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December 29, 2010

Food and bread and falling in love with MFK Fisher

The Tarts are proud to announce that the wonderful Barbara O'Neal/Barbara Samuel/Ruth Wind/et al is now a Book Tart! She will be added to the roster in January, but today she is here to talk to us about one of our favorite subjects, FOOD. Which translates into her new book, How to Bake a Perfect Life!

Barbara O’Neal     Go to fullsize image


       A little while back, when I first blogged here at Lipstick Chronicles, a couple of people mentioned writer MFK Fisher.  I had never read her, but always hungry for food writers, I googled her and started reading.  Two hours later, I ordered four of her books from Amazon, including the hefty anniversary edition of The Art of Eating

      When the books arrived, I curled up in my chair with two kittens and a class of wine and cracked open Art, and I’ve been dipping into every day or two ever since, doling out the pages like some rare, complex cheese.   Sometimes, I cannot stop reading as fast as I’d like, carried along by the drama of her narrative as surely as if I’m lost in a novel.  She led an unusual and adventurous life, and was a highly celebrated woman writer during at time when that was not at all common or easy. I feel as I did when I first read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast—how is it possible I missed this work until now?

       All things in their proper time.  Thanks to some of you here, I have found a new favorite in Fisher. 

       For those who are not familiar with her work, she was a food writer who predates Julia Child by some decades.  She wrote in the thirties and forties and fifties, writing with good humor and intelligence and wit.


       In The Gastronomical Me, she writes in her foreword:


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

       “I tell about myself, and how I ate bread on a lasting hillside, or drank red wine in a room now blown to bits…”


       Reading that, I was instantly smitten, ready to follow her wherever she might eat or drink.  I followed her to Mexico, to France, to Switzerland for the most heartbreaking love story, while the most cataclysmic war we’ve ever known is rumbling in the distance.  She writes of meals and singing, of loneliness and learning to overcome it by cooking for herself the foods she particularly loves, served with wine of her choosing, in a tiny apartment without much of a kitchen, and it is the story of her life.

         Fisher makes me consider my own gastronomical journey.  When she wrote of learning to eat by herself in a little room in Hollywood, I remembered the vastly empty period after my marriage had first broken.  My oldest son had gone off to college and the other worked a restaurant job at night.  There was no need to cook.  I made do with cold cereal or Lean Cuisines or sometimes apples and cheese eaten in front of the computer while I read blogs to keep myself company. 

          One night, after a long day writing, I just couldn’t face such an indifferent meal again, so I went to the local grocery store and bought angel hair pasta and basil, olive oil and tomatoes and a bottle of red wine.  I tossed it all together, a simple easy meal, and set the table with cloth placemat and good dishes, poured a glass of wine, and turned the radio to the classical station. It was food my ex and children would not have loved at all, but it was exactly right for me.

        A friend’s mother said, “When you begin to set the table instead of eating from the pot, you know you will live.”  It appeared I would live.

       Food tells us things about people, too.  A little while later, I found myself dating a charming and verbal man who came to see me after I’d gone to dinner with a friend and feasted on roasted garlic, olive oil and very good bread.  We drank wine, ate the bread and garlic, and tottered home sated and happy.

        Apparently, my date didn’t care for my garlic perfume, and that was the moment I saw that we’d never be a good pair.

        Food is the story of our lives.  Christmas has just passed and I found myself thinking often of my grandmother, her Waldorf salad, her cheese-stuffed celery.  I make both dishes now, humble Southern specialties, but each time I sprinkle nutmeg over the apples, or stir celery salt into Miracle Whip (never mayo, not in my grandmother’s recipes), I can practically smell her perfume.

         Because I am a novelist, these food moments make their way into my books.  The protagonist of How to Bake a Perfect Life first learned to bake bread as a miserable, pregnant teenager.  It gives her a sense of connection, a place to think, a way to heal.  If you’ve ever baked bread, you know how it smells, first that raw yeast and flour scent, the heady notes as you knead, the way your hands shape and change the dough.  The process gives Ramona a sense of wholeness, which is born out of my love of making bread.  When she is divorced and depressed at a later stage in her life, she turns to bread once again, and that connection to the bread and the process of sourdough connects her back to herself. In baking, she can think.  In baking, she creates herself.

          Like MFK Fisher, I believe food is vastly important to us, and shapes us in dozens of large and small ways.  Do you have a food memory that tells something about who you are? Do you remember a time food changed something—for the good or the bad?

