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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Kate Christensen on “swashbuckling, earthy, fearless” M.F.K. Fisher

The Astral by
Kate Christensen
(Doubleday, 2011)
Kate Christensen, whose most recent book is The Astral: A Novel (2011), joins our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, history, essays, and poetry. In December 2011 Christensen started blogging about food and here she celebrates the writer she continually returns to for replenishment and inspiration.
Reading great food writing has always made me want to write about food, much the way eating a great meal makes me want to cook. Reading and eating are connected the way writing and cooking are: in the first case, you’re consuming something essential, and in the second, you’re creating something essential for other people. Food, like literature, nourishes, delights, and connects. And no food writer has ever inspired me more than M.F.K. Fisher. I love to reread all her greatest books, among them Consider the Oyster, The Art of Eating, Serve it Forth, How to Cook a Wolf, An Alphabet for Gourmets, and The Gastronomical Me
Fisher writes about her life in food in compressed diamonds of prose. Experiences, personal history, adventures, and reflections are all presented through the lens of food–eating is life, and vice versa. She gives recipes, but they’re incorporated into the prose itself, not as diktats, but as a natural part of the narrative thread. “There in Dijon,” she writes in “The Measure of My Powers,” “the cauliflowers were small and very succulent, grown in that ancient soil. I separated the flowerlets and dropped them in boiling water for just a few minutes. Then I drained them and put them in a wide shallow casserole, and covered them with heavy cream, and a thick sprinkling of freshly grated Gruyère, the nice rubbery kind that didn’t come from Switzerland at all, but from the Jura. It was called râpé in the market, and was grated while you watched, in a soft cloudy pile, onto your piece of paper.” 
Some of her anecdotes are so memorable, I recall them as if they were my own memories: her first oyster at a boarding-school party; shelling peas for a simple supper at Le Pâquis, her house in Vevey, Switzerland; a meal at an inn, alone, after hiking, during which she was held hostage by an invisible, frustrated genius of a chef and stuffed full of one gobsmacking delicacy after another until she could hardly rise from the table to walk home. She writes with equal objectivity and artfulness about the art of dining alone in a restaurant and the terrible sadness of losing the love of her life: every experience, whether mundane or extraordinary, is made thrilling. No matter what happens, she implies in every line, without saying it outright, there is always an adventure to be had in a good meal. 
As an eater and drinker, she was swashbuckling, earthy, and fearless. I love her wry, understated descriptions of meals, many of which include quantities of wine and astonishing, even potentially dangerous courses, such as this dinner she and her first husband had in Dijon as newlyweds: “We ate terrines of pâté ten years old under their tight crusts of mildewed fat. We tied napkins under our chins and splashed in great odorous bowls of Ecrivesses à la nage. We addled our palates with snipes hung so long they fell from their hooks, to be roasted then on cushions of toast softened with the paste of their rotted innards and fine brandy.” 
This is riveting stuff, but she writes with just as much artful élan about a simple, junky supper she had in her California house years later, a summer-evening meal of nothing but beer and potato chips. Fisher was anything but a food snob. She lived to eat, ate to live, wrote to eat, ate to write. Her narrative voice is simultaneously clear and opaque, ironic and passionate, elliptical and dilatory. Her books are also simultaneously satisfying and tempting. Although she writes with precision and sensual detail, I often find, as I read her, that I’m reaching like Tantalus for a receding apple, yearning for whatever she’s leaving out, which might be as simple as the actual taste of the food she’s describing, or the immediate sound of her voice in my ear. Like every great cook, and writer, Fisher satisfies hunger in the moment while creating a larger, deeper appetite for more.
Anyone familiar with Kate Christensen’s fiction knows how important food can be to her characters. Commenting on her third novel, The Epicure’s Lament, Sam Lipsyte wrote, “What a wonderfully monstrous voice Kate Christensen has created in Hugo Whittier, trust-fund misanthrope, chain-smoking foodie, confirmed cad. His narration is as rich and textured as his Lobster Newburg, which I can almost taste.” Her fourth novel, The Great Man, won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award. Reviewing her most recent novel in The Miami Herald, Andrew Ervin noted, “Christensen . . . amps up the tension, suspense, and pathos until it feels like the book could ignite in your hands. She’s a spectacular author who’s only beginning to get the attention she so richly deserves. . . The Astral, artfully composed and emotionally tender, is evidence of true literary genius.” Christensen lives in Portland, Maine and rural New Hampshire and is currently writing two food-related books, Blue Plate Special: a Memoir and a new novel, Gin on the Lanai, about rival food writers on Kauai.

Also of interest:

Related LOA books: American Food Writing: An Anthology with Classic Recipes (includes Fisher’s “A Lusty Bit of Nourishment” about oysters and “Define This Word” about the post-hike feast Christensen cites); Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology (includes “Pacific Village,” Fisher’s first published essay, and “A Thing Shared” about her first memorable meal, at age ten)

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