Sucking Up to M.F.K. Fisher

Conversations With MFK FisherI’m reading Conversations With M.F.K. Fisher, a compilation of profiles and interviews of the famous food writer, as a prelude to reading her work The Gastronomical Me. It’s been an eye-opener.

The writing style and voice of these profiles in the 1970s is quite different from today in some ways. The first six pieces in the book are pure hero worship from food writers tripping over adjectives to heap praise on their object of worship. M.F.K. was important as a food writer that happened to be a woman, especially in the context of her time. Still, I cannot believe the rampant brown-nosing by these writers that made it into print. It makes any modern media hero worship of chefs and food personalities like David Chang, Anthony Bourdain, Lidia Bastianich and Alton Brown pale in comparison.

Here are a few examples from James Villas’ “A Simple Country Lunch with M.F.K. Fisher” from 1978 that was published in his book, Villas at Table: a Passion for Food and Drink. The profile-interview begins with Villas spewing about 1,000 words to heap adoration on his subject, introducing her through physical description, setting the scene in her kitchen and citing her accomplishments.

We laughed at Mrs. Fisher while she strove to get her fill of caviar in The Gastronomical Me, but we shared her pain and heartbreak… We admired her brilliant translation of Brillat-Savarin’s La Physiologie de Goût, and how proud we all felt in the late sixties when this great American lady was chose to write The Cooking of Provincial France for the Time-Life series.

Villas’ prose reeks of soap opera narration. It includes the reader through the use of “we” even as he tells his audience how they should have felt or responded. It’s as though readers were physically by Fisher’s side and cheering her on as she accomplished each literary feat. It’s a transparent literary device that writers still use today to craft an accessible (or inaccessible in some cases, thereby elevating the writer’s status for having access) image about celebrities in order to create this false sense of closeness between the reader and subject. Yet coming from Villas, the passage above reads more like his voice making grand declarations on his behalf and, by the way, don’t you agree? Yes, we certainly must.

Villas puts Fisher on a pedestal. He extends a hand to readers in order to lift them up so that they may also see the view and behold the wonder that is M.F.K. Fisher. Later in the piece, Villas writes about the lunch he had with Fisher.

And the lunch? Oh, nothing really fancy: a few large Mexican prawns marinated in oyster sauce, baked quickly and served on a bed of duxelles; sliced plum tomatoes and zucchini topped with mild chilies; fresh sourdough bread with individual crocks of the sweetest butter; baked pears with fresh cream; and a carafe of Chablis from a local winery. No, nothing fancy, just one of the best-prepared and most-memorable meals of my life.

This paragraph is humble bragging years before the term was invented. Simply listing the dishes in the meal would suffice to paint a picture for the reader. This list as device is still used today. I do it from time to time. Villas’ commentary to downplay the “nothing fancy” meal while praising it inserts him firmly as a character in this piece, even as he brags with a “no big deal, just eating a modest meal with M.F.K.” vibe.

This sort of hero worship reminds me of the bubble of praise, respect and adoration that surrounds Ferran Adrià. He visited Kansas City in March 2015 as part of a promotional tour for his exhibit Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity that was on view at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art through August 2. While I’m no expert on the man by any means, it seemed that Adrià navigated the food celebrity attached to him by focusing on delivering his ideas through food, art, teaching and conversation. He was patient with people and gracious with his time, but spent his time being in the moment while also pursuing his interests and goals. Celebrity was and is more external than self-generated and perpetuated for him, based on limited observation.

It’s easy to understand why writers, foodies and professionals in KC’s culinary industry were excited by Adrià’s presence and thrilled to have access to him albeit brief. Some writing spawned from his visit bordered on fawning that was reminiscent of Villas blubbering about Fisher. I attempted to write my article about Adrià’s visit by acknowledging the set-up – a handful of people joined Adrià on a half-day “foraging” tour of Kansas City – without overtly inserting myself in the story.

I’m not trying to humble brag here myself but merely discuss the decisions a writer makes when telling a story. My implicit presence is established up front in the Adrià article. It takes a tiny bit of skill and forethought to use this approach, one that I prefer to do in most cases. This approach doesn’t position the writer between the subject and the reader in the way that Villas does in his piece, as I’ll demonstrate soon.

