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Showing posts from July, 2016

MFK Fisher: The Art of Eating and Serve It Forth

As a kid, I was a tomboy. I wore scuffed dungarees and Converse sneakers, and was happier watching dirtbike races than playing with dolls. I spent little time in the kitchen. Passing though, usually, on the way to my next adventure. But there was a special collection of books on the shelf that caught my eye even then. Especially one in the series: How to Cook a Wolf. How intriguing! Just like the Dungeons and Dragons stories my brother and I created, it inspired imaginative worlds. Only when I was older did I realize it was about living frugally in times of war.
Over the years, I’ve read portions of M.F.K. Fisher’s books. It’s a fascinating body of work. As I re-read the series, it was clearly a perfect fit for the “How Do They Feast?” series I originally started to talk about how food is portrayed in historical fiction. The series has grown to take on a lot more, and I’m looking forward to exploring M.F.K. Fisher’s books as a subseries to “How Do They Feat?” Thanks to Mom for letting…

Dijon Gingerbread for M.F.K. Fisher

In 1943, M.F.K. Fisher introduced her book with a question that was posed to her frequently: Why do you write about food, eating, and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do?
It’s a quandary many writers can relate to. There’s an inherent judgment that rears its head when people meet writers. We’re asked to account for other authors, such as when a fan asked Neil Gaiman whether George R.R. Martin “had a responsibility” to finish the Song of Ice and Fire series in a timely manner, lest he make his audience upset. The now-famous “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch” meme has become a joke at comic cons and blogs everywhere. When you’re an author, people are eager to share their ideas for books you should write, regardless of whether they’re in your oeuvre or if you are even remotely interested in the topic. And they’ll follow up on it at the next barbeque you attend, too. Most of it is perfectly benign and well-meaning. …

MFK Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf

The destiny of nations depends upon what and how well they eat.” —Brillat-Savarin
Years ago, the title of M.F.K. Fisher’s book evoked fantastical images. I read a lot of Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, and others that would lead me to believe that a book about cooking wolves had to be intriguing. Alas, as a child, I was disappointed, as there were no monsters of mysterious elf rangers. Just practical advice about making ends meet. Having spent years with my great-grandmother, I’d already seen the economy she practiced: slapping the toast onto the cast iron skillet to cook it in bacon fat. The things we preserved and stored in the cellar.
Decades passed, and as I search for the best in food writing, I was drawn to her books again. How to Cook a Wolf has probably been my favorite so far. Like The Ravenous Muse, the theme of the book is anthropomorphized into a recurring character. The wolf stalks M.F.K. Fisher throughout: “The wolf has one paw wedged firmly in what looks like a widening crack of…

Consider the Oyster

One of the things that has struck me since I’ve started reading the works of M.F.K. Fisher is that she would have been a popular blogger. Many of her books are comprised of individual essays and stories that would be perfect blog posts. Some of the essays are personal—sometimes deeply so—and others are informative.
Consider the Oyster is a short read. It begins simply—with the life of an oyster (and in a time when we place high value sustainable food sources, an interesting description of how they live), and goes on to explore a range of favorite dishes that feature oysters: raw, fried, stuffing, Rockefeller—if she had been a blogger today, I’d wager she’d travel to New Orleans to find the best po’ boy in the region. She also spends an entire chapter talking about the best drinks to pair with oysters (Chablis, Guinness, sherry, whiskey).
On a trip to London, M.F.K. Fisher hears a tale of an American who greatly worried pub staff by eating a plate of raw oysters while drinking whiskey.…

The Ravenous Muse

In the late 1990s, when I began my journey on the path to a career in publishing, I discovered the books of an author who spoke to all the Gothic nerdiness that I was: not only were her books about grammar and punctuation infused with images of dark fantasy, but I also loved her florid writing style. Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s instructional books remain close to me writing desk as valued resources. At the time, I happened to notice another book as well—and it took me many more years to read it than I expected.
There is nothing new about a tome of selected favorite quotes and passages. However, what lies in the pages of The Ravenous Muse goes well beyond superficial, feel-good platitudes that have been made into an endless stream of memes that fill the Facebook newsfeed. The book is closer to the realm of literary criticism. The relationship between authors, their characters, and food is explored in detail—using examples from erudite and sometimes obscure sources.
Interspersed with inter…

Laura Esquivel’s Between Two Fires

“I spent the first years of my life beside the hearth in my mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens, seeing how these wide women, upon entering those sacred places, became priestesses, great alchemists who dealt with water, air, fire, and earth—the four basic elements that comprise the entire universe. And the most surprising thing is that they did in in the most humble manner…as if they weren’t transforming the world with the purifying power of fire, as if they didn’t know that the foods they prepared and the rest of us ate remained in our bodies for many hours, chemically altering our organisms, nourishing our souls and our spirits and giving us an identity, a language, a legacy.”
So begins a series of essays and stories by Laura Esquivel. Like Water for Chocolate has been a longtime favorite, and this little book, Between Two Fires, sat on my shelf for a long time. One of the perks of moving is that you get to re-examine all your accumulated stuff—books you forgot to read, music you ha…

