In a culinary landscape filled with molecular gastronomy, sous-vide, fancy foams, and chefs who look a lot more like engineers than cooks, how refreshing it is to come across two delicious new books celebrating a duo of pioneering food writers who championed simplicity at the table: Elizabeth David and M.F.K. Fisher.
It seems natural that At Elizabeth David’s Table and Anne Zimmerman’s An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher should have been published simultaneously, in March, since they depict women whose similar appetites were large, and whose passion for food and drink was unsurpassed. But until reading these two excellent books in the same week, it hadn’t really occurred to me how comparable the two icons of food writing were, especially in their approach to cooking, which can be distilled down to this: Do no harm.
That is, begin with the best ingredients you can get your hands on, and then don’t screw ’em up. Oh, how I wish every professional chef would read these books!
Penned by Salt Lake City native Anne Zimmerman, An Extravagant Hunger is an attempt to get at some of the psychology underlying the life situations and struggles that were the genesis of Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher’s love of food and food writing—the loves and losses that would be the psychic underpinnings of books like The Art of Eating, The Gastronomical Me, How to Cook a Wolf and Consider the Oyster.
Hunger traces Fisher’s childhood from the early days of her Episcopal family’s uncomfortable existence in the largely Quaker environs of Whittier, Calif. (home of Richard Nixon), to a young marriage and life in Dijon, Strasbourg and Nice, France, through her return to California where she would take up writing, even as she had no interest in seeing her work in print. In her journal, Fisher wrote, “I believe there are too many books, too many people writing, above all too many women writing.” Zimmerman says that for Fisher, “writing was not a career but a compulsion, something she did simply because she had to.” In part, writing was therapy for a very unhappy, unfulfilling marriage to Al Fisher.
That marriage—doomed from the start—would lead to infidelity on Fisher’s part, divorce and, eventually, to second husband Tim Parrish, who introduced her to her beloved Switzerland. Insights into Fisher’s “emotional landscape” in part come from the author’s access to private letters, journals and photos provided by Fisher’s daughter. For Zimmerman, it’s the lack of contentment and joy in Fisher’s life—including three marriages and the suicides of her brother and second husband—that led, ultimately, to her masterpieces: “Writing about culinary delights became a means of survival: Letters, journals, and other creative efforts masked an existence bruised by sadness.”
Don’t get the idea, though, that Hunger is a bummer. It’s not. It’s a fascinating read, filled with vivid descriptions of picnics, gardens, world travel, wine and meals aplenty, even sweetbreads and roasted pigeon in the hospital where Parrish’s leg was amputated following an embolism—all the things Fisher would, in time, share with a worldwide following of foodies. One wonders what the outcome might have been if Fisher had been happy.
Zimmerman writes that “Fisher believed good food was a way to abundantly enjoy life.” Fisher simply couldn’t tolerate bad cooking. Neither could Elizabeth David. In Ruth Reichl’s preface for At Elizabeth David’s Table: Classic Recipes and Timeless Kitchen Wisdom, she writes that she learned from David “it was OK—no, imperative—to get angry at bad food.” David’s book An Omelette and a Glass of Wine was one of the first ever to introduce me to good food—or, at least, good food writing. I never met her, but according to Reichl, British-born Elizabeth David did not suffer fools and, when it came to something as important as food, she abhorred corner-cutters and loathed most processed, frozen and canned foods.
That doesn’t mean that David’s meals were grand. In fact, what I like so much about David’s writing and her recipes is their straightforwardness. Her no-nonsense approach to cooking is refreshing in an era when it seems everyone needs CIA certification or an M.I.T. degree just to step into the kitchen. Most of the recipes in At Elizabeth’s David’s Table could be executed by an average cook in an average kitchen, in little time. A delicious scallops dish requires no more than sautéing chopped shallots and pancetta in butter, adding large scallops, making a quick sauce with a splash of white wine and garnishing with chopped parsley. Simple. Moules mariniére is just as easy, and so are scrumptious but simple dishes like Proven%uFFFDal tomato salad; fava beans with bacon; turkey breasts with Marsala; peaches in white wine and many more.
Even more time-consuming dishes such as roasted chicken with tarragon or Sussex stewed steak are easy enough for beginner cooks to have success with; most of the time is spent not in preparation, but doing other things while the meals slowly cook. And I’ve always loved David’s approach in the kitchen: Her recipes aren’t written in stone. Don’t like basil? Try tarragon. Substitutions are accepted, even encouraged, and her recipes read more like suggestions than formulas. For those of us who need precise direction, however, Jill Norman—who compiled the recipes for the book—provides detailed measurements and instructions.
Peppered among the recipes are David’s musings on topics ranging from fresh herbs, the markets of France, wine in the kitchen, and Italian fish markets, to an essay on her “dream kitchen.” And, for the first time ever, David’s recipes are accompanied by beautifully vivid photographs, taken by David Loftus. This is an outstanding book, and one that’s going to get a serious workout in my kitchen.