Implicitly establishing the writer as a background presence in the story runs counter to Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo style of inserting the reporter into the story. With this style, the reporter casts himself or herself as a character in the story and interacts with the subject(s). The reporter’s presence and voice is explicit and subjective rather than a more detached attempt at objective reporting. No reporting is completely subjective, by the way. I’ve used this approach at times but selectively so.

In the case of Villas’ article, the article’s title implies that he is lunching with M.F.K. He is a presence and observer describing the subject, scene and action for the reader. Rather than keeping his subject in the forefront, Villas intrudes as a writer by praising Fisher while using an inclusive “we” before he ventures into the meal itself and inserts his personal take on it.

No, nothing fancy, just one of the best-prepared and most-memorable meals of my life.

That statement is about Villas and shifts the focus away from Fisher. That’s distracting and uninteresting to read about how much the experience impacted the writer. I want to hear about the experience and the subject. Once the interview commences in question-and-answer format, Villas takes consistent opportunities to insert his musings and opinions into the exchange. Again, this distracts from the flow of conversation and yanks the focus away from the subject, the person that is notable enough to write about in the first place.

In television or cinema, this would be akin to breaking the fourth wall where the protagonist diverts from the scene to address the audience. When executed well, the device can have great impact and draw the reader into the story and build a relationship with the viewer. The asides of Villas, when thrust between the responses of Fisher, feel awkward and clumsy. For example, one exchange follows:

Villas: Your book A Considerable Town revolves around Marseille. Where in the world would you most like to be living now? Is it here in Sonoma?

M.F.K.F. No. If I were able I’d like to live in Aix-en-Provence, which is near Marseille. I first went there in 1929 and have loved it ever since, most likely because it is so close to that dirty, mysterious port town. I wrote a book on Marseille in an attempt to explain to myself this inordinate attraction I’ve always had to the place.

[Suddenly M.F.K. Fisher’s blue eyes became fixed on the flames quietly lapping the small logs in the fireplace, and I tried to imagine to just what point in the far distant past my question had forced her to retreat momentarily. Perhaps she was thinking about the time she, Al, and her sister Norah (who now lives down the road and is still one of her closest companions) sat in a small restaurant overlooking the Old Port in Marseille, played an accordion, and shared a steaming bouillabaisse. Or maybe the vision went back further, to the whorehouse in Marseille where she and Al innocently booked a room and spent the evening eating fresh cherries. Or, who knows, she could have been remembering the old butcher, Cesar, whom every woman in town thought to be the devil himself but who once prepared the best steak she’d ever eaten.]

Villas performs the nifty trick of packaging three abbreviated anecdotes about Fisher into his aside that runs more than twice as long as Fisher’s original response. Now, any or all of those anecdotes conveyed directly by Fisher or recounted with the writer’s less explicit presence and musing would be more interesting than this delivery.

Again, Villas thrusts himself into the Q&A as he shifts focus away from Fisher “…and I tried to imagine…”

Then, he exerts literary license and his omnipotent choice of words to ponder (or assert?) how his question “…had forced her to retreat momentarily.”

Wow. The swagger and pretentiousness of Villas can’t be ignored here. Further, rather than ask what was on Fisher’s mind as her blue eyes watched the fire, and in doing so keeping the focus on the subject, Villas strings together a series of self-indulgent musings. He conveys tidbits of detail about Fisher but within the framework of “forcing” her to reflect in response to his question and then indulging in a romp across her mental landscape with his own fanciful imaginings.

It’s flabbergasting. Villas continues to use this technique of inserting his asides into the Q&A, one of the most basic and naked forms of reporting where the subject’s voice is prominent and clear using their own words. Villas undermines the exchange.

He added a postscript to the interview and his closing remarks, stating how proud he was of the profile particularly since it was the first interview she granted in many years. I’d be curious to hear Fisher’s thoughts on the result of Villas’ published piece. I can only imagine in my humble opinion [insert sarcasm here] that maybe there was a reason why she granted so few interviews at this stage of her life and career.

