Crumbs From the Corner: Adventures in Woolgathering

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Eating Words

"If heaven has a taste it must be an egg with butter and salt, and after the egg is there anything in the world lovelier than fresh warm bread and a mug of sweet golden tea?"
-from the book 'Angela's Ashes' by Frank McCourt

Musing on those words, it occurs to me that just the right blend of description can provoke a reader into longing for something good to eat. Truthfully I yearn for what is laid before us in that evocative paragraph.
Spouse and I have just received a copy of 'The Art of Eating' by M.F.K. Fisher, an erudite and charming food writer. Beginning in the 1930s, she wrote numerous essays and books on the gathering, preparing and eating of sumptuous dishes. This particular book comprises five of her best books.
Times were so often hard and when there were food shortages in her life Fisher improvised and created magical dishes out of almost nothing.
I recently checked the enticing volume out of the local library; against our practice of owning more books at such an uncertain time in our lives we subsequently bought a copy, understanding immediately that it ought to be as much a part of any household as the edible contents of a fridge.
We love reading, and we heartily enjoy food- the work of this thoughtful lady wrapped both of those habits into a marvellous feast both metaphorically and culinary-wise.
It is an oddity but I find myself both hungry and satiated when I read a passage from the collection of more than 700 pages.
Her palatable hymns to the simple potato, and to the oyster, are unsurpassed in literature; her depiction of good taste and perseverance amid financial struggles is a mark of her strength; Fisher's triumphant words leap from the page and stir my hunger like no book has ever done.
This gastronomer's work is, of course, about so much more than food. Rather like an onion, so to speak, it has layer upon layer, all touching upon old fashioned table practices, patience in cooking, slow, methodical rhythm of fetching and cleaning and slicing and cutting and grilling and, finally, tasting, swallowing, eating. It tells of an entirely different way of life and how the ritual of eating enfolds itself around occasions both momentous and slight.
On the baking of bread, for example, Fisher suggests that it is:
..."one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with one of the world's sweetest smells...there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel. that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread."
It whets my appetite and is one of the most graceful and richly satisfying books that has ever fallen into my hands.
I must simply remember never to indulge in it when I am out of reach of food.


Anonymous said...

Your quote from Angela's Ashes had me drooling. Enjoyed reading. Great job.


Nan said...

Beautifully written. I'd like to read the potato section - my favorite food. :<) And from the photos I've seen, she was thin. How'd she do that?? I have A Life in Letters but haven't read it yet.

Phyllis Hunt McGowan said...

Steve- thanks for commenting. That's good 'feed'-back, so to speak!

Nan- thank you! The title of that piece is from a Shakespeare quote "Let the Sky Rain Potatoes" and the opening line is:
"There are two questions which can easily be asked about a potato: What is it, and Why is it?"
A good start, I think.

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