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A Cordiall Water September 11, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Passionate as I am about food and cooking, and as many hundreds of cookbooks and food history books as I’ve collected, I’m woefully ignorant of the genre known as “food writing,” essays and memoirs related to food. I can count on one hand the books I’ve read on the topic, if we can lump all the Julia Child books (My Life in France, Passion for Life, Julie and Julia, etc.) on one finger. I’ve read Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful food adventure story, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; Ruth Reichl’s second biographical book, Comfort Me with Apples; Gary Paul Nabhan’s Coming Home to Eat; and Peter Mayle’s French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew.

But I had never read the most renowned of the modern food writers, MFK Fisher. Love her or hate her, she defined food writing in the Twentieth Century, and from everything I can see, continues to define it, it and a certain sensibility with regard to food. Food writers copy elements of her style, or her approach to food and life, or they very consciously don’t. She is the gilded Oscar on the food writer’s shelf, the taunting presence, the one to beat, the one you hope critics will compare you to: “A modern-day MFK Fisher!”

Unfortunately, I appear to be landing in the “hate her” camp. I recently stumbled on her book  A Cordiall Water: A Garland of Odd and Old Receipts to Assuage the Ills of Man and Beast in a used book store. My fascination with herbs and herbal remedies and lore is equal to my love of cooking and cookbooks, so I bought the book without a second thought. A chance to finally read MFK Fisher and to see what she has to say about old-time remedies: Talk about win-win!

Talk about win-lose. I should have paid more attention to the photo of Fisher on the back of the book rather than the topic on the front. It was so elaborately, so consciously, so preciously styled as to resemble press-release shots of starlets in the Roaring Twenties, or perhaps famed stage beauties of the 1890s. And this tone infused every chapter of what might otherwise have been a fascinating read.

It might not have been Ms. Fisher’s fault; she was born in 1908, and came to womanhood during those same Roaring Twenties, the Flapper era, when laquered waves, bobs, and helmet hats were de rigeuer, a ruler-flat figure was the height of fashion, the Ziegfeld Follies were the most popular entertainment, Tallulah Bankhead was the reigning celebrity, and F. Scott Fitzgerald and his circle set the style. The Algonquin Hotel and its “Vicious Circle” of critics and biting wits, including Dorothy Parker, flourished from 1919 to 1929. It was an artificial era, and the 1929 crash that ushered in the Great Depression smashed the brittle, manic gaiety that had defined it. 

However, other women who were her contemporaries effortlessly rose above this artificiality and brittleness and created their own styles. Julia Child (born four years later), Helen Nearing (born four years earlier), and Tasha Tudor (born seven years later) certainly spring to mind.

Ms. Fisher drew on her very privileged globe-trotting life to bring herbal remedies from Provence, Mexico, and Switzerland into her book; she also researched remedies over time and quoted sources from Mediaeval and Elizabethan England to her hero, the great French gastronome Brillat-Savarin, author of The Physiology of Taste (Physiologie du gout), published in 1825, which Ms. Fisher ultimately published in her own translation. So far, so good.

But the constant name-dropping (or, in her case, name-inferring: “a certain beautiful actress/stage star/celebrity”), the preciousness of her unendingly self-conscious lifestyle and writing style, the shocking bigotry that was somehow allowed to get into print when she published A Cordiall Water in 1961 and that was retained verbatim in the 2004 edition I bought, destroyed my appreciation of the potentially useful and educational book I was reading. I could not help but conjure up the image of a smug, superior, reptilian personality, and the taint lingered. I felt that I needed to pour one of the healing baths she recommended and soak in it a good, long time to remove the taint, the miasma, of her polluted personality.

Yes, I know I’m slaying the sacred cow here, and that I should stay my hand until I’ve read more of her 26 books. But to me, there is something tragic about a person who’s privileged to live all over the world and enjoy experiences the rest of us can only dream of, but still feels she has to name-drop by implication (“a beautiful blonde stage star”) to make her place in the world, to give herself importance. MFK Fisher seems to me the forerunner of today’s celebrity sickness: “I saw Lady Gaga! Look, here’s the pic I took on my cell! She was really walking down the street in front of me. How awesome is that!!!”

Give me the forthright types who are true to themselves and couldn’t give less of a damn about preciousness or posturing. Give me Julia, Helen, and Tasha any day. Give me Flannery O’Connor or Margaret Mead or even Margaret Mitchell. I don’t have time for pretentiousness or bogus self-importance gained by who you know rather than who you are. I’m too busy cooking and writing.

           ‘Til next time,




1. A Cordiall Water « Poor Richard's Almanac - September 11, 2010

[…] View original post here: A Cordiall Water « Poor Richard's Almanac […]

2. h.ibrahim - September 12, 2010

Interesting! never knew of the existence of this person.

She apparently had quite a life!

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