Not So Long Ago in France: Revisiting the Work of MFK Fisher

| May 31, 2012

A few weeks ago, I made my bittersweet return to North Carolina Blue Ridge mountains from Burgundy, France.  I feel at home in both of these regions, so I hardly regret leaving one for the other. After my last several-month stint in Dijon though, I’ve started revisiting the writings of fellow Francophiles whose words continuously and shamelessly exaggerate my nostalgia.

Poulet e Fromage

Mary Francis Kennedy Fisher (better known as MFK Fisher) is at the top of my, and many other’s, “francophile food lovers” reading list. Considered to be one of America’s pioneering food writers, Fisher published many personal reflections memoirs on food and traveling during her lifetime.  Her prose still influences writers of all genres, whether or not what they eat and drink is their muse.

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Source: The Second Lunch "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? 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. . . There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk. » - MFK Fisher

In some ways, I feel like I have some unique qualities in common with Fisher. We’re American women who enjoy travel and writing. We both discovered Dijon and France during our early twenties (both of her former apartments are a five minute walk from where I live).  And we’re both gourmand: a French term describing someone who is fond of food and eating well.

Even still, the France that she describes is very different than the France that I know. Given that three-quarters of the 20th century lie between our experiences, it’s quite likely that Fisher wouldn’t recognize much of the town where she spent her early adulthood.  The turnover of shops, changes in transportation, rise of fast food, and overall variety of available products have understandably changed the face of the town’s food culture since the early 1930s.

Yet sometimes when I read her words, this historical difference fades, and the Dijon I know seems to still be the Dijon that she knew:

“There in Dijon, the cauliflowers were very small and succulent, grown in that ancient soil. I separated the flowerlets and dropped them in boiling water for just a few minutes. Then I drained them and put them in a wide shallow casserole, and covered them with heavy cream, and a thick sprinkling of freshly grated Gruyere, the nice rubbery kind that didn’t come from Switzerland at all, but from the Jura. It was called rapé in the market, and was grated while you watched, in a soft cloudy pile, onto your piece of paper.” -MFK Fisher, The Art of Eating

For this reason, I happily recommend the following books to my fellow gourmands:

Long Ago in France: The Years in Dijon

This brief memoir chronicles her and her newlywed husband’s three-year stay in Dijon.  Enamored by both her spouse and French culture, Fisher describes the young couple’s gustatory indulgences in and around the Burgundian region’s capital, as well as her own coming-of-age experience.  In her own words: “It was [in Dijon], I now understand, that I started to grow up, to study, to make love, to eat and drink, to be me and not what I was expected to be…”


The Physiology of Taste by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (translated by MFK Fisher)

Largely recognized as one of the most famous food books ever written, The Physiology of Taste (originally published in 1825 and has yet to go out of print) defined gastronomy and what it means to be gourmand.  Fisher’s translation introduced Brillat-Savarin’s message to a more widespread Anglophone audience, and has since become a classic text for anyone interested in food, eating, and/or drinking.  Fisher’s personal translation notes account for roughly a quarter of the text!     

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  1. Belinda says:

    You make me want to pick up Art of Eating again!!