How to Bake a Perfect Life: A Novel


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Now you've done it! I confess, I've never read MFK Fisher. Looks like this is one of my tasks for 2011.

Food memory: asparagus out of a can when I was about 10 or 11--yuck to the maximus! Thin spears of wild asparagus fresh from a mystery garden in my new back yard when I was 23, taken straight to a brief saute and eaten plain and simple--a revelation!

Baking bread most weekends through my 20s, such a deep pleasure.

I'm not a foodie, but I just added MFK Fisher and How to Bake A Perfect Life to my cart. Can't wait to gobble them up!

Barbara, so glad you're a Tart!

Would you believe I ran into Julia Child at the grocery store when I was in grad school. She lived around the corner from our hall at the school. I remember being stupidly shocked that she was in the Broadway Star Market in Somerville, Mass. It was like seeing your teacher shopping and being surprised that there she is pushing the cart around the store like everyone else!

My favorite food memories come from Québec. I used to visit my mémère a lot just to get a slice of her tourtière. Of course I adored her, but there was really something very special about being there with her and having her offer me a piece of the best food I ever had. No one in my family could make it right, yet they all thought they could. I kept experimenting over the years and finally figured out how she did it. I know a lot of people use ground meat, but she didn't. She put a fresh pork butt in a pot and boiled the crap out of it. When it was gelatinous she added salt and pepper, put it in a pie tin with double crust and browned it. I was 45 by then, and everyone who'd ever had her tourtière was gone by then, so it made me sad a little for that. But it was great to share with a colleague who had just returned from Québec on an unsuccessful search for his version of the perfect tourtière. We'd previously discovered that we were distant cousins and figured mémère's recipe must have come down from a common ancestor. :)

Is your MC really named Ramona? Well, damn, it must be a good book!

I grew up in south Louisiana. I can't recall a memory or important event that did not involve food.

But this garlic perfume you mention, where can I buy some? And yes, I'm serious.

When it comes to books with a food theme were any better than Nero Wolfe? No business discussed during meals. If Wolfe had to choose between pushing back dinner a half hour or having someone die, he would send orchids to the funeral. Fritz making Archie griddle cakes with thyme honey. Nero’s first question to Archie whenever he would check in while in the field, “Have you eaten?”

I bought a first edition of the “Nero Wolfe Cookbook” a few years back and the recipes would make Paula Deen look like a low-fat, low-calorie evangelist.

Yay! Barbara's a Tart! We're so pleased to welcome her aboard this ship of foo----er, this wonderful community. Let's all celebrate by buying HOW TO BAKE A PERFECT LIFE.

How nice to see you here! I seem to recall hearing you speak at a romance writers' conference several years ago, and I still have the notes.

I am a foodie, and I have no wish to recover. I read cookbooks for fun, and for ideas, and for history. Yes, I have a copy of the Nero Wolfe cookbook, and I even use it. And food is so much more than just nourishment!

What a wonderful blog. So happy to have you among the tarts.

I remember a former boss saying he didn't really eat to enjoy food, he basically ate to survive. I don't think I've ever heard anything more sad.

I love food, God help me. I was brought up by an Irish mother on a meat and potatoes diet, with little variation. She was cooking for 11 every day, and didn't have time to experiment. I never had Chinese food, or Chili, or tacos until I was an adult. I love them all, but it's funny, homemade macaroni and cheese or pot roast and mashed potatoes are still my comfort foods.

On my way to check out your books. And Fisher's.

Welcome to Tarthood, Barbara! This afternoon I will buy How to Bake a Perfect Life, if I can find it. When I discovered a no-knead bread recipe in the mid-80's I enthusiastically embraced breadmaking, and have never enjoyed commercial bread since. I love the idea of building a story around cooking.

Laura, we had chili when we were kids, but no Chinese, and no Mexican until my 20's, either.

Let's see now, shopping list:

Nero Wolfe
MFK Fischer
Barbara O'Neal


My father introduced me to MFK Fisher, Calvin Trillin and the books of Trader Vic. It drives the queen of my castle crazy, but I pulled out my copy of Trader Vic's Book of Food & Drink, to check the "Unwrapped" segment on Mai Tais.

My father loved traveling the ethnic neighborhoods for the food. A trip to the Hill for Italian sausages and cheeses, Chile sauce from St. Louis' only Mexican grocery (at the time), Delicatessen that is Kosher, not kosher style.

Two of my favorite food memories:
My father needed to go to Kansas City for the day. He brought a cooler with him to bring Aurthur Bryant's ribs home. He dropped off some for me, still warm.

