Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Stew or a Story

"It seems incredible that normal human beings not only tolerate the average American restaurant food, but actually prefer it to eating at home. The only possible explanation for such deliberate mass poisoning, a kind of suicide of the spirit as well as the body is that meals in the immediacy of the dining room or kitchen are unbearable.

...There can be no warm, rich home life anywhere else if it does not exist at table."

MFK Fisher, Love in a Dish (House Beautiful, 1948)

Vince and I have not been married for very long, and we have lived together for less time than that. But sitting down and sharing our evening meal is a high point of the day, when it happens - we have divergent schedules. But we do not find each other's company unbearable. Today we realized that we have not eaten out together once this year since returning from Cape Town in March. And we haven't missed it. We eat at home. And the food is very good. I shop almost every day for the small details of each meal, and few take more than 30 minutes to prepare. I mention this because a new wave of helpful cooks is telling us that dinner is possible with 30 minutes' work. So what's new? Saying it is in itself a sort of inflicted pressure. Like being told to grow edible things even though we've been doing that for years. It's just that now that They have found out about it, We feel under pressure to do it more...loudly?

Of course for the cooking at home you need a basic pantry (mine is about 2 cubic feet), and of course you need a freezer and a fridge to cut down on your shopping time. But it is the daily lemon, or bunch of parsley, or single red onion, or perfect pineapple, that lends the magic to what you already have. I do not have meal plans. I have desire.

And what you need for that dinner, above all, is the willingness to please and to be pleased.

"The way in which mealtimes are passed is most important to what happiness we find in life."

Brillat Savarin

I bought a volume of MFK's hitherto uncollected works, A Stew or a Story (2007). I had no idea there was anything by this woman that I had not read. In fact I'd been on a diet for years. I haven't read any of her work, or her letters, for at least five years. I think I was afraid of beginning to absorb her by osmosis, and to lose track of where she ended and I began. Where does one's own shape begin? Where do our teacher's shapes end?

But now there's more to read, and I will lose myself in recognition, dog-earing pages like mad, and stopping at the butchers to buy a big steak...

"...slapped onto a grill as hot as hell-fire and as searing. No turning fork would ever prick it and when it would finally be carved into long thin slices at the table, its juices would gush from it the color of garnets."

..and turning the town upside down for some perfect watercress.

And that is how I cook a steak. And yet it was Hemingway who taught me about the watercress, long before I knew anything. About how shocked the French were that these cafes would dare to serve bifsteak with watercress. No sauce!

He could write about food. I haven't read Hemingway in ten years; almost: eight. His sentences became so short. So I read Faulkner as an antidote. Hemingway ate better.

Yet I never used an MFK recipe. Quite the opposite with Elizabeth David, whose writing sang in the recipes. MFK writes about food and humans, Elizabeth David teaches technique without ever letting on that she is doing so. Imagine them both at the same table. I am not aware that they ever mentioned the other. Singular, brilliant, beautiful women. They would hate each other. Why?

And I have lost my drift. I'm just happy to have found the book. And just a little afraid. I might find a lot of Mary Frances in the things that I had begun to think of as Marie.

For the rest of the week's blog I intend to get back to South Africa. We have mountain kingdoms and a frightening pass, flowers in the mist, racing dassies, dust roads and a flood, endless plains and their African light, and an utterly delicious tomato bredie cooked in the coals, as well as...the biker from Patensie.

See you there.


  1. Preparing a meal for the people you love and eating it together with them is really one of life simple pleasure, yet it is so rewarding.
    Looking forward to South Africa :-)

  2. I know nothing of those writers (hemingway and faulkner excepted), but you've changed the direction of my cooking on many evenings.

  3. I love your point about feeling we have to do these basic things we've probably already been doing "louder" as if to legitimize them...to whom, I wonder?

    I am still loving the cat's red sweater. I'm sure he is still hating it, but whenever I see him here, looking quite a bit like a cat hand-puppet, it just cracks me up.

  4. it's all becoming quite silly.... common sense seems to have been bred out of humans over the years...

    Nobody knows about basic foods..or prepares meals ..or even wants to do so anymore. They'd much rather eat at those mediocre restaurants... ... ingesting tons of gloppy fats and wondering why their bodies begin to resemble just that. Then, claim no time to cook because they must go to the gym...... sigh....

  5. A very good post Marie. Sent me off burrowing in books......

  6. Ata girl ! Now get on to Nigel Slater

  7. Food, since ancient times, has been the currency of love.
    To have it so demeaned by bean counters and chemists and lazy eaters is to...make me reach for my Ada Boni or Elizabeth David or Jane Grigson.
    I'm not much of a cook, but I do respect what I eat.

  8. so "eg"... having grown up with "an ordentlike bord kos" I feel lucky not to have experienced the era of processing and packaging, was a wide-eyed (gobsmacked) wonderer when first encountering pancakes with blueberries included!! in a cardboard box? How did this become food? and we might need a rant on the impact of the microwave on home cooks.....

  9. In all this, I seem like the most fortunate one...

  10. loving this./ and marinating chicken parts for deener...


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