The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food by Judith Jones.

the-tenth-museI can’t think of the last time I read a memoir that was as aptly named as Judith Jones’s The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food.  I don’t necessarily mean the “muse” part; Ms. Jones’s “life in food” is so apropos, as each of the book’s three hundred pages devotes practically every single word to food, eating, cooking and cuisine.  Not only that, but also consider this: basically each of Ms. Jones’s days has somehow involved the analysis of food.

As an expat in post-World War II Paris, Ms. Jones first learned about cooking and food — well-seasoned, lovingly-prepared food.  In addition to waking up her culinary senses, Ms. Jones describes her life traipsing around the French capital, details of which sound positively ahead of their time.  Who else can you think of that ran an illicit supper club in a princess’s apartment?  Not many names come to mind, if any at all.

Eventually, Ms. Jones becomes an editor for Knopf; while she goes on to work with and befriend such people as Anne Tyler, Marcella Hazan and John Updike, it is her relationship with Julia Child that is by far the most interesting.  As the woman who brought Mastering the Art of French Cooking to America, Ms. Jones also brought us Julia Child herself.

Of course, there’s more to both the memoir and memoirist than Julia Child and la belle France; Ms. Jones tells tales of friendship with Jeffrey Steingarten, of cooking with Lidia Bastianich and traveling with her husband.  In some ways. Ms. Jones’s writing reminds me of M.F.K. Fisher; both describe their prim culinary upbringing and their food-related travels, and both women came-of-age in Paris — something I’m obscenely jealous of.  And, as in the case of Ms. Fisher, I can’t bring myself to call Ms. Jones anything other than that — this is a grand dame of cooking and writing here.  She deserves respect, I think.  Maybe I’m uncharacteristically old-fashioned in this way, but there you go.

With Bold Knife + Fork by M.F.K. Fisher.

with-bold-knife-forkI took a shameful amount of time getting around to reading M.F.K. Fisher‘s works, but once I did I realized I had encountered an authoritative force in food and in writing.  Seriously.  I’m not just throwing words around here.  This woman can write.

If you’ve not read anything by Ms. Fisher, With Bold Knife and Fork is an utterly perfect place to start.  Run to the bookstore, click over to Amazon, get thee to a library — I don’t care which method you prefer* as long as readership of this book increases by a significant amount.

Part cookbook and part memoir, With Bold Knife and Fork is almost novelesque in its structure, starting with Ms. Fisher’s research of turn-of-the-century recipes and their communal lack of specificity, advancing on to her own youth under her puritanical grandmother’s roof and continuing with her daughters’ culinary endeavors.  Interspersed throughout the anecdotes and observations are recipes relating to the topic at hand; some are Ms. Fisher’s, and others are credited to friends, family and her mother’s cook.

While I have an almost unnatural fondness for Ms. Fisher (it feels strange, calling her Ms. Fisher, but what am I supposed to do, refer to her as M.F.K.?) I can’t deny that she and her writing keep on popping up during coincidentally convenient times.  Take the first time I read one of her books: I meant to pick up a copy of Gastronomical Me, as per my friend Beth‘s advice, and the next day my friend Marcella gave me the book as a present.  Then there were those days a few weeks ago when Ms. Fisher seemed to be talking right to me, from the Great Beyond, as I made risotto and contemplated consuming brains.

Then there’s this, a quote from With Bold Knife and Fork which sums up precisely how I feel about inventing my own recipes, something I do with great infrequency:

Perhaps I should feel more actively ashamed, that I am so torpid. Why do I sit back and let other people sweat to do all my figuring and inventing? I am a clod.

Honestly, this is a woman after my own heart.  With grace and wit and candor, she just gets me.  And I love that.

* Technically speaking, this is a lie.  Support your local independent bookseller!

Am I Psychic?

No, seriously.

