Today is the 20th anniversary of M.F.K. Fisher’s death, so in tribute and at the request of her friend Leo Racicot, I am reposting this, something I wrote last year after attending Barbara Wheaton’s “Reading Historic Cookbooks” seminar at Harvard.
Sometimes words, both spoken and written, take on terrible power.
Use the wrong word and, at the sound, someone’s heart may crash to the bottom of their chest. Whisper another word and the soul flies straight up to heaven, if there is one. Or at least the listener might feel something akin to the euphoria of a saint in ecstasy.
Actually, the same can be said of cooks. A heavy hand with the pepper might lead the eater straight to that musty bottle of Tums at the bottom of the bathroom drawer, while a light hand with the whipping cream almost always ensures closed eyes and breathy smiles and other marvelous sensations.
M. F. K. Fisher
While a lot of people might not appreciate the work of M. F. K. Fisher, there’s something powerful and ecstatic about the way she grabbed onto the smallest experience and breathed life into it with words.
I’d forgotten about M. F.’s power with words, until I walked up the worn granite stairs to the second floor of the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, where I attended Barbara Ketcham Wheaton’s 2011 seminar on “Reading Historic Cookbooks.” Knowing about recipes is not enough – you need to know about the lives of the writers, their cultural and historical milieu, their motivation for producing their work, all obvious questions. The pieces make up the whole.
Only part of the steps of circular staircase showed, the rest covered with a black anti-slip material, cut into strange wave-like patterns, possibly hiding worn areas, not unlike the floor of Notre Dame in Paris, where you feel rather than see the impact of thousands of feet on the cold stone floor. Smooth, slippery, shiny, and silent.
In the reading room – a quiet, cool space, with late afternoon sunlight blazing through tall windows reaching to the ceiling – I waited patiently as the librarian rolled her two-shelve cart toward me. Two light green boxes rocked back and forth on the top of the beige metal, clacking quietly as the wheels bumped across the pale grey carpet. As she walked away, I stuck my thumbs under the flap of the first box and popped open the box. Filled with the characteristic rectangular files found in any archives, the boxes contained riches far more valuable than rubies, at least to me.
An anonymous archivist’s precise pencilings led me to the files I wanted to read – letters written by Julia Child and M. F. K. Fisher to each other.
Julia Child’s La Pitchoune
Like a fan from any time in history, in awe of a writer of magnificence, Julia Child wrote to M. F. K. Fisher on May 27, 1966, inviting M. F. to visit her and her husband Paul in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At that time, M. F. was working on the rather ill-received Time-Life edition of The Cooking of Provincial France with Michael Field. In fact, she and Field stayed and worked at Julia’s French house, La Pitchoune. (1) M. F. replied to Julia on June 6, 1966 that she would be delighted to meet Julia in Boston on August 3, 1966. Julia, who by that time was probably more famous than M. F. , replied that she would meet M. F. She also told M. F. that she needed to consider “Haute versus Bourgeoise? That is something to hassel [sic] with Michael [Field] about.” M. F. thought the title too close to Elizabeth David’s book (French Provincial Cooking) and preferred “Cooking of the French Provinces.” In that first letter, M. F. described Julia as a “quiet kitchen breeze clearing the kitchen murk.”
And so, on August 3, Julia waited at Logan Airport for Air France flight #19 from Paris.
Almost twenty years later, on September 7, 1982, M. F. wrote of that day, not just any day, but the day that two of the most influential writers on French cuisine in twentieth-century America met face-to-face for the first time:
And there you were, standing at the bleak airport gate like a familiar warm beacon … old tennis shoes, a soft cotton shirtmaker … tall boarding school teenager from Pasadena. We’d met before, not in this life but somehow. I went happily along with you, and felt home again.
That night in Cambridge, in a big cool house that was like the ones I’d always known in Southern California, an editor from Time-Life dined with us, and was puzzled at how little the summer’s work seemed to matter to anything but his project. We ate a jambon persillé you were experimenting with.
It is all part of my life … the real part, the best.
Way before that day, though, M. F. said to Julia, in a letter dated August 21, 1966:
These things do not happen often [friendship], and when they do they can be rather scary.
However fleeting, our encounters lead to many things, she implies. Food and meals form the threads, but it is us in our humanness that weaves it all together.
