Sunday, March 12, 2006

M.F.K. Fischer's beans

Most people acknowledge that M.F.K. Fischer single-handedly changed the way people think about and write about food. I certainly felt that scales were falling from my eyes when I first read the epochal The Gastronomical Me.

This blog’s title is taken from that book’s preface. Fischer's quiet declaration that “we must eat” reflects what I find most compelling about her writing -- a certain detached elegance and acceptance of the shadows of life, what she called the “wilder and more insistent hungers.”

I think it is this embracing of darkness that distinguishes her from so many writers who have written about food. Food is not always about pleasure and joy, and warmth and comfort. In one essay she describes her determination never to let herself say “Oh, anything” to a meal, even if she has to eat it alone or with “death in the house,” referring, I think, to having watched die the man who was the love of her life.

Aboard a cross-Atlantic ship, which was taking her away from him, she discovers the art of eating alone: “slowly, voluptuously and with independence.” Henceforth this gastronomical liberty would protect her and keep intact her spirit and reason. For Fischer, eating was a way of taking measure of her powers, as a woman and as a human being. All her life she put food on the table and nourishment in the heart and kept at bay the hungers...

After the death of Chexbres she continues to plan and execute beautiful and sensuous meals. But the life-returning meal, the first that she is really able to taste, happens one evening alone in a hotel dining room in Mexico. A kindly waiter brings out from the back kitchen a simple dish of beans in an earthenware bowl which she calmly begins to eat with a large spoon, then with growing eagerness she begins to scoop out and sop up with a rolled tortilla.

The following is a recipe of what I imagine her to have eaten. Frijoles de olla (literally, "simmering pot of beans") is a one of the basics of Mexican cooking and from her desciption of "light tan beans cooked with some onion, tomatoe and many herbs," I am guessing it was prepared charros-style (referring to the skilled horsemen of the northern regions):

Frijoles Charros; beans that gave M.F.K. Fischer back her life-force:

Simmer dried beans (use the pale brown, freckled pinto if you can find them) in salted water until tender. Fry onions in oil, add a serrano chile, skin and seeds removed. Add the beans, thrown in a handful of chopped tomatoe and cilantro, cook over high heat until the broth thickens. Eat from a bowl using soft tortillas.

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