First I channel M.F.K. Fisher from the Great Beyond.  Now, the same day I mention my ardor for Ann Patchett, I learn that she will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Muse and the Marketplace (the annual writers’ conference hosted by Grub Street, the Boston-based writing organization that has been so helpful to me).  Honestly, I’m so excited.  I did a happy dance earlier.

Just in case I do in fact have some sort of otherworldly capabilities, I just want to let you all know that I foresee puppies in my future, and maybe some chocolate pudding.  Or a nice Riesling.

BLTs, Boyfriends, Books, Brains.

Today I had lunch with my friend Lexi at DJ’s on the Garden, where I had a satisfying yet unremarkable BLT that cost me precisely five dollars.  I suppose this recession has been good one for one thing, that that is the recession menu.

After having a nice little chat about boyfriends, meeting the parents and dressing up during winter, my book and I got back on the subway and headed home.  I’m not that far into M.F.K. Fisher‘s With Bold Knife and Fork, but thus far I’m enjoying it immensely; that is not a surprise, as I have enjoyed her writing immensely for a while now, but what was surprising is that (coincidentally) I read the chapter on rice and grains as I stirred my first (successful) risotto the other evening, and that today, on the ride back to my apartment, I read Ms. Fisher’s thoughts on offal and brains, the day after Keith and I had the following conversation:

K: (apropos to nothing) If we go someplace that has brains on the menu, I want you to stay away from them.
N: I’m sorry — what?
K: I just think that out of the two of us, you’ll be tempted and I don’t want you eating them.  Mad cow is still an issue.  If you got it, it would be horrible.
N: Aw, you think it would be horrible if I died?
K: Well, yes — it would be horrible if you died.  But how you would die would be horrible too.
N: But I’ve had brains.
K: Well, no more brains for you.
N: But if I become a zombie, though, can I have some brains?
K: All you can eat.

On Deck.


One of my biggest fears is being stuck somewhere without anything to read, so I always keep a stack of books on hand.  When I get close to the end of whatever it is I’m thumbing through, I even slide an extra book in my bag alongside my lip balm and blotting papers.  Lately, though, I’ve been dumping my have-reads in with the will-reads and have been getting very confused indeed.  Still, it’s a rather impressive stack, no?  Here’s the list, with will-reads in bold.

As They Were by M.F.K. Fisher.

I remember when I first read writing by M.F.K. Fisher: it was two years ago, and my friend Beth had suggested I read The Gastronomical Me. At the time, I was feeling very frazzled and frugal — Keith and I were getting ready to buy our first place, and I felt as though I couldn’t spend any money recklessly, not that I consider book-buying reckless spending. Later in the year, I received a gift certificate to Barnes & Noble for my birthday; when I tried to purchase it, the book was out of stock. I truly felt as though I was fated to never read Fisher at all.

But then… my friend Marcella came to visit. Neither Beth nor I had spoken with her about my M.F.K. Fisher woes, and yet what else did Marcella bring me as a gift but The Gastronomical Me. If that’s not proof of something, I don’t know what is.

Anyway, I thought The Gastronomical Me was wonderful, so much so that I soon found myself at the bookstore again, this time stacking around myself all of Fisher’s books like a little kid building a fort. I soon realized that it would be truly impossible for me to purchase them all, since there were almost thirty different titles heaped at my feet. That day, I left the shop with only a few items in my bag and a much longer shopping list than when I entered. Imagine, then, how pleased I was last month to find a three-dollar copy of Fisher’s As They Were while wandering the aisles of Powell’s Books for Home and Garden, the Hawthorne District‘s branch of Powell’s Books that features literature focusing on cooking, gardening and crafts.

If you’re a lover of food and travel and you’ve not read M.F.K. Fisher, I urge you to start now. As They Were, as the title implies, is a collection of Fisher’s memories, her recollections of her past — where she lived, whom with and what she ate. I’m a sucker sometimes for nostalgia, and Fisher’s tone throughout the book overflows with it, with a powerful longing for days gone by. Regardless of whether Fisher’s writing is about her funny little kitchen in Provence, traveling by sea or fine dining experiences with children, captured on each page is a fondness and exuberance for life that is simply — well, simply enviable.

