Eat Words: I met MFK Fisher on OKCupid

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‘Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken.’

(Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf)

I was called elizabethdavid when I met MFK Fisher for the first time. It happened last summer in the inbox of my OKCupid profile, the online dating site that I had joined a few months earlier. For my first attempt at online romance, I was too shy to use my real name and so borrowed from one of my favourite (food) writers. It was a very nerdy move. Most people sending me messages didn’t get it  – and why the hell should they? – it wasn’t part of my criteria that they should. I went dates with two people in total. The first, in March, just after joining was with a well travelled Australian lawyer who perfectly nice, but not for me, and I declined a second meeting.

When you see lots of online profiles, you start noticing patterns in how people present themselves. I was looking at male profiles and I saw a lot of ‘in-jokes’ relating to the Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy; there were a lot who chose Shawshank Redemption as their favourite film (fine, but snore); there were a lot who wrote ‘I don’t take myself seriously’ – which made me think: really? If you don’t, then why should I?! Without even realising at first you start ruling people out based on small linguistic clues that suggest they’re not you’re ‘type’. After all, apart from a couple of photos, online dating is thoroughly language-based affair: the opening line is everything. I received over 100 messages in my first week of joining the site (when OKC promotes your profile) and a fairly steady stream after that. It was overwhelming: how could I possible differentiate? Getting the first few words right, is essential. ‘Hi sexy’ or ‘How r u’? were popular approaches from men whose pictures excluded their face and just showed their torsos. These elicited no response from me. A sleazy married man in his 40s asked to have an affair. I advised that he seek therapy. There were also many ‘nearlys’ who were really very nice, but whose references and words didn’t quite do it for me. In searching foe people to date or have a romance with online, you become acutely aware of how much of a ‘type’ you indeed, are, through the ways in which you approve or reject other people.

In between March and June when I went on my second date, I didn’t really use the site and stopped looking – nothing seemed right.

What worked for me, it turned out, was MFK Fisher, a woman whose name I did not know before 17th June 2014. Sam, whose pseudonym referred to a popular form of knitwear originating on the island of Guernsey (he was knitting one at the time), wrote these words to me: ‘Hullo, I have so much time for Elizabeth David, have you read any MFK Fisher?’ In my group of friends, many of whom I have no doubt bored talking about my favourite cookery writers, I am usually ‘the one’ who is asked about recipe books. I had even positioned myself as an expert on OKC through my choice of dating name, so I was caught by surprise that I didn’t know Fisher. I googled her and I found out that she was the author of many books on food with such fabulous titles as ‘How to Cook a Wolf’ (1942) and ‘Consider the Oyster’ (1941). She was also the author of a translation of gastronomic essayist Brillat Savarin’s (1755-1826) The Physiology of Taste (La Physiologie du Gout) first published in 1825. Her commanding black and white portrait stared out from the cover of her books online and I was in awe. The specificity of Sam’s words was exciting and showed care and attention to detail, as well as shared interest. There ensued many more messages a high number of which, discussed things we’d cooked for our friends and families and now, a year later, we share a kitchen.

He gave me two volumes by Fisher for Christmas, those just mentioned in fact. Her prose style is very old fashioned. She writes is if she is speaking to you, or perhaps just to herself, posing many rhetorical questions and making overblown, aphoristic statements. The text makes frequent use of ellipses and parenthesis, sometimes both at once and she interrupts herself in later editions with commentary on her earlier thoughts. At times though, she writes sentences that as so good, they could be poetry. For example:

‘Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken.’

She continues

‘Until then, you would think its secrets are its own, hidden behind the impassive beautiful curvings of its shell, white or brown or speckled. It emerges full-formed, almost painlessly [The egg may not be bothered, but nine yeras and two daughters after writing this I wonder somewhat more about the hen. I wrote, perhaps, too gliby.] from the hen. It lies without thought in the straw, and unless there is a thunderstorm or a sharp rise in temperature it stays fresh enough to please the human palate for several days.

(p.53, How to Cook a Wolf)

***Swoon!***

This is from a book in which she advises people how to cook in straightened times during and after WWII when food was rationed and is full of useful, outdated and eccentric advice as well as many excellent recipes that take in to account limited resources – such as Eggs in Hell (Uova in Purgatorio) (p.62) which suggests that if you can’t get tomato sauce ‘catsup will do’ and Cold Buttermilk Soup (p.38) with shrimps, cucumber and dill. The book also includes recipes for how to make soap and mouthwash(!)

How to Cook a Wolf (and Fisher in general) is a pleasure to read whether or not you intend to use her recipes. As an anthropological document too, it offers plentiful insight (and criticism) of popular dietary wisdom during and after the war.

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