I don’t see many examples of modern writing that emulates what Villas did in this piece, thankfully so. Reading several articles from nearly 40 years ago in this book has been instructive on what passed for food-related reporting in another era. Even though I’ve been writing professionally for 15 years, I still have plenty to learn and refine as my talented editors demonstrate when they tweak my articles. It’s helpful to see how writing from the past and present is crafted and published as a tool for me to help improve my own work.

For another writer’s take on M.F.K. Fisher and her impact on modern food writing, read Josh Ozersky’s “Consider the Food Writer.” Here’s a sample:

Whether you enjoy her work or not, there is no doubt that she more or less invented first-person food writing as we know it today. Fisher swept away the bombast and pomposity of nineteenth-century epicurean food writing, a decadent, rotting edifice already crumbling under its own weight. She had what few writers have, a distinctive style, and like her contemporary, Ernest Hemingway, whom she in many ways resembled (though not physically), it was as much a moral as a literary one. Her writing is wise, in a superficial way, but not especially reflective; for that reason, she is at her best when generating brief, self-contained observations.

City Market Scene – October 3, 2015

City Market Scene – October 3, 2015

The vibrant color of produce in the fall excites me more than the changing color of leaves. Late summer produce arrives with a flashy array of purples, reds, golden yellows, oranges, chartreuse and deep greens. This week’s haul from the City Market included choices driven by color as much as the week’s menu of meals in my head.

Purple and green snow peas (pictured above) will be julienne-cut. The skins of the whole peas are a bit too tough and bitter to eat raw. I’ll stir-fry the batch with onion and yellow bell pepper.

I couldn’t resist buying late-season tomatoes since they were farm-grown. The farmers always have a few tomatoes sliced into chunks with a bowl of toothpicks nearby, waiting to tempt passersby. I’m a sucker for sampling every time. Those flavor-filled tomatoes will disappear for good in a week or two. I bought a small basket of the beefy, Rubenesque red beauties for BLT sandwiches.

 

tomatoes

squash blossoms

 

Orange-yellow squash blossoms were abundant. I didn’t buy any but admired their appearance, a market item that only shows up for a brief time before October frost brings down the curtain. These frilly flowers remind me of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings of women in dresses and dance hall attire at the cabaret and ballet, such as Marcelle Lender Dancing the Bolero in “Chilpéric” or The clownesse Cha-U-Kao at the Moulin Rouge.

 

long purple hull beans

 

These purple hull beans will be steamed and shucked. I’ll toss the beans with smoked sea salt and nosh away.

While I didn’t buy any, I was pleased to see whole fresh ginger with the stems and leaves still attached. Chef Renee Kelly of Renee Kelly’s Harvest writes about her source for fresh whole ginger and how she uses it in The Star’s food blog. Asian farm vendors at the City Market carry this tender young ginger. I can’t wait to buy some next week and cook the roots, stems and even palm leaves that have a faint ginger flavor.

Even though the mustard greens (below) had many tiny pock-marked leaves from insects, I still bought a bunch for a mere $2. The Swiss cheese appearance doesn’t impact the flavor, a mild bitterness overshadowed by a slowly building wasabi-like peppery bite. The imperfections of the leaves only made them look more interesting to me. I’ll steam them and eat them on the side with rice and other dishes like stir-fried shrimp that will counterbalance the heat with sweetness.

 

fresh ginger

mustard greens

baby bok choy

 

These baby bok choy (above) will be lightly stir-fried in sesame oil and oyster sauce. A splash of prik nam som, a condiment with vinegar, garlic, sugar and chilies, adds some acidity to brighten up the flavor.

I’ll use the Thai bird chilies below to make a batch of prik nam som and nam pla prik, a condiment made of fish sauce, lime juice, chilies, garlic and shallot.

 

bird chilies

 

I spotted a nifty pepper-roasting operation at the market. The aroma made me hungry for chili. The final photo below of colorful bell peppers made me want to buy an entire batch but I couldn’t use that many right now. They’d be perfect in a raw salad, stir-fry, succotash or even a ratatouille.

I can’t wait to see what next week’s market brings, knowing that the variety and abundance of color will soon be reduced to pumpkins, gourds, potatoes and apples.

