Foodstuff: Eat these words
A food-lit gift guide of books that read like four-course meals
A few years ago, I was working as a co-op at a newspaper in Boston and dropping hints about my interest in food writing like a 19th-century socialite drops calling cards when the Books editor suggested offhand that I might like to check out the writing of M.F.K. Fisher. I wrote the name down on a sticky note, got my hands on one of her books several months later and then devoured it.
It was through Fisher’s writing that I embraced the notion that eating is as much an art as cooking is a science, and that food — in both preparation and consumption — can be romantic and sensual as much as it is measured and chemical.
Her works share the spectacular pleasure that comes from divine flavors amid bouts of loneliness and simple dishes amid interesting company as well as that particular tickled-pink sensation that comes from learning the history of, say, ocean bivalves or the diets of ancient Egyptians.
That sticky note remains one of the greatest gifts I have ever received by way of the recommendation that prompted me to scribble it.
But you can’t very well get away with a single Post-It during this pinnacle of the gift-giving season. Or perhaps you can, in which case the rest of us envy the ease with which you can coast into the holidays knowing that your job can be considered good as done with little more than a trip to the office supply section of Carl’s Pharmacy.
In either case, I recommend you start by wrapping up a copy of “The Gastronomical Me,” a fine culinary memoir from our dear Ms. Fisher.
Novice foodies will find in it support and encouragement for their culinary hobby as well as proof of the merit in attending to it. Seasoned gourmands, who know so well already that pursuit of the palate’s pleasures, will still savor flavors and the sentiment with which Fisher writes of her life at the table.
The book, at 252 pages in the paperback hawked at most booksellers, is enough to stimulate a ravenous appetite for food-lit that hardly can be satisfied with any one sequel. In this case it’s best to build the recipient a library.
The next course, then, is context. Justin Spring’s “The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy” will more than whet the palate here with the sometimes-intersecting lives of Fisher and her 20th-century food writer contemporaries: Julia Child, Richard Olney, A.J. Liebling, Alexis Lichine and Alice B. Toklas.
I have, at times, bordered on codependency with the platters of food history served up in “The Gourmands’ Way.” Just ask anyone who has heard me mention the recipe for “Hashish Fudge” a cousin of the pot brownie that was printed to much ado in the 1954 British edition of “The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook,” or anyone who has seen me get worked up thinking about the heartbreak of Paul Child’s 50th birthday party, which showcased exquisite French cuisine and century-old vintages that Paul could not fully enjoy because he had a dental emergency earlier that day.
The entree, of course, must be the holy grail: “The Physiology of Taste,” written by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and translated by (who else on Earth would I possibly write about here?) M.F.K. Fisher.
This book is an all-you-can-eat-and-then-some buffet of food writing for the literary glutton, though perhaps it’s not for everybody. Julia Child once called Brillat-Savarin an “insipid old brioche,” and the hulking volume — I’m currently working my way through the 355 nearly 9-by-13-inch pages of a 1994 edition I recently bought at the Aspen Thrift Shop — can meander well off course. But it is also wickedly funny, generously saucy and exhaustively explanatory in its exploration of why it is some of us love food as much as we do.
For dessert, I propose something lighter in size to relish for that course perhaps most appreciated by the hedonists among us. Honoré de Balzac’s indulgent “Treatise on Modern Stimulants” is a more than adequate sweet that serves just as well as a nightcap here with his strong opinions strongly held on alcohol, sugar, tea, coffee and tobacco.
The size of the edition — small enough to fit in a coat pocket — belies the abundance described inside by a philosopher well acquainted with overconsumption: the first time Balzac got drunk he did so with 17 bottles of wine and two cigars, and his bills and receipts indicate that he drank 10 to 15 cups of coffee a day.
“All excess is based on man’s desire to relive pleasure beyond the limits ordinarily imposed by nature,” he wrote by way of introduction to “The Subject at Hand.” Fair enough, but you may want to consider including some antacids in the gift bag.
Kaya Williams is a reporter for The Aspen Times and The Snowmass Sun who surely would not be writing food columns for The Aspen Times Weekly if Paul Makishima had not suggested that she read the works of M.F.K. Fisher. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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