I was drawn to pick up prolific American food author M.F.K. Fisher’s Love in a Dish and Other Pieces following my reading of Laura Freeman’s memoir, The Reading Cure. Food and literature are two of my favourite things, and when they combine, magic can happen. That is entirely what I was expecting from my first taste of Fisher’s work.
Love in a Dish and Other Pieces brings together Fisher’s ‘intimate culinary essays [which] are well-loved American classics, combining recipes with her anecdotes, reminiscences, cultural observations and passionate storytelling.’ Pieces which span her career have been selected by Anne Zimmerman, and each is described as ‘a perfectly crafted work of art’. Love in a Dish and Other Pieces contains eleven essays in all, including the marvellously titled ‘I was Really Very Hungry’, and ‘Let the Sky Rain Potatoes’.
In 1929, Fisher travelled to Dijon, France, with her new husband. Here, she became enamoured with French cuisine, and ‘learned how to live and eat well and economically’. When she returned to the USA in 1932, a country at the mercy of the Great Depression, she began to write her essays. I thoroughly enjoyed the details which she shared about shopping when living in France, which is an experience in itself. She says that living in the country for an extended period allowed her to learn how to shop more efficiently: ‘Saturday mornings, there would always be a few crates of fresh vegetables. I could buy, for instance, little artichokes, new potatoes, carrots, courgettes, tomatoes, bananas; bread and butter and milk, of course, and some Gruyère cheese; a couple of soup sausages; and a copy of the weekly Mickey comics for the children. In the middle of the week, though, the stock at the store might consist of some dusty packages of noodles, a few big cubes of yellow laundry soap, and penny caramels for the twenty-eight children of the school district.’
Throughout, Fisher’s tone is chatty and warm. She clearly delights in revisiting her often amusing recollections. In ‘I was Really Very Hungry’, for instance, she writes: ‘Once I met a young servant in northern Burgundy who was almost frighteningly fanatical about food, like a medieval woman possessed by a devil. Her obsession engulfed even my appreciation of the dishes she served, until I grew uncomfortable.’ The title essay follows a similar theme, of lavish course after lavish course pressed upon her whilst in France; more food is pressed upon her than she can eat, all with the insistence of an exuberant waitress. She also imparts details about members of her family; her Victorian grandmother, for instance, who, with all of her ‘neuroses… found salads generally suspect, but would tolerate the occasional serving of some watery lettuce in a dish beside each plate.’
The content in Love in a Dish and Other Pieces is remarkably varied. Fisher tells of the history of potatoes, and how we came to eat them. There is an entire extended discussion on how to perfectly boil an egg. Throughout is her absolute devotion to culinary exploits. In ‘Once a Tramp, Always…’, she writes: ‘One does not need to be a king or mogul to indulge most, if not all, of his senses with the heady enjoyment of a dish – speaking in culinary terms, that is.’ Sating her senses is a true pleasure for Fisher, and she describes doing so in such evocative prose: ‘I can say just as surely that this minute, in a northern-California valley, I can taste-smell-hear-see and then feel between my teeth the potato chips I ate slowly one November afternoon in 1936, in the bar of the Lausanne Palace.’
The pieces here are all relatively short, but none feel brief; rather, their content has been so carefully considered, and as such, they feel like expansive, extended essays. Fisher is an impassioned author who has a lot to say, and much wisdom to impart. Each piece here is incredibly engaging, and I appreciated that she included so many easy-to-follow recipes.
Fisher is an excellent and entertaining writer, and I wish I had picked up her work years ago. What cheers me is that I have so many of her essays left to read; I am immensely keen to do so. Love in a Dish and Other Pieces is a wonderful blend of memoir and food writing, with the fondest of memories tied up with meals eaten and shared.