Anne Zimmerman lives in San Francisco, California, where she is writing a book about the food writer M.F.K. Fisher. Her book, An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Life of M.F.K. Fisher will be published by Counterpoint Press in Winter 2011. She lives seven blocks away from San Francisco’s famed Tartine Bakery.
Interesting take on the economical gourmet issue. I can’t help but think, however, you’re being a bit harsh on Reed. I am so thankful to have a pantry lined with occasional food splurges -- usually jams, oils and vinegars, and spices purchased as a special treat on vacations or a luxurious afternoon out. Yes, they up the average of my weekly food budget (which is lean), but isn’t that the point of stocking up? Buy some great treats when times are good so you can eat well when they aren’t? Or is that just my philosophy?
I knew I was in trouble when I asked M. what he wanted for dinner the next night and he said this:
“Whatever. I just assumed we’d have vegetables over farro... You know, your usual.”
But it got me thinking. Had I fallen into a vegetarian, roasted vegetables served over whole grains rut? Truthfully, I was kind of aware of it. All of my clipped recipes looked sort of the same: heavy on the veggies, often with thai flavors or in some sort of curry sauce, served over rice or another grain. I was trying to keep us healthy and eating lots of greens, but maybe I had gone a tad too far?
Clearly it was time to mix up my repertoire. I poured over recipes -- I searched cookbooks, the internet, my overflowing blue file full of newspaper clippings and magazine pages. Nothing was inspiring me, or even worse, the things that looked fabulous and inventive were vegetarian dishes served over whole grains.
I was stymied by the fact that M. is a great cook, and I am seriously intimidated by him. This is why I usually venture in the direction of things he is not inclined to cook -- random roasted vegetables and hard-to-find nutty whole grains. My careful choices make it less likely that I will disappoint his palate or that he’ll offer kind but pointed criticism that might bring me to tears of frustration at the dinner table.
After much searching for a stunning menu that had no greens or grains, I decided I was making this whole thing harder than it needed to be. We have a lifetime of dinners ahead of us, and I’m pretty sure he thinks I am a capable (maybe even a good) cook. Instead of worrying about it, I was going to make what I felt like eating. If he didn’t like it he could whip himself up some braised greens over white rice. That’s his go-to meal, by the way, and doesn’t it sound suspiciously like mine? It’s just that I prefer my veggies to be of the lighter green variety and my rice to be brown.
But I digress. This was dinner, nary a green garden vegetable in sight:
Balsamic Chicken and Peppers
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
salt and fresh ground pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 seeded and sliced red bell pepper
1 seeded and sliced yellow bell pepper
1 large, thinly sliced yellow onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup fresh basil
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1. Cook the chicken: season chicken generously with salt and pepper. In a large frying pan over medium high heat, warm 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add chicken and cook, turning once, until golden brown, about 7 minutes.
2. Cook the vegetables: Add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil to the same pan over medium high heat. Add the peppers and onion and saute until softened about 6 minutes. Add garlic and saute for 1 minute.
3. Finish the chicken: add the vinegar and half each of the basil and thyme and stir, scraping up the browned bits from the pan’s bottom. Return the chicken and any juices from the plate to the pan, spooning the peppers over the chicken. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the chicken is opaque throughout, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the remaining basil and thyme and season to taste with salt and pepper. Divide among four plates and serve with roasted potato wedges, or if you dare, a big green salad.
A few weeks ago, a friend loaned me a vintage cook book. “You might like to look at this,” she said. “It’s old, but fun.”
The large, flat book was published in 1968 and was the first in the Time-Life Book series, “Foods of the World.” The Cooking of Provincial France was a celebration and history of the cuisine of France, complete with recipes. The book was written by M.F.K. Fisher; gastronomes Michael Field and Julia Child served as consultants.
I sat down with a glass of rosé one evening to flip through the book. I wasn’t really expecting much. I knew that M.F.K. Fisher, a lover of all things French and a near expert on French food and culture, had written the book in her well-known and poetic style. But once the book was in the editing stage, the manuscript was heavily criticized. Julia Child thought that France had been overly romanticized in the text and that Fisher’s view of French families and cooking was simply inaccurate. Child believed the recipes reflected French haute cooking and not the family style meals created by real French women at home. She was a friend of M.F.K. Fisher but this didn’t stop her from making dozens and dozens of edits to the manuscript.
