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September 10, 2008


Living on the edge of ripeness

Over Labor Day weekend, Slow Food came to San Francisco. That’s Slow Food, capitalized, as opposed to fast food, lowercased. Its arrival was preceded by a petition calling for a “New Vision for a 21st Century Food, Farm & Agricultural Policy,” which begins:

We, the undersigned, believe that a healthy food system is necessary to meet the urgent challenges of our time. Behind us stands a half-century of industrial food production, underwritten by cheap fossil fuels, abundant land and water resources, and a drive to maximize the global harvest of cheap calories. Ahead lie rising energy and food costs, a changing climate, declining water supplies, a growing population, and the paradox of widespread hunger and obesity.

Eric Schlosser describes the foodfest in this week’s Nation.

According to the Slow Food trinity, food must be “good, clean, and fair.” The “good” refers to taste; the “clean,” to local, organic, sustainable means of production; and “fair,” to a system committed to social justice.

Schlosser is impressed with the event, but not blown away.

It earned high marks for the good and the clean but next time could do a hell of a lot better with the fair. At the moment, the majority of Americans — ordinary working people, the poor, people of color — do not have a seat at this table. The movement for sustainable agriculture has to reckon with the simple fact that it will never be sustainable without these people. Indeed, without them it runs the risk of degenerating into a hedonistic narcissism for the few.

But one thing is obvious:

What had previously been considered a slogan — “slow food” — was now a genuine social movement.

“A genuine social movement.” Slow Food is serious business. Not much eating going on —even Schlosser

never made it into any of the taste pavilions at Slow Food Nation, where the ideal of “good” was amply represented.

But hard work and good intentions abound.

The original American foodie, M.F.K. Fisher, would have understood. She would have said it was all because of Queen Victoria. Yes, Her Most Gracious Majesty, By the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India. That Queen Victoria.

In an article published in 1974, Fisher describes the 19th-century development of what became the preferred mode of cooking in the United States. It apparently all began in 1846 when the queen’s chef published a book called The Modern Cook, and housewives on both sides of the Atlantic lined up to buy a copy. My Yankee mother would have been horrified to learn the origin of her cooking techniques, but they mirrored the ones adopted by these Victorian ladies. From the book, they learned to dine as Her Majesty did, with only two courses — entrée and dessert — instead of the multicourse dinners served on the decadent Continent. They chose simple sauces and used few spices, in contrast to France’ more imaginative cuisine. And in many American households, the specter of Carrie Nation joined Victoria and alcohol was banned, or at least banished to the husband’s study.

Apparently Victoria believed that “household management” was based on the stern curbing of all low animal instincts, so that kindly guidance away from them was both indicated and desirable.

In other words, food was serious business.

M.F.K. Fisher would have understood the Slow Food Movement, but I doubt that she would have joined its ranks. Her position on food was far from serious. New York Times reporter Molly O’Neill writes,

Her first book, Serve it Forth, published by Harper Brothers in 1937, took America by the shoulders and said, “Look, if you have to eat to live, you may as well enjoy it.”

And enjoy it, she did, passionately and sensuously.

Fisher, who would have turned 100 this year, is the current featured writer at the Book Club of California. Biographer Joan Reardon kicked off the exhibition Monday night with a slide show. Fisher’s books are on display in the club’s offices, surrounded by bookcases filled with other examples of fine bookmaking. But Reardon’s talk was held in a larger space usually occupied by the World Affairs Council. To get to it, members of the audience walked down a corridor lined with food — photographs from the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats.

For M.F.K. Fisher, food was all about context. What you ate acquired meaning because of the occasion on which you ate it. Randall Tarpey-Schwed, a collector of Fisher books, recalled that in The Art of Eating she

described the “subtle, and voluptuous, and quite inexplicable” pleasure that she derived from eating sections of tangerine that had been warmed on a radiator until plump and then set out on an icy, snow-packed window sill. “I cannot tell you why they are so magical. Perhaps it is that little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl, that crackles so tinily, so ultimately under your teeth. Or the rush of cold pulp after it. Or the perfume. I cannot tell.”

In the reminiscence “A Thing Shared,” she tells of a trip she took with her father and sister when she was a little girl. They stopped for dinner.

I forget what we ate, except for the end of the meal. It was a big round peach pie, still warm from Old Mary’s oven and the ride over the desert. It was deep, with lots of juice, and bursting with ripe peaches picked that noon. Royal Albertas, Father said they were.

The pie was good, but the occasion made it extraordinary.

That night I not only saw my Father for the first time as a person…. I saw food as something beautiful to be shared with people instead of as a thrice-daily necessity.

The little girl’s realization remained with her throughout her life.

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 other 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… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one.

For Fisher, eating was like a love affair. Or good sex. It was also like good therapy. In How to Cook a Wolf, written during the Great Depression and on the eve of World War II, she says,

One of the most dignified ways… to reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war’s fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill… and with our gastronomical growth will come, inevitably, knowledge and perception of a hundred other things, but mainly of ourselves.

Victoria must have turned over in her grave.

But that’s just one woman’s opinion. Thanks for reading.

        — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008