‘An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life. Indeed, his chance to live at all is slim, and if he should survive the arrows of his own outrageous fortune and in the two weeks of his carefree youth find a clean smooth place to fix on, the years afterwards are full of stress, passion, and danger.’ And so begins M.F.K. Fisher, jauntily, in her masterpiece Consider The Oyster.

Harriet's copy of Consider The Oyster
To find a clean smooth place to fix on, I think with longing. To open a book and discover oneself relating to a mollusc. That is M.F.K. Fisher’s genius. Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker called her and Elizabeth David the masters of ‘the mystical microcosmic’, and I think for M.F.K. Fisher that is most evident in her slender volume on oysters where, for example, she arranges these tiny creatures in a tureen of buttery stew and moves us far beyond it, so that we find we are not just reading about the oyster stew! It is never just about the stew. It is about yearning for the Sunday nights of childhood, or dreams; it is a meditation on hunger in all its forms.

M.F.K. Fisher’s obituary in The New York Times beautifully recalls a passage from The Gastronomical Me where she addresses her critics, ‘People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do. They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft. The easiest answer is to say that, like most humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. 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 of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it.’

Not so readily available over here, M.F.K. Fisher’s work is published very nicely in the US by North Point Press. On the cover of The Gastronomical Me she poses amusingly with a ceramic jug and a cat in a white shirt with a sharp pointed collar; in An Alphabet for Gourmets she looks morosely into the distance with a peculiar intensity; in How To Cook A Wolf she is defiant in a black rollneck. It is easy to marry these strange, spirited books to their author. I like her best on the cover of Consider The Oyster, howevercheerful and elegant as if she had just enjoyed ‘a supper to sleep on’ in a dim oyster bar and is preparing to charm you with a story.

 

Photograph © Ian Sanderson

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