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M.F.K. Fisher and me

First We Eat: This food-writing author was an early influencer

I’ve been thinking rather a lot about M.F.K Fisher. That is unsurprising — she’s been one of my food-writing, writing candles in the night for decades, ever since I read her small and elegant book, A Cordiall Water. I went on to acquire everything Fisher wrote, including her wartime response to food rationing, How to Cook a Wolf, and her grief-imbued The Gastronomical Me, which along with her culinary evolution records the illness and suicide of her beloved second husband.

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But beyond those early influences are the more recent: of course this column’s title, “First We Eat” is a Fisher-ism, one that perfectly ascribes the primary importance of food. I am also hip deep in writing a master’s thesis about Fisher and her one-sided literary relationship with an older man, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, author of The Physiology of Taste, which Fisher translated in 1949. He was a provincial French lawyer with a profound interest in things scientific and all things culinary, and he was a survivor of the French Revolution. He died in 1826, a year after he self-published his one and only book. When Fisher undertook her translation, she was a rising literary star, with several books under her belt, mostly written in the intensely personal essay form that she became famous for and which has become the staple of the food-writing genre she is credited with originating.

Fisher had the gift of insight and the skill of observation, which she hitched to her perpetual curiosity about people. In this way she was like Brillat-Savarin, whom she dubbed “the Professor” (for his pleasure in once being mistaken for an august elder academic).

Brillat-Savarin is nowadays remembered chiefly for several of his aphorisms, most famously among them, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” But his book is more than a collection of witticisms. He thought widely — about food, its actions within the human body, about science, about the nature of being human, and like Fisher, he was a close observer of humanity.

In one of my favourite anecdotes from his book, Brillat-Savarin describes his trip on horseback in 1793 during the Reign of Terror, the most terrifying days of the French Revolution, to visit the local Representative, a certain Monsieur Prot, to ask for a safe-conduct paper in an attempt to avoid prison and certain execution by guillotine. During his visit, he had the presence of mind to take advantage of Madame Prot’s love of music, and it was at her behest that he left the house with head still firmly attached and papers in hand. But as telling was his response en route to the Representative’s house: stopping at an inn, he spotted game birds and a hare roasting on the kitchen spit, and told himself, “Providence has not completely deserted me after all. Let us pluck this flower as we go by; there’s always time left for us to die.”

In her footnote on the scene, Fisher writes, “He does not say that they were a typical pair of newly arisen politicians in a most unsavoury government… He does not say that Madame had bad manners… He does not say that she was a wrinkled old singing teacher… He does not say that he used her… And as for the dinner… it is everything admirable about a man with his back to the wall who can yet dine and drink and sing with gaiety as well as good manners.”

Even so. First we too eat, even with our backs to the figurative but isolating wall of COVID-19, and as we observe the American election process. Today, we share a delicious chicken schnitzel embellished with lemon caper sauce. I wish you gaiety and good manners as you dine.

Chicken Schnitzel with Lemon Caper Sauce

I like Japanese panko crumbs for their texture, but any dry crumbs, not too coarse, will do. Add a salad dressed sharply in vinaigrette and a good bottle of white wine. Serves two.

  • 2 boneless chicken breasts
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/4 c. flour
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 c. milk
  • 1 c. bread crumbs
  • Olive oil for the pan
  • 1/4 c. butter
  • 1 lemon, juice and zest
  • 2 tbsp. capers
  • 2 tbsp. chopped parsley

Put the chicken in a plastic bag and use a meat mallet or the base of a small pan to pound it flat and even. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Put the flour in a shallow bowl, mix together the egg and milk in a second, and put the crumbs in a third. Dip the chicken pieces in flour, then egg mix, then coat them in the crumbs.

Heat the oil in a sauté pan, then fry the chicken on medium-high heat, turning once. When cooked through, transfer the meat to plates and keep warm in the oven.

Wipe the crumbs from the pan. Add the butter. When it foams, add the lemon juice and zest, capers and parsley. Spoon over the chicken and serve immediately.

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