My father was primary am immigration lawyer. We were taking a trip to New York City. One of dad's clients gave him a card with Chinese characters on the back and the address of a restaurant in Chinatown. We meet up with my New York cousin at the restaurant and give it to Mr. Lee. We are shown to a table and food starts arriving. Then more food, and then more. At some point I asked what we were eating. The answer was, "We will go to the Chinese grocery and I will show you later." Loved everything.

Tonight will be a princess-less dinner. Maybe some wine and Julie and Julia is on tap.

These stories are wonderful!

I remember asparagus out of the can, Laraine. Also salmon out of the can, which ruined salmon for me for a long time. And Reine, your tourtiere journey is quite lovely. Who will learn to make it from you?

Ramona is one of my favorite names (I always wanted to change my name to Ramona), and I say we garlic perfume lovers unite!

My father loves Nero Wolfe, so naturally I grew up reading them, too. Have not seen the cookbook, but I can imagine how fabulous it must be.

Alan, how lucky you were to have have a father who introduced you to such an array of food! (And now that the holidays are winding down, I've promised myself a movie day, so thanks for the reminder of Julie Julia. Loved it insanely. )

WOnderful, wonderful! And welcome...(Wanna come over for dinner?)

One of the things that was so amaazing when my husband and I met--we realized we liked ALL the same food. Had the same food habits, crazings, dislikes. NOw 15 years later, we still talk about it.

SO funny to think about old boyfriends--sometimes I'd think--youre gonna eat THAT??

Now we'll wake up on Sunday and both say: bagel with veggie cream cheese, salmon and capers! Or--oatmeal with raspberries! We always want the asme thing as the other. Weird. But wonderful.

Welcome welcome!

Barbara, welcome! I'm so glad you're joining the Tarts. Honestly, every time I see "Tarts," I don't think first of sexy, I think of food. I thought I was joining a blog of gourmands. Okay, not really, but considering that the definition of "gourmand" is "A a person who takes great pleasure in food," I wasn't far wrong, lol.

My blog tomorrow is about food, too. Wouldn't you think that after our holiday pig-outs we'd be sick of the subject? uh huh. Never gonna happen.

Garlic: one of my four drugs of choice.

The other three: Good dark chocolate, basil, good coffee.

Welcome, Barbara! So glad that you are here!
I have discovered your writing recently and I just love your novels.
Every time that I go into the kitchen it seems like an adventure. Of course, cooking for two is a wonderful challenge. My DH's philosophy about my cooking is "Who knows what evil ingredients lurk in our dinner dishes tonight." When I tell him dinner is ready he always asks what I am serving and I tell him it is a surprise.

Tourtiere was a great memory of my childhood. I have made this for myself every year. This year the butcher did not receive his pork order so I substituted another meat. Better luck, next year.
Will all the cooking shows which feature quick meals, elaborate feasts and other culinary temptations comfort food is definitely waging a war with gourmet gastronomic meals. But to me if it tastes good it well the worth the journey.

Barbara, go through a lifetime of being called The Brave or The Pest, and you'll lose the name love pretty quick. But there is an entity that sends me mail and always addresses it to Ramoda. I've asked people to call me that instead, but they never cooperate.

Karen, I like your four drugs of choice, but I'd trade the basil for fried chicken. Sorry, but I *am* Southern.


Gourmand . . . hmmm. I'll claim that!

This Christmas Eve, I made my first, on my very own, batch of Grandma's fudge. It was just right.

I've been apprenticing with my dad for the last 5 years. Always in his kitchen with his pot and his memory recipe. (What recipe did I use. . . the closest combination I could arrive at from the previous 5 years of pencil notes.)

I've mastered most of the other foods I learned from my parents and grandparents (farm families both of them) - even the gravy or especially the gravy (white and brown). But, the candies, they are more difficult.

Next, I'll start learning the peanut brittle. But, I know it won't be the same, because I have not a 12" iron skillet or a wood burning cook stove. I'm going to try anyway. (I hear it's all in timing the baking soda.)

I belive it is time for lunch now.

Marcia, candy is all about time and temperature. Get a candy thermometer and wooden spoons.

I am so glad you are reading MFK Fisher - I have all her books and reread them annually. Ditto Calvin Trillin. Another writer who wrote beautifully about food: Laurie Colwin.

As for food memories, I think growing up it would have to be my mother's soups. In the winter, we always had soup, always homemade. Helping to put together a huge pot of vegetable beef soup was fun, and smelling it as the aroma wafted throughout the house was even better.

