With Bold Knife and Fork
by M.F.K. Fisher
Published by Counterpoint
339 pages, 2002
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
Considered to be one of the ranking food writers of her generation, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was, in some ways, America's answer to Colette. Fisher did not merely write about food, she -- metaphorically -- embraced it, danced with it, made love to it. Fisher's writing could be sensuous, affectionate, thought-provoking and humorous. And, sometimes, she managed all of this at once.
When she died in 1992, Fisher had written 26 books. While not all of her books were, strictly speaking, food related, they all reverberated with Fisher's love of life and all that keeps that life going.
With Bold Knife and Fork was originally published by the now-defunct Perigree Books in 1969. It had been 30 years, a couple of husbands and thousands of meals since the publication of her first book, Serve It Forth, in 1937. Unsurprisingly, by the time With Bold Knife and Fork was published Fisher's thoughts on food -- preparation, consumption and sharing -- had both crystallized and matured while losing none of the author's youthful passion.
It's wonderful to see With Bold Knife and Fork available again, this time from Counterpoint. But don't plan on tossing it onto your cookbook shelf in order to simply pull it out to make her A Seviche of Scallops or her Bonamour Cheese Soufflé. With Bold Knife and Fork, like all of Fisher's work, is best read as you would a novel: starting at the beginning and working your way to the end. Or, if you must, browsing it like a buffet: dipping in here and there in order to taste and touch and smell everything.
And yes: there are recipes here. Lots of them (over 140, in fact) but With Bold Knife and Fork, like much of Fisher's work, reads more like literature than cookbook. The recipes are like punctuation, or perhaps seasoning: vivid examples of the thoughts she's sharing, sometimes insightful, sometimes touching, sometimes sharply irascible, often opinionated, but always interesting:
PUMPKIN: the only reason I mention it is that I have a recipe for delicious little gnocchi, unexpected and pleasant....
At the beginning of the book, Fisher talks about the "anatomy of a recipe" and what a recipe should and should not be:
A recipe is supposed to be a formula, a means prescribed for producing a desired result, whether that be an atomic weapon, a well-trained Pekingese, or an omelet.
Later in the same section, she tells us what one should find in a recipe: a name, an ingredients list and a method:
In the same way, a true manual, written to instruct every kind of reader from a Brownie Scout to a June bride to an experienced but occasionally unsure kitchen mechanic like myself, should indicate in some way the number of portions a recipe will make. ... certainly it would be guesswork, for if everybody at table is very hungry there should be "enough," and how can that be defined? And even a dolt must know, instinctively, that a six-egg omelet will not feed ten people...
Ironically, this almost 30-year-old work is perhaps better suited to modern palates than they were to those of the audience she was initially writing for. This mainly because Fisher's preference for her own everyday meals ran to fresh ingredients prepared with a minimum of fuss and fanfare. She could be at her most irascible when decrying the North American need for a constant stream of meat and potatoes, most often -- to her mind -- blandly prepared.
It seems to me that no part of our so-called daily diet has been treated with more studied carelessness, mixed with an almost hysterical dependence, and this is why I myself feel freed from any compulsion to eat it unless it be of fine quality and in cunning preparations. As a cook, I always risk playing devil's advocate, but I confess that most meat... is mistreated to the point of inedibility almost everywhere from top to bottom of our kitchen world.
With Bold Knife and Fork is delightful. Classic Fisher and perfectly timeless. The recipes are good. The writing, even better. | July 2002
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.