Saturday, February 6, 2010

Feasting on Life

If you are a regular reader of this blog, then you already know the premise on which I based it–M.F.K Fisher's collection of essays entitled The Gastronomical Me. If you are new to the blog, then hello there! And welcome to an exercise in fostering an obsession.

I am not the only one to be infatuated with M.F.K.'s style, grace, and intelligence when it comes to food, life and way with the written word. Joan Acocella, New Yorker critic and all around mighty mind when it comes to culture, put together a wonderful collection of her essays entitled Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, which covers exactly what it says. Aritists range from dancers and choreographers, writers, composers, musicians, to two saints: Joan of Arc and Mary Magdalene. She covers dance regularly for the New Yorker, and so many of the essays skew in that vein, which is a-ok with me, since I have become increasingly fascinated with ballet ever since reading Julie Kavanagh's incredible biography of Rudolph Nureyev. I have always thought Barishnikov is possibly one of the sexiest men alive, and like Patrick Stewart, he's only got better with age. Yum. And my wonderment when it comes to Vaslav Nijinsky, possibly The Greatest Dancer of All Time, is to the point where I would love to commission a book on it if only material on him, outside of scant photographs and an incredibly sad medical history is available (he was overcome with schizophrenia very young and he spent the remainder of his life scared, paranoid, and locked away under heartbreaking conditions in an asylum).

Acocella also includes an essay on M.F.K., written in response to the publication of a collection of her letters in 1998. Fisher's published writings are already so intensely personal, that to read her letters, a part of me almost felt voyeuristic, peering into the few parts of her left she had chosen to leave private. Nevertheless, I was not able to "look" away, and neither are countless others.

Much "fuss" has already been made over the moral beauty of Fisher's writing, and much more still has been made by the fact that most believe her to be the first to truly link food with the sensual and make it one and the same with other "pleasure's of the flesh." In her forward to The Gastronomical Me, she addresses the frequent question people posed towards her in those days–why a food writer? "Why didn't she write about the struggle for power and security and love, and about love, the way others do."

Her answer was: "It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write about hunger I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it...and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied...and it is all one."

Wise words, and while Fisher herself is so much more than these shamanesque sayings, and as seen by the experiences of her own sad life, food, security and love were not all one. Food was easier to get.

Fisher married a man named Al Fisher right out of college and moved with him to Paris in 1929. There is no doubt in my mind that she loved him, as there are instances in Gastronomical Me about Al that are extremely touching. Nevertheless, theirs was a love without passion. Al was a good man, a kind man, but something was missing, and Fisher left him after five years after falling in love with a friend, the painter Dillwyn Parrish, whom she refers to in her writings as Chexbres.

Theirs was one of those "great loves," and reading about it is enough to break your heart. It is what I believe everyone is searching for--that one person with whom you have a shared passion, but with whom you can also just be. To be in each other's company was as joyous as more heady romantic fare, which is what makes what happens next all the more wretched.

Dillwyn suffered an embolism in his leg after a year and had to have it amputated, but the pain did not go away. Soon he was diagnosed with Buerger's disease, a fatal circulatory disorder where your body basically "dies off" bit by bit as your circulatory fails, and it is excrutiatingly painful. Fisher knew she and Dillwyn did not have much time left, and so every moment, from ship trips to and from Switzerland, where he was seeking treatment, to evenings gazing out at the forest, she relished every moment where they could just be.

They would stay up nights laughing and talking, sipping cognac and red wine and savoring every bit of food, every concert they heard, having no choice but to live in the now. As his condition deteriorated, Dillwyn could not even walk unless she held him upright, so great was his pain.

I have this image of them, sitting in front of a fire on a trans-Atlantic voyage back to Switzerland, enjoying eachothers' company and talking, yet never talking about the future. That to me is the most poignant thing of all, as I personally derive so much pleasure from talking with Vronsky about all the weird trips we want to take, what we want to do next weekend, when are we going to plan a trip out west to see X, what new restaurants we want to try, the pair of impossible shoes I covet for spring. Most of it is silly and nonsensical, but to be without it is something I cannot imagine. Sure, we could all be blown away tomorrow, but for us there is always hope. Fisher and Dillwyn have no hope in these last months. They have no choice but to enjoy that croissant just as it is, like Brenin, with no expectations for what tomorrow might or might not bring.

One day, unable to bear the torment any longer, Dillwyn took his own life. Fisher, reeling from grief and unable to write, paced through the house they shared and dictated her famous "How To Cook A Wolf," which is one of Acocella's favorites, and mine. She certainly had her own "wolf" to cook, a wolf a lesser person might have never faced head on. After loosing Dillwyn, that ever present hunger for food, security and love now seemed harder to satisfy than ever. Yet she lived to the ripe old age of 84, and according to Acocella, was a fine, grouchy old lady, who never failed to tell it like it is and is how I too hope to age. Feisty and determined to "feast on life" until the end, creating, sharing and enjoying food, living in Nappa and Sonoma, writing and cooking wondrous meals for her friends and family. She relates in her final letters that she is very tired, and while she doesn't neccessarily feel any smarter ("I don't feel very wise"), she she certainly feels less alone. And so too, do we.

1 comment:

  1. Sad and poignant, but a great story, Gastro Jess. At least she experienced life to the fullest. That is all we can hope to do in life.

    Life, drink, laugh, and eat good food. That's not so bad either.

    Maybe in the food capital of the world, even....