When faced with such daunting revisions, Fisher relinquished control of the manuscript and told the editors and publishers at Time-Life they could make whatever changes were required. But there was a catch -- she would not allow her name to be put on the final product. Whether she agreed with the edits Julia Child made to the manuscript or not wasn’t relevant. Fisher believed that the endless revisions would change the flavor of the book and make it into something she wasn’t sure she wanted her name on.
Later, after much convincing and cajoling, Fisher agreed to move forward with the project. Her decision was a good one – the book was a commercial success, sent to more than 500,000 Time-Life book subscribers. But even this fact irked Fisher. She hated that the book, relatively light in content, garnered her so much praise. After all, she had been working as a “serious” food writer for more than thirty years.
Because of the drama associated with the book’s publication, I was expecting a weak read. And there are parts of The Cooking of Provincial France that have not aged well in the forty years since its publication. Some of the recipes might seem uninteresting or even unappetizing to the modern cook. And the front cover with its mustard background, plain soufflé, and trio of three simple, white eggs is hardly inviting.
But the Technicolor photographs of the French people and countryside are beyond alluring -- they perfectly capture a slice of France that can still be found if you’re willing to search hard enough. There’s the photo of a Frenchman sitting in a vineyard drinking a tumbler of wine, and the shot of a very elderly woman standing tall in the middle of a meat market surrounded by baskets of just killed rabbits and rows of turkeys that still need plucking. There are photos of families gathering for mid-day meals, and a two page spread (complete with a numbered diagram) of the many, many different kinds of loaves of bread baked by the average French boulangerie.
And then there is the prose. The book is rich in description and knowledge that is so modern it seems that Fisher must have had a portal with which she could view the future of food and culture. About organic vegetables she wrote, “Today, as a thousand years ago, no reputable French gardener works without a good compost pit as his ally, one cannily layered with vegetable matter, from dead leaves to wilted lettuces or wormy apples, droppings from the hen house or the rabbit hutches, and an occasional forkful of good, fresh manure. The product of this ripe mixture is everything that the modern usage of the word “organic” implies, and it is employed as carefully as it is prepared: a sparse spading-in here, a generous spreading there, sometimes on top of the first snow, which will pull down the precious elements as it melts into the soil.”
Remember that ‘organic’ was not a selling point in 1968. Most people took it for granted that their veggies started in the ground and cared little about the soil, the sun, and potential pollutants that might impact the final product. Yet have finer words than these been written by today’s best organic farmers and real food acolytes?
And then there are her descriptions of mealtimes in France. In 1968 it was unremarkable to suggest that dining with family and friends was an important political act. Yet Fisher notes, “Conversation is almost as essential to the act of eating as is the food itself, in every reasonably normal French household, and it makes everything taste better and last longer. Worrisome subjects like school examinations, money problems, or politics are delicately avoided until digestion has set in, and even such trite subjects as the weather are considered acceptable with they are discussed with intelligence over the sliced tomatoes with chopped basil and olive oil, the boiled beef and potatoes, the green salad and the cheese.” Fisher’s reminder of the importance of sitting, talking, and enjoying food is even more important in our ‘modern’ world.
The Cooking of Provincial France is hardly M.F.K. Fisher’s finest or best known book. But it a good reminder that long before the modern food movement was born there were gastronomical pioneers who dared to preach the importance of food history, culture, and preservation. Their mighty resolve and belief that the most exquisite and memorable meals are simple, made from the best ingredients and eaten in the company of your nearest and dearest are ideas to emulate, regardless of their ‘vintage’ qualities and delivery.
I finished the book and my glass of wine and vowed to return to the book at least one more time. Who knew what other gems might be tucked inside its slightly yellowed and musty pages? I couldn’t wait to find out.
When I was a little girl my grandparents lived in Texas. Because of the distance between Texas and Utah, we didn’t get to see them very often. When we did visit them I was always very aware, searching with all my senses for clues to the kind of people they were. Every day, it seemed, they ate a half a grapefruit for breakfast. I assume they favored Texas Ruby Reds, but I don’t know. What I do remember is that the grapefruits were large, bigger than a baseball, pink, and fragrant.
