That Undeniable Rock: A Playlist
- MFK Fisher, the food writer, is near and dear to me. Years ago, a younger, more romantic version of me was transformed by what she said and how she said it. John Updike called her “poet of the appetites” and Maya Angelou knew she was “as sensual as a mocha cheesecake.” She had an old-world charm, elegant features (once photographed by Man Ray) and a great sense of humor. After writing about food (and her continental nests, travels, curiosities, loves, sorrows, laughs) for decades, she spent her old age in “Last House” in Sonoma County, watching movies with the land manager, calling it their “Shut Up and Eat Your Popcorn Club.” She lived to 83 years old.
- In An Alphabet for Gourmets, first published in 1949 with drawings by children’s book illustrator Marvin Bileck, she sorts her ABCs from A for (dining) Alone to Z for Zakuski. Her H is for Happy, and “purely heaven sent dinners”, a rare thing to happen at a crowded table. Fisher thinks “human beings are happiest at the table when they are very young, very much in love, or very alone. It is rare to be happy in a group: a man can be merry, gay, keenly excited, but not happy in the sense of being free … free from life's cluttering and clutching.” Going back two chapters, to F is for Family, she teases family dinners, star-crossed affairs when large groups of distant relatives get together for Thanksgiving or Christmas; to eat, drink, gossip and laugh together in the spirit of Norman Rockwell paintings. “The cold truth is that family dinners are more often than not an ordeal of nervous indigestion, preceded by hidden resentment and ennui and accompanied by psychosomatic jitters.”
Preparing for such dinners is no easy feat considering “It must not simply be taken for granted that a given set of ill-assorted people, for no other reason than because it is Christmas, will be joyful to reunite and break bread together. They must be jolted, even shocked, into excitement and surprise and subsequent delight. All the old, routine patterns of food and flowers and cups must be redistributed, to break up that mortal ignominy of the Family Dinner, when what has too often been said and felt and thought is once more said, felt, thought: slow poison in every mouthful, old grudge, new hateful boredom, nascent antagonism and resentment…. Why in God's name does Mother put her arm always that way on the chair, and why does Helen's girdle pop, always, as she lifts the denuded meat platter up and away from Father, and why does Sis tap her finger always thus tinnily against the rim of her wineglass? Poison, indeed … and most deeply to be shunned!”
As an antidote, Fisher gathers her parents and siblings to their family ranch in California for a small, intimate dinner to celebrate “nothing at all.” She ventures down to Los Angeles to buy tiny bay shrimp and mussels in their shells, pink prawns and lobster claws. Flat round loaves of sourdough bread, spaghetti and sweet butter, and some “real cheese”. She gets bottles of Riesling and Tipo Red, and some “over-roasted coffee blended on Piuma’s drugstore counter” for her. This is probably 1940s.
She rebels against the “inevitable boredom of dining en familie” in her own idiosyncratic ways. The table is set with the family’s best silver and china and crystal, and incredibly thin wine goblets eternally waiting to be used for a party. She reseats everyone to provide a fresh scenery, no more of the tiresome view of his father with the crooked mirror behind. She replaces the centerpiece, a clutter of ashtrays, sugar shakers, salt and pepper mills that had been getting on her nerves for the last fifteen years, with a bowl of camellias. She uses the sideboard as a buffet, a first in her memory, that makes his father get up and serve himself, which he enjoys tremendously as “he poked and sniffed and puttered happily over the beautiful platters of shrimp and suchlike and made a fine plate of things for my mother, who sat with an almost shy smile, letting the newness of this flood gently, unforgettably, into her sensitive mind and heart.”
A casserole of spaghetti without it’s familiar accompaniment of a rich red sauce but with just butter and cheese, “an odorous, steamy, rich, Medusa-like tangle”, follows as the Tipo flows. Arms reach for glasses or cups of hot black coffee and eyes laugh one to another.
This, she thinks, makes “the other necessary mass meals more endurable, more a part of being that undeniable rock, the Family.”
- Here is a playlist dedicated to such meals; to redistributing patterns. Click to listen.
- Where to Start, Lou Doillon
- Lying Has To Stop, Soft Hair
- Que Sera, Wax Tailor
- Untitled 1, Ocelote Rojo
- Sunday, HNNY
- House, Kindness
- Ourson, Camel Power Club
- Mars Landing Party, Placebo
- Crisis Team, Prinzhorn Dance School
- Spaghetti Stetson, Gary Cribb
- Don’t Know What’s Normal, Shintaro Sakamoto
- Fresh and Foolish feat. Sarah Palin, Kalabrese, Sarah Palin
- See You All, Koudlam
- Oyle Sarhos Olsam Ki, Tanju Okan