Jambon Persillé (Parsleyed Ham in Aspic)
From Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol.2, by Julia Child and Simone Beck, p. 310:
As described in the introduction to this seciton, jambon persille is a Burgundian creation. Inevitably when dealing with well-known regional specialties, there are dozens of variations and minor version, and always hundreds of very definite opinions on how to conduct teach step. Among the considerable number of serious and trustworthy formulas we have studied, this is the one we prefer.
A note on store-bought ham: If you are not using home-cured ham, buy 6.5 to 7 pounds of bone-in, ready-to-bake, mild-cured smoked ham or picnic shoulder. Omit step 1, proceeding directly to the simmering in Step 2; skin and bone the ham after cooking.
For 2.5 to 3 quarts of ham, serving 12 to 16.
1) Soaking the ham: 12 to 24 hours.
4 to 6 pounds of boned, home-salted fresh ham or shoulder-arm, and the salted ham rind
Soak the ham and the rind in a large basin of cold water, changing water 2 to 3 times. Overnight is enough for ham cured about 15 days, soak for 18 to 24 hours if ham has cured longer. (Soaking removes the preserving salt, not the flavor.)
2) Simmering the ham.
1 bottle best quality, young, strong, dry white wine (Cotes du Rhone or Pinot Blanc), OR 3 cups dry white French vermouth
3 cups bouillion made from ham bones or a mix of beef and chicken
1 tsp thyme )
2 Tb tarragon, all tied in cheesecloth
4 allspice berries
2 imported bay leaves
2 large cloves garlic
1 large onion, roughly chopped
1 medium carrot, roughly chopped
1 celery stalk
Place soaked ham and rind in kettle, add wine, boullon and enough water to cover by an inch. Add rest of ingredients listed, bring to a simmer and skim for several minutes until scum ceases to rise. Cover partially and maintain at the simmer until ham is tender when pierced with a sharp knife (about 2 hours for boned, home-cured ham). Let ham cool in liquid for an hour or two.
While still warm, remove rind from kettle (or ham, if still on a bone-in ham), scrape off and discard as much fat as possible and puree rind through coarse disk of food mill or fine blade of meat grinder; reserve in a 1 quart bowl. Tear ham apart with your fingers, discarding fat and gristle. Cut ham into pieces about 1/2 inch thick and 1.5-2 inches square, and place in a separate 2 quart bowl along with any meat scraps. Moisten with a tablespoon or so of cooking stock, and set aside. Thoroughly degrease cooking stock, boil down rapidly to concentrate flavor if necessary, and correct seasoning.
3) The aspic (about four cups)
5 cups thoroughly degreased ham cooking stock in a saucepan
2 to 3 egg whites (1/2 cup)
1/2 to 1 cup minced green tops from leeks or scallions (optional)
2 packages (2 Tb) powdered unflavored gelatin
Clarify the cooking stock with the egg whites, add optional greenery, strain, and then dissolve the gelatin in it.
4) The parsley and aspic flavoring
Bowl of pureed rind
1 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 clove garlic, mashed
1 Tb dried tarragon or 3 tbsp fresh minced
1 Tb wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup of the aspic, cool but not set
Mix all ingredients except the aspic in the bowl and just before assembling the ham in Step 5, stir in the cup of aspic. (You will have 2 to 2.5 cups when all is blended.)
5) Assembling and serving
The following assembly method is informal: the meat is packed into a bowl and slices are cut and served directly from it. If you want a dressier presentation, line the bowl with aspic before filling it, and unmold onto a platter for serving.
Chill the bowl or crock you plan to use (2.5 to 3 qt.) and spread a layer of parsley aspic in the bottom. Then pack with layers of ham and parsley-aspic. When filled, cover with a rack or plate that will fit into the bowl, top it with some kind of weight, and chill for an hour or so until set. (If you do not weight the ham, it will be difficult to cut into slices later). Remove the rack and so forth, scramble the top a bit with a fork to disguise the plate or rack marks, and pour on some or all of the cool aspic (leftover from step 3). Cover and chill until serving time.
After M. F. K. Fisher’s death in 1992, Julia arranged for a public radio program in which she featured a 1984 tape of M. F. K. reading “I was Really Very Hungry,” a narrative of an experience she had in France, eating a sumptuous meal with the help of an intense waitress and a frustrated Burgundian chef.
(1) Alex Prudhomme:
La Pitchoune means “the Little One.” Paul and Julia built their modest little house in the town of Plascassier, near Cannes, surrounded by stucco walls, olive trees, and flowering lavender.
For more letters, see M.F.K. Fisher: A Life in Letters : Correspondence 1929-1991. (1997)
© 2011 C. Bertelsen