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. But for M.F.K. Fisher, she was starting a whole movement of food writing that paved the way for the likes of Ruth Reichl, Anthony Bourdain, and many others who are celebrities for it.
Fisher fought a battle on two fronts: being a woman pursuing the lifestyle she wanted, and as she often comments in her work, writing about food in a culture with Puritanical overtones that still can be rather uptight about sensual descriptions.
Why write about food? Food, security, and love are entwined. “I tell about myself and how I ate bread on a lasting hillside, or drank red wine in a room now blown to bits, and it happens without my telling it that I am telling too about the people with me then…and their deeper needs for love and happiness. There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.”
The Gastronomical Me breaks from her usual format by writing about food without describing it. She tells stories about the people she meets in her travels. In Burgundy, she visits an old mill converted into a famous restaurant by a Parisian chef. The food server is eager to provide a rich feast, but it’s more about the experience of eating rather than details about the recipes.
There’s a dearth of recipes overall, but we learn a tamale casserole caused a flood of tears and that Fisher liked to shake people from their routines by “conquering the printed recipe” by being inventive. Eccentric approaches are more memorable, she argues, and guests should be delighted by innovative meals.
Not that she doesn’t have her old favorites. Time and again in her books, she mentions Dijon gingerbread, a French classic.
I’m at a stage of writing my fourth novel where the urge to finish it soon rises above all else. I’m well past the mid-point, and the latter half is cruising along at a good pace. April’s round of NaNoWriMo should bring it to its conclusion. An intensive editing process will follow before it goes out to beta readers. Happily, I anticipate a fall release. While each word of a blog post feels like a slight against the novel, I miss keeping up with the blog—and working on this series about how food is portrayed in literature. My shiny new Surface Book has given me the chance to write *and* cook for the blog, now that my home office is too far away to keep an eye on a skillet that may get too hot. I’ve been researching Dijon gingerbread for some time, and was delighted to have the time to finally make it this weekend.
Recipes for Dijon gingerbread varied, so it led me to experiment. Honestly, my first impression was that the combination of ingredients would result in a super dense brick. What I got was an amazingly fragrant and rich loaf of bread perfect for tea or breakfast. My search also led me to find a chicken recipe where the gingerbread is used as a breadcrumb coating. The hubs and I each enjoyed one solitary, sweet slice of the bread and now it’s about to be pulverized for the sake of the chicken recipe. But I will be making this Dijon gingerbread again soon.
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon finely chopped candied orange peel (*recipe below)
1/2 teaspoon ground aniseed
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 cup milk (almond milk works well, too)
3/4 cup honey
Butter for the loaf pan
Preheat oven to 325 Fahrenheit. Mix dry ingredients first, then the milk and egg. The batter is thick! Spread evenly in greased bread pan. Bake for 35 minutes, or until you can insert a skewer into the middle of the loaf and have it come out clean. (For me, the cook time was closer to 45 minutes.)
Candied Orange Peel
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
Using a vegetable peeler, remove zest from oranges in 1 1/2- to 2-inch-long pieces. Cut the pieces into very thin strips, about 1/8 inch wide. Cook in a small saucepan of boiling water for 5 minutes. Drain. Bring more water to a boil and cook the orange peel for another 5 minutes. Drain.
Bring sugar and 1/4 cup water to a simmer in a small saucepan, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add the orange peel, cover and simmer for 3 minutes. Transfer the syrup and peel to a bowl. Cover and chill overnight.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the orange peel to paper towels to drain before using.