the book, she writes about hunger. In answer to people’s questions of why she writes about food instead of “the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do:”
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.
I am extremely fortunate to have never known hunger – not true, lasting, physical hunger. The aches and groans of my empty stomach have been quickly remedied with good food. I am a well cared-for human being. But I remember being young, probably ten or eleven, and coming home from running errands with my family, and waiting for my parents to cook dinner. We were having spaghetti, and my step-dad was heating water in a big, blue Dutch oven, in which he would cook the noodles, if the water ever boiled. I whined and complained because I was hungry. My ten year-old self could not fathom waiting much longer, and my stomach cramped and gurgled, reiterating its emptiness, its want. That hunger was quickly remedied. I slurped up noodles and tangy tomato sauce and garlic bread, and my whining desisted, and I was full.
But Fisher’s book is about so much more than just that physical hunger. At several points in her book, she recounts stories of a different kind of hunger: the sexual hunger a young Czech girl, her neighbor, has for a cold, teasing lover; the hunger she and her husband Al felt for escape from the drudgery of university life; hunger for her lover, Chexbres, the man she lives with in Vevey, the man she loves so completely, with whom she becomes ghost-like and hollow as he dies a slow death; and finally, the hunger a trans-gendered Mexican girl (who passes as a boy, Juanito, the singer in a mariachi band) has for Fisher’s own brother, who does not understand the attraction the girl feels for him, and so feeds the flame even as he extinguishes it. This hunger – this unrequited, unfed hunger of human relationships – is really at the meat of Fisher’s stories. These stories are what make this book so intriguing, so complex. It’s not just about gorgeous recipes or lush food descriptions; it’s about the way we bump into each other in this world, crave things we can’t have, and some things we can, and make our peace with the difference between those situations.
The book was published in 1943, so there are aspects of it that are frustrating. The frequency with which chapters (which often stand alone as essays) are named the same thing (“The Measure of My Powers”). The guarded and discrete way that Fisher protects her readers (and perhaps her own virtue) by merely alluding to things that, possibly, audiences at that time understood. These hints and suggestions get frustrating when you are left wondering what in the world could possibly have been so scandalous – you are allowed to wonder the worst, and never told whether or not you’re right. And that hunger that shows up in such powerful ways throughout this book is not a consistent thread; not in the way we have come to expect it today.
We forgive its looseness because this book is innovative for its time, lushly descriptive, delicious in its material, and both poignant and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. I’m so happy I read it, and it’s definitely one of the kinds of books I want to write.