John Saturnall’s Feast

When I saw the cover in the remainder pile at Harvard Book Store, I knew it was one of those stories I’d fall into and be thoroughly immersed in the author’s world. There’s no rhyme or reason to it—you know it when you see them. The cover may not even be that alluring, but some Muse whispers, “You need to read this one.”
Granted, I’ve devoted an entire series to the portrayal of food in fiction on this blog. And the book delved into medieval cookery and talked about spiced wine, quodlings, and frumenty, and the descriptions of the dishes were delightful. It was a challenge to decide which one to cook. Ironically, as I read the first page, I was reminded of Modernist Cuisine and the artful works of world-renowned chefs such as Ferran Adrià.
“Now Saturnus’s Gardens are overgrown. Our brokeback Age has forgotten the Dishes that graced the old God’s chestnutwood tables. In these new-restored times, Inkhorn Cooks prate of their inventions and Alchemical Cooks turn Cod Roes into Peas.”  The…

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat

The can opener was invented 50 years after canning was patented. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, knives were individualized to each owner as specifically as wands in Harry Potter, and didn’t become part of standard tableware until the 17th century. Modern salted butter is 1 to 2 % salt; in 1305 AD, it was 10% salt for the purposes of preservation. In Western Europe, the overbite only developed recently—toward the late 18th century—due to the utensils we came to use everyday. In Asia, the overbite was around for centuries because of the use of chopsticks.
This is just a smattering of facts that are detailed in Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson. Its thirteen-page bibliography is a testament to the meticulous research that went into writing this book. Broken down into basic elements of the kitchen, each chapter covers the gradual evolution of life in the kitchens. From the humble wooden spoon to the types of metal used for pots and pans, Wilson provides a fascinating history of cooking…

Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery

Savored Words: Conspiracy Edition!
One thing you should be prepared for when reading Umberto Eco is the density of the work: the historical references, the fact that the story is so carefully wrought—after all, as an academic, Professor Eco’s specialty is semiotics, the philosophical study of signs and symbols. Closely related to linguistics, the field delves into meanings and relationships, and Eco’s work is often fraught with secret societies, conspiracies, and the complex web of history.
The Prague Cemetery opens with a long rant of prejudices by Simone Simonini, a forger, murderer, and here, the originator of the Protocols of Elders of Zion, the notorious fake text that fueled 19th-century anti-Semitism and was in part responsible for inspiring Hitler’s terrible plans. Though I enjoyed seeing Eco’s process for creating this elaborate conspiracy of Freemasons, Satanists, and political and religious machinations, the book didn’t capture my imagination the same way Focault’s Pendulum

Harvard's Science and Cooking Series: gAstronomy

What is connection between astronomy and cooking? An interesting notion. And for me, an irresistible draw to the Science and Cooking lectures at Harvard. A series open to the public and based on the class offered to the students of the College, it brings together world-class chefs and scientists to do live demonstrations of Modern Cuisine and talk about what really happens on a molecular level when you melt chocolate, boil pasta, or make gravy. Part magic show, part deep intellectual endeavor, this series has captivated the crowds that have packed into the Science Center for the past few years.
I faithfully attended most of them the first year, but due to tumultuous upheavals and schedules, it was an unfortunate casualty of lost hobbies while I brought my life back to an even keel. (And there is consolation in that the videos are archived online.) It’s a delight to be able to return to them, and what better way than to attend a lecture that blends two of my favorite subjects: cuisine …

Epic Feasts: An Interview with Chelsea Monroe-Cassel

If you’re an avid Game of Thrones fan, you may have heard of A Feast of Ice and Fire, the official cookbook for the series. It all began with a fabulous blog, Inn at the Crossroads, which continues to post recipes inspired by the books. The cookbook is a delight not only for George R. R. Martin fans, but also for people who love to explore medieval cooking. As the cookbook’s popularity grew, fans from all over hosted feasts, leading to the publication of the Party Planning Guide. I had the pleasure of interviewing Chelsea Monroe-Cassel about the phenomenon and learning about other literary culinary cultures and what’s next for the Game of Thrones foodie world. And let us know—if you were to travel to the realms of Westeros/Essos, where would you want to eat? 

How has your exploration of food in George R. R. Martin’s world changed after the publication of A Feast of Ice and Fire?
Hugely. I used to be a picky eater before living overseas about 10 years ago, and while I would say that the …