Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Art of Eating by MFK Fisher

I have been waiting for months to read some MFK Fisher. Everyone who knows food writing says she is the master. For example, Ruth Reichl says she "has the extraordinary ability to make the ordinary seem rich and wonderful." Julia Child said her "wit and passionate opinions on food and those who produce it, comment upon it, and consume it are as apt today as they were... when she composed them." Alice Waters says that The Art of Eating "should be required reading for every cook. It defines in a sensual and beautiful way the vital relationship between food and culture." How fortunate we were that the May Kitchen Reader selection by Carolyn of FoodNURD was The Art of Eating, a massive compendium of five of Fisher's books, totalling more than 700 pages.

You can read an excerpt from The Gastronomical Me, one of the five books contained in The Art of Eating, on Culinate. Please do, since it will give you an idea of the simple, beautiful writing. It's a compelling story with a strange ending.

Fisher died in 1992, but left an amazing legacy in The Art of Eating (first published in 1954); I feel as though I am only beginning to get to know her style. She is knowledgeable about food history, funny with anecdotes, and helpful with recipes. Here are a few ideas I have lingered over.

Fisher argues that "the potato's function" is as "a gastronomic complement" to other foods. It can be adapted to enhance man other dishes. By itself it can be monotonous and so we should consider its "changing mysterious garment of adaptability." She states that we should avoid serving them alone.

Lettuce is an unnecessary part of salads, according to Fisher. She writes that she would rather eat a salad composed of a "dozen tiny vegetables: rosy potatoes in their tender skins, asparagus tips, pod-peas, beans two inches long and slender as thick hairs.... I want them cooked, each alone, to fresh perfection. I want them dressed, all together, in a discreet veil of oil and condiments." These types of salads reminded her of ones she savoured in Venice; "a tonic to your several senses."

Fisher writes a chapter titled "How to Boil Water," which starts with instructions for just this. After two full pages, she wryly states, "The natural progression from boiling water to boiling water with something in it can hardly be avoided, and in most cases is heartily to be wished for.... Soup, in other words, is good." She goes on to give basic templates for several types of soup (creamy, clear vegetable, onion, chowder, chilled), including one recipe which is a combination of a soup from the grand French master chef, Escoffier, and one found "in a calendar published by the gas company in the Canton of Vaud in Switzerland."

Fisher provides a chapter of ideas for using canned fish, a taste for which I have been trying to acquire. I made the salmon cakes pictured here using an adaption of her recipe. She reminded me that canned fish is already cooked, so the cooking time for these cakes is just to get them piping hot. This meant a fast supper for my husband and I. In the time it took me to steam the broccoli and slice some tomatoes (and set up the light box for the photo shoot), the salmon cakes were done.
Salmon (or Tuna) Cakes
adapted from The Art of Eating
makes 4 cakes

2 T ground flax seeds
1 c (about 130 g or one small can) salmon (or tuna)
1 T minced cilantro (coriander leaves)
2 T butter

Put the ground flax seeds in a bowl and add 1/4 c (60 ml) of water. Stir and then let rest for 10 minutes.
Add the salmon and cilantro and mix well. Form into 4 patties.
Heat the butter in a skillet. Add the patties and fry, flipping once, until golden, about 5 minutes per side.

Do you have a favourite food writer?

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