Portland to Boston.

4.37 – 4.45 am, PST: Driving around, looking for gas.

4.50 am: Returning rental car.

5.00 – 5.25 am: Check in, security. I’m pulled out of line by a very nice man to go through what he calls “the puffer.” He takes my belongings and places them on the conveyor, and leads me to an enclosed box. I’m instructed to step in and stand still, and suddenly air shoots out from all directions, including up my shirt. It’s totally bizarre.

6.16 am: At the gate after eating a ridiculous breakfast hot dog. Surrounded by superfit people who have just completed the Olympic track and field try-outs in Eugene. Makes me want a Creamsicle. And a plate of waffles.

6.22 am: I don’t know how I’m not a bleary-eyed mess right about now, especially as I’ve only had about three and a half hours sleep last night after Lydia and Andy’s wedding, which was a lot of fun, incidentally.

6.25 pm: The track and field athlete sitting across from me, who is wearing work out gear even though she’s not working out, is lying across three chairs and getting fanned by someone who I can only guess is her mother. I want to hire her.

6.40 am: Boarding.

6.45 am: There is some oddness afoot with a spectacularly strange British man who as an accent in the vein of Michael Caine. Apparently he decided to have a seat in the exit row, and when he saw a large and tall man across the aisle in another exit row seat with slightly less leg room, he offered to exchange. Then, a third man appeared, indicating that the Brit was in his exit row seat. So then the Brit stood up and walked to wear his wife was sitting, three rows up. Turns out the Brit just figured he would sit down and see if he could keep the exit row seat… just by being there.

6.55: We haven’t taken off yet, but I think I’ll try to sleep anyway. I’m suddenly exhausted.

9.00 am: Wake up to the passengers behind me discussing chiropractors. I am bored back to sleep.

10.30 am: Wake up again; the passengers behind me, who I spy on and see are in their early sixties, are now discussing grandchildren. One of them, from what I can gather based on what I can hear, one of them has pulled out photographs; the other one says, “What a beautiful girl!” After a pause, the picture-holder says, “It’s a boy.”

10.50 am: Even though I love my kitchen, which Keith and I remodeled last summer, I can’t help but think about what I’d like in my next kitchen: open shelving for my cookbooks, a slate-look tiled floor and a place for visitors to site while I puttered around.

10.53 am: I have really been wanted to make the following for a while now, but have been holding off since it’s really not possible, I don’t think, to make small quantities: mayonnaise, ketchup and jelly.

11.08 am: Apparently we will be starting our descent in about forty-five minutes. The flight attendant on the loudspeaker has a very pleasant voice, the kind that should be reading books on tape.

11.24 am: Why do we call cantaloupes cantaloupes if they are really called muskmelons?

11.30 am: Currently we are flying over Toronto, which is a city I wouldn’t mind re-visiting, as long as it doesn’t involve driving from New England again. That was terrible.

11.42 am: I really want an ice cream maker.

11.47 am: The passengers behind me are on speaking terms again. They’re now sharing cookie recipes and baking tips.

11.50 am: Oooh my gosh, I have so much to do when I get home tonight, but I just want to sit on the sofa and not move and think about ice cream.

11.57 am: M.F.K. Fisher writes about pristine memory, and of not wanting to revisit a place so that the original recollection remains, not the new impressions. I can see what she means by this, but at the same time I whole-heartedly disagree. My remembrances of Singapore, let’s say, are so purely visual that I can’t wait to go back. What I recall of San Francisco are so colored in my perspective as a twenty-one-year-old that I’m eager to see what I’d think of it now (or if I’d be tempted to get another tattoo). Just because I’ve got memories about a place doesn’t mean that I don’t have room for new ones.

12.00 pm: I always have wondered what it is you fly over as your plane approaches Logan — who lives in these sunny little cottages across the water from the airport?

3.05 pm, EST: Home.