More recently, it would be early summer in Mainau, Germany. We had walked through the gardens and were having a late lunch on the terrace. Clear, beef consomme with marrow dumplings; a green salad; ghoulash stew over buttered noodles. Delicious! I had a Kristal Weizen (a beer, lighter than the Hefe Weitzen and my husband had a Pils type beer.) Then, for dessert, a sponge cake simply buried in whipped cream and red raspberries. Coffee. I can feel the breeze, see all the bright green leaves and grass, and remember just how good that food looked and tasted.

Maybe it was because my husband was safely back from the first Gulf War, but the whole day was perfect. And the meal was memorable.

Rachel Ray has a new cooking series "Week in a Day" on the new cooking channel.
That poor girl is racing around the kitchen cooking roasts, pasta, vegetables mostly to cook once and then have multiple meals during the week. I am wondering how many of us cook on the fly or plan a week ahead.
After the one day cooking marathon I believe a glass of the bubbly to take the edge off all that cooking is surely in order.

Welcome to TLC. My grandmother was a wonderful Southern cook, and my memories of her revolved around her generous table.

Welcome, Barbara. You're going to add a needed dimension here -- although our own dimensions might increase too much if we start exchanging recipes. Nevertheless, Riene, please share the recipe for your grandmother's tourtiere. Anything pork is a southerner's delight. I, too, own the Rex Stout cookbook and, back when we raised geese, made some wonderful pates based on his directions.

Thank you, Barbara, for giving me some new reading material - your own writing and Fisher's.

Ever since I read your post this morning I have been craving homemade bread! My dad's mother used to make it during the winter. My dad made it on and off throughout my childhood, also in the winter. I can almost smell it right now as we dig out from a blizzard!

When I was a freshman in college my dad suffered a major heart attack right after Thanksgiving. He was home from work for about three months. When I was home for winter break that February he was getting antsy and decided to pass the time by baking bread. He found the kneading to be very therapeutic. I helped him, and we baked way more bread than the family could use (I was going to say "than the family 'needed'", but I spared you that, sort of!) I took a whole bunch of loaves back to school with me at the end of vacation, and passed them around to friends. I wish I had dad's bread recipe. I don't think he ever wrote it down!

Marcia, no iron skillet? They really are so heavy, but I use mine almost every single day for something.

True on those dimensions, Margaret. I was astounded not to gain any weight on that baking frenzy last winter...but it's probably just so much hard work that I burned it all off.

Thank you to everyone for such a warm welcome! I'm thrilled to be joining such delightful community of readers and writers.

Barbara, my toutière hopes rest in one of my son's whose only skills seem to be jumping out of helicopters to do emergency surgery in the mud and backing his pickup into mesquite trees on BBQ day. So you can guess where that's going.

For Margaret, and any others interested, here is mémère's recipe, below. I have never seen another like it. Most recipes call for various herbs and spices, mashed potatoes, and ground meat. She never used ground meat. I make no claims as to any authenticity other than its being authentically Clarisse Belanger's of Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, Québec, still a town of 3,000 residents.

Mémère's Tourtière
Other people make this pie differently. Mémère only used the following ingredients. I'm sure others are delicious, but they aren't mémère's. I don't know how you say it in English, because I never heard mémère speak English. She would have said something like, "Don't ruin it by trying to make it better."

[I did make a beef version for my Jewish cousins in L.A. They loved it. If you don't eat pork, and you think this sounds pretty good, try it by making appropriate substitutions.]

First: No ground meat. No potatoes. No beef or anything but pork (exception above). Really fatty pork with a big hunk of bone. You need the bone, or it won't set up. No seasoning except salt, pepper, and garlic.
Second: Lard for the crust. You can use your favorite crust, but it won't be as good. Sorry.
Okay, here it is. Boil a a 5-6 lb. Boston pork butt roast, with all the fat and bone, until the broth is gelatinous, a few hours. You may have to add water as it cooks. When you think it's one let it cool off to see if the broth gets thick. If it is thick and gelatinous, remove the bone and excess fat. Add salt, pepper, and fresh crushed garlic. Line pie plates with crust, fill, and cover with crust. Put a few small slits through the top crust. This will make a couple of 8-9" pies. Bake at 400F for 30 minutes. If anyone tries this, please let me know how if you liked it.

Oh yeah... Fill with drained meat.

Reine, this sounds delicious. I am going to give it a try..thanks for the recipe.

Hi Marie, I hope you like it! It's simple, just time consuming. Then again, it's a great way to heat a cold house in the winter. XXXXXX

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