Becoming: MFK Fisher dinner at Bubby’s
I always avoid asking children what they dream of doing or becoming. I never liked it as a child. I have no way of knowing whether children I meet do or don’t, but I am as committed as I remember to be to keeping myself from inflicting the pains on children that grownups did unto me, and asking children about their “dreams” is one of these.
I have no memory of what I used to answer the smelly grownups who asked me that, or the other bits of colloquial laziness adults so often substitute for engaged questions when they are talking to small people. This isn’t because I have a bad memory—I remember the precise moss green of the carpet in my first bedroom and the way pine needles smelled at different times on rainy days on one ten foot part of a path at our camp in Maine—but because the pressures such violent questioning exerted were so overwhelming that dreams that were preparing to bud must have snapped themselves closed defensively at the first sign of approaching interrogation.
My neural pathways to certain sorts of plans—a house with turrets, a fishing dog, and three tan princes with big smiles and chestnut colored hair with whom to play hopscotch on Thursday mornings, or marrying my high school boyfriend, or owning an old, low, shiny, topless car—aren’t well developed. This strange abortion of a kind of thinking about the future has left me occasionally, mildly, wondering whether I’m missing out, because it seems like it would be wonderful to fulfill my dreams, maybe.
But it has also created a situation I didn’t invent and don’t think I would have had the spiritual wisdom to have, but have found, as I’ve aged, to be the most genuinely spirit-and life-affirming one available to my human consciousness. It is that little that I do has anything to measure up to. For example, I never quite let myself “want” to be a writer, again in response to those aggressive grown-up fumes of expectation. The hardened places from which that dream would have bud need assiduous internal scrubbing all the time, but finally letting myself become one and then becoming one, and still becoming one is a welcome and cherished surprise because I never let myself expect it or want it.
The same has been true of other dream-like things I’ve done, like run a restaurant kitchen and write my first book review for the New York Times, or maybe it was simply that those arrived late and swiftly, when I was a grown up and the sort of grown up that dealt with wanting things by doing what I could to get them.
This all seems like a roundabout way to talk about having thrown a big dinner party at Bubby’s to launch my paperback and celebrate MFK Fisher, but that is because I think that it all happened in about this roundabout a way, and that the story of how I feel about it, and why we chose to make the dinner we did is pretty much the story above, of how one decides what one really deeply wants and wants to do, and how one is made happy.
I did not know, until I was peeking around the partition at the back of the Bubby’s dining room where waiters collect themselves and put glasses on trays to carry out to the diners and cut bread, at a room full of people, that I was perhaps serving a meal I’d wanted to serve my whole life, since the very first time I thought of being able to serve people food at all.
By the same account, or an earlier account of the same story, when the day before the dinner I had to finalize the font on the menu with the woman who had patiently endured each of my several weeks of vetoes—I had decided that one menu font was too flowery, and another too austere. A third was too casual, a fourth far too formal. I felt there was also too much space between words, too little space between lines, a blue too dark, an ochre that seemed to “pierce” awkwardly—I realized that there was a story that had to be told about why I’d chosen the menu I had, and to make each thing as I planned to. So I typed it out, quickly, unthinkingly, not having been conscious of there having been an articulable design to my decisions. And found myself, in the middle of the second paragraph, with peppery tears running down each cheek, deeply, soulfully happy, in the absolute middle of living what would, if I had had the emotional terminology or emotional hardiness, been a lifelong dream. (The essay itself is at the end of all this, in case you want to know what I was crying over.)
It was the same sort of thing when I pressed myself to that partition at the back of Bubby’s and looked out at a dining room. It was a little golden lit and people looked both settled and expectant. They were eating the bread I’d chosen, and at the moment I looked out and the moment I am remembering, a lot of them were dipping it into empty oyster shells and poking it tentatively at the little nests of seaweed we’d scattered under each shell. They were drinking a wine I’d chosen to go with the oysters, and sitting next to other people I’d liked and invited. And looking around the room more, getting deeply nervous and beginning to feel truly off kilter, I saw so many people I liked I couldn’t quite imagine how I’d met so many, or how they’d ended up in the same room at the same time for dinner, or how I’d possibly ended up lucky enough to have gotten to choose what to serve them, at what time of day, and year, in a room lit how, on a table laid in what manner. Or that I had somehow ended up, in life, able to decide what to feed so many people I liked. That I had developed a certainty inside me about anything at all suddenly seemed utterly spectacular: that I knew not only that I liked people, but which people, and not only that I wanted to feed them, but on what, and with what done to it, and that there was so much incredible specificity to what I wanted and loved and didn’t seemed almost impossible. Particularly because it all seemed so unconscious, or if conscious, so unplanned.