Each morning my grandmother would slice one, put one half in a bowl for herself, and give the other half to my grandfather. They ate their fruit with special spoons, serrated on the edges, a rounded point at the tip. The spoon helped maneuver delicate triangles of grapefruit flesh safely from bowl to mouth.
I didn’t like grapefruit that was too tart, so some mornings I would look at the coral colored sliced fruit and turn up my nose. I was picky that way. Other mornings I was drawn to the pinky-orange hue that greeted me and made the table look bright and festive. I would sprinkle my half with spoonfuls of white granulated sugar and dig in. I always left ample pulpy leftovers and lots of juice for someone else to devour.
My grandparents were proper people. They used cloth napkins, even at breakfast, drank black coffee from porcelain cups, and set their muffins on a plate before carefully slicing them and spreading them with butter. The muffins were brown, dense, and healthy, full of bran and dark raisins. I didn’t like them much, and wished instead for the cupboard full of sugar coated cereals that could be found at my other grandmother’s house.
On their humble table it was the grapefruit that glittered, an exotic fruit not seen much at home. I sat at the table, listened to the adult conversation, and watched the careful consumption of pink fruit, black coffee, and brown muffins. It was resolute, quiet, a calm way to start the day. The birds chirped in the warm air outside the sliding doors and we sat.
As an adult I don’t eat grapefruit very often. I don’t have time in the morning – grapefruits aren’t a peel and eat fruit. When I do it is special. With just one taste of a perfectly ripe, sweet-tart grapefruit I am taken back to my grandparent’s house: their small wooden table, my grandfather’s large, wrinkled hands, and the way they shook sometimes as he carried the spoon to his mouth.
I am not a person that thinks twice about spoiling myself. I don’t spoil to excess, but I firmly believe that after a long day one deserves a nice glass of wine. And after a long week, a Saturday morning spent at a fashionable café with a delicate pastry and beautiful cappuccino is definitely in order.
But I tend to be a bit more parsimonious with my grocery buying habits. Each week I buy just enough of what I need – no more, no less. I hate throwing food away. Since I live alone I have only my stomach to rely on and if I make too much, I end the week by tossing slimy bags of produce, hard bread, and peaked leftovers into the garbage bin. I vigorously try to avoid this waste, both for economic and philosophical reasons.
On a recent morning I stood among the swirling people at the farmer’s market and contemplated asparagus. I love asparagus. It is one of my favorite foods. I try to eat as much of it as possible while it is in season, knowing that I won’t have it the other nine to ten months of the year. I’d eaten a lot of asparagus this week, two large bunches to be exact, and I’d loved every green roasted spear. But both bouquets of asparagus came from the grocery store, flown in from another state and a tad mottled around the stems and edges. Now, here, fresh from the farm were rows and rows of perfect, tender asparagus. They were, my boyfriend would say, calling to me.
I mentally ran through my week, thinking of the meals I would make, the evenings I had planned. Could I eat all this beautiful asparagus? It was a challenge, but I felt like I must buy the asparagus or I would regret it immensely. I fingered my five dollar bill and then handed it over to the merchant. He gave me my change and I grabbed a bunch of asparagus, put it down, than picked another.
“That’s the one you want?” He said, eyeing the paltry bunch. “It’s small.”
“I know,” I said reluctantly, looking at the others.
“They’re all priced the same,” he said, a large bunch in his hand. “Some are just bigger. Take that one.” He pointed to a large, very large bunch of delicate asparagus. My eyes widened a bit.
“But I live alone,” I said. “How much asparagus can a single girl really eat?” I was mentally dividing the bunch into meals and realizing I would be eating a lot of asparagus for the next few days.
The merchant smiled. “If you live alone then there is nobody telling you what to eat. You can eat all the asparagus you want.”
“Asparagus followed by a chocolate bar?” I said coyly.
“Ha!” He said as he reached out to take another person’s money. “Asparagus followed by a chocolate bar.”
And so it was.
Change in our kitchens
Reflections on cooking — and a career that’s based largely at the stove.
Flatbreads from around the continent
Beyond a supporting role
The great Sicilian-Neapolitan kitchen rivalry
Five ideas each month for eating better