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 me take them off the shelf and “adopt” them for a time.
The Art of Eating is a compilation of her earlier work. Far from the glamorous celebrity chef culture, the introduction of The Art of Eating almost apologizes for its own existence. Our puritanical roots are suspected in the lack of indulgence in the literature of gastronomy on the part of Americans. European greats such as Brillat-Savarin are mentioned as the experts on writing about food. Many lived under Brillat-Savarin’s shadow for a long time. M.F.K. Fisher, like Julia Child, pioneered a new path for American foodies.
Alas, there were those who thought it wasn’t possible that Fisher’s books were really her own. It was believed a man wrote them for her. The essays were too well-crafted—so much history and culture—clearly a polymath of the Ivy League, they speculated. Well, the glass…errr…skillet was at least broken in that realm, and we celebrate many women who achieve great success as chefs and writers alike. It does make me wonder, though, what M.F.K. Fisher would have thought if she could see the abundance of cooking shows today. She strikes me as a lady who would appreciate the travels and observations of Anthony Bourdain, rather than the bluster and superficiality of Guy Fieri.
I begin the series where she began, with Serve It Forth. Published in 1937, the book delves into interesting historical bits, such as the curious-but-kind-of-gross garum of Roman times, a sauce made of fermented fish guts that was a delicacy. (Which has now leapt off the pages of history, and has evidently become a thing—I may muster the courage to give it a try soon!) From the eating habits of medieval royalty to French fads during colonial times and during the French Revolution, Fisher provides an amazing array of detail. If you’re an author looking to add some authenticity to the cuisine of your worlds, her books are a delightful resource.
Frederick the Great made coffee with champagne instead of water, and flavored it with mustard. (Take that, trendy bulletproof coffee!) When American colonists began consuming turkey, many a French social-seeker ruined their finances serving turkey with truffles—an exorbitant expense which practically depleted the truffle business. Even in modern times, historical associations have given certain types of food a social status. Turnips and cabbage have a particularly bad reputation for being “the food of the poor,” but leeks and artichokes also make the list. M.F.K. Fisher relates some striking quotes in an effort to dispel snobbery here, such as saying “Mrs. So-and-So is the type of person who serves artichokes!” as a means to slam someone’s social standing. It’s kind of funny, until you realize how real it is.
What I found particularly striking were Fisher’s concerns about the American diet. Even in the early 20th century, she noted about how much people ate, and observed a trend in weight gain among older adults. She worried about the future of this trend, which has sadly become a devastating reality, with half of Americans dealing with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, according to a newly published study by the Journal of the American Medical Association. In her essay of the tendency to overeat, she says, “To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.”
M.F.K. Fisher introduces Serve it Forth by listing cookbooks as one of the three items that proves man’s ingenuity in transforming necessity into art. Indeed, her way of cataloging how we’ve viewed cuisine over the centuries shows this is the case. From the most extravagant to the most frugal, her work offers meticulous insight into our relationship with food.
A “meat and potatoes” style of cooking is mentioned with some frequency, so in honor of the mid-20th century way, I’m sharing a recipe that may have made it into the ‘50s-style kitchen. It combines happy hour and dinner, with steak tips marinated in a giant Old Fashioned. Toward the end of the book, Fisher tells us an endocrinologist told her that after a hearty meal of rare beef and wine, the earlobes turn red, and that’s the time to ask for favors or tell bad news. I’ll leave it to you to decide how to play on that. :)
Old Fashioned Marinated Sirloin Tips with Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes
Sirloin Tips Marinated in an Old Fashioned
½ cup bourbon
½ cup orange juice
½ cup cherry juice
2 lbs. sirloin tips
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut steak into 2-inch chunks. Marinate in bourbon, orange juice, and cherry juice for at least 4 hours, or overnight.
Begin by pouring enough olive oil to lightly cover the bottom of a large skillet. Add sirloin tips, reserving the marinade on the side, and cook in batches if necessary, until sear—keep it very rare at this stage! Remove beef and set aside. Add chopped onion and cook until browned. Return beef to the skillet and add the sauce. Cook down until sauce thickens and makes a nice glaze on the sirloin tips (you can add some flour or cornstarch to the sauce to speed up the thickening process.)
Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes
2 lbs. potatoes (about 6 medium)
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup buttermilk
Salt and pepper to taste
Chives, chopped (optional)
Add potatoes to large pot. Fill with water and season with salt. Boil for approximately 15-20 minutes, or until very tender. Drain. Mash in pot with butter, buttermilk, and season with salt, pepper, and chives as desired.
Serve sirloin tips over potato. Make an old fashioned for after dinner!