It was nervousness, not contentment I felt most strongly in that moment. It was harsh, nearly overwhelming nervousness. It is a lot of distilled emotion to realize that one does have a real dream and then that for better or worse, one has done what one has to in order to try to fulfill it, and to realize it all sitting at a computer screen and then hiding behind a drywall partition at the back of a dining room.
It was nervousness because of my sense of already being far down the river, and because by cooking an homage to my literary hero, MFK Fisher, I heard myself saying out loud: This person’s work has shaped me. I am showing what I have learned. This is what I’m made of. This is what I want.
I don’t know if that would be as terrifying to anyone as it was to me. I do know there are a few other times I’ve felt similar things: the day I walked down the field at Full Moon Farms and knelt down and ate a bite of the strange weed called vetch and agreed to stay on as chef of Farm 255, the night I scrubbed my station at Chez Panisse for the last time, keeping the copper sauté pan I’d been given as a going away present in sight on my right. During the first I thought: oh my god, I’ve always wanted to be a chef, and somehow I am one, and during the second I thought, I used to cook at Chez Panisse. Oddly, my haphazard emotions on that sweet, long night at the end of June at Bubby’s, weren’t specific. They were more like: that was too real and good to have dreamt. That was a very good thing we just did.
“What’s past is prologue…”
-The Tempest, W. Shakespeare
Everything on this menu comes from somewhere in MFK.
The chocolate and bread for eating during the discussion is like something she describes in an essay called The Pale Yellow Glove as “one souvenir of eating, that I can keep with impunity throughout all seasonal changes.” She ate it while feeling lonesome and foreign on a hill near Les Laumes-Alésia.
The shrimp pâté and salad of wild greens, poulet, and petits pois are from How to Cook a Wolf.
The first, third, fourth are impossibly decadent for a book on wartime eating. That is why I chose them, instead of the sensible “war cake” or “sludge” usually trotted out as that book’s stars. MFK Fisher would, I think, have been perturbed to know that in a book that abounds with ideas and recipes that are plain good, in war- or peace-time, only the ones tinted with the exotics of suffering are remembered. Two are from How to Practice True Economy, a chapter on shutting one’s eyes and ears to the horrors of war to “enjoy a short respite from reality…doubly blessed, to posses in this troubled life both the capacity and the wherewithal to forget it for a time.” Surely, we are triply, to not need the respite as badly today. Les petit pois are from How to Be Content with a Vegetable Love, which she was, and so am I.
The salad is from a story about a woman who lived in a tiny house on a cliff. At her table, “There was always the exciting, mysterious perfume of bruised herbs, plucked fresh and cool from the tangle of weeds around the shack. Sue put them into a salad.” As have we, other than the wild goose-tongue, from which we’ve made little beds for oysters torn from theirs.
In Consider the Oyster, we learn: “Men have enjoyed eating oysters since they were not much more than monkeys, according to the kitchen middens they have left behind them.” Thank god, since our ancestors did things that are unimaginable to us and we do things our descendents will disbelieve. We have all been born, live till death, and eat oysters, though; so alike we are. Roast oysters with pepper-sauce and butter, in particular, have been to our taste at least since 1870, when this recipe was written.
Diplomate au Krisch A la maniere de PAPAZI will always exist more metaphysically than physically. Thankfully, MFK provides fair assurance of transmutation in the last line of her recipe for the frozen pudding: “And be lifted, willy-nilly, to heavenly levels, for never was there a dessert more delicate, more fragrant, more sophisticated and naïve.”
So those are the reasons for this menu. It is also full of tastes and ways of cooking I like, and don’t often taste or do. It is not meant to be quirky and full of artifacts. I don’t know if any of it is like it would have been if MFK had cooked it. The menu was written and tables set in a spirit she’d like, at least, even if she couldn’t stomach a bite of dinner.