 

Fire roasted peppers

Peppers

Born With Seoul’s Gochujang is Korean Cuisine Staple

Born With Seoul’s Gochujang is Korean Cuisine Staple

Angela Hong Angela Hong and Nick Crofoot of Born With Seoul. Nick Crofoot

Angela Hong and Nick Crofoot of Born With Seoul.

 

Founded by couple Angela Hong and Nick Crofoot, Born With Seoul introduces gochujang to Kansas City as a ready-made condiment. Pronounced go-choo-jahng, the condiment is a staple in Korean kitchens much like soy sauce, ketchup or salsa is commonly found in other households. Gochujang is normally sold as a red chili-based paste that must be combined with other ingredients at home to make a sauce or dip. As a result, each household has their own version based on personal taste.

Hong and Crofoot made the commitment to devise a ready-made version of the condiment that they could use right out of the bottle. Born With Seoul is their new line of gochujang available online and select local shops. Read more about the development of this condiment at Recommended Daily. As Korean food grows in popularity and accessibility, such as the proliferation of kimchi on menus in Kansas City area restaurants, gochujang is a condiment that may find broad-based appeal among food-lovers seeking authentic, bold ethnic flavor.

Also, catch Born With Seoul and numerous other local vendors at Craft, a food, beverage, music and arts festival taking place at Crown Center Plaza on October 3-4.

 

Pulled pork sandwich with gochujang.

Pulled pork sandwich with gochujang.

 

Gochujang with bibimbap, a mixed vegetable dish served with rice.

Gochujang with bibimbap, a mixed vegetable dish served with rice.

 

Gochujang with bibimbap, a mixed vegetable dish served with rice.

Gochujang with bibimbap, a mixed vegetable dish served with rice.

NKC Dog is Top Dog in Town

NKC Dog is Top Dog in Town

NKC Dog takes the humble hot dog to a new level of flavor. Located in the former Clay’s Curbside Grill, NKC Dog uses premium meats, buns and ingredients to prepare gourmet hot dogs and sausages. Fancier than the franks you’re used to at the ballpark or grilling out, the folks at NKC Dog add flair without getting too foo foo about their food.

For more background on how they started, hop over to Recommended Daily to read my story. Meanwhile, feast your eyes on a few of NKC Dog’s delicious offerings. The Heaven and Hell Dog is a crazy combination of ingredients including sriracha sauce, cream cheese and fried onions. It’s a juxtaposition of texture, hot and cool flavor, and street food meets fancy food.

The Reuben Dog is an instant favorite, rivaling the classic reuben sandwich with similar ingredients in a new format. For traditionalists, it’s hard to go wrong with a Chicago Dog served with celery salt, nuclear relish and all the trimmings.

 

Reuben dog

The Reuben Dog with all of the trimmings found on the classic sandwich.

 

Swiss Mushroom Dog

The Swiss Mushroom Dog was rich, hearty and filling.

 

The Heaven and Hell Dog is a crazy combination of ingredients including sriracha sauce.

The Heaven and Hell Dog is a crazy combination of ingredients including sriracha sauce.

City Market Scene – September 26, 2015

City Market Scene – September 26, 2015

The transition from summer to autumn is evident at the City Market. Summer berries, tomatoes and corn are mostly absent, replaced by pumpkins, eggplant, bell pepper, chili peppers and late season greens. I also spotted squash blossom but resisted buying them.

Today I left the apartment with seven dollars in bills as my budget. It’s amazing how tight-fisted and selective you can be with a set budget versus just ringing up a cart of groceries at the supermarket. I made those seven bucks stretch pretty well even though I’ll supplement the purchases with a run to the store for other goods.

 

Longbeans

Long beans aka string beans or snake beans.

 

I bought some long beans aka string beans or snake beans that will be stir-fried with beef, red curry paste, Thai basil and garlic and served with rice.

 

Thai basil

Thai basil.

 

Water spinach

Water spinach.

 

This water spinach (above), also called Chinese spinach and water morning glory, will be stir-fried with garlic and shrimp and served with rice. It can also be steamed as a side dish with soup or tempura-battered and fried.

Below, I’ll likely slice and saute this summer squash with onion as a side dish. I love the striping that reminds me of watermelon rinds.

 

Summer squash

 

I’ll use some of the ginger and saute it with Asian pear in butter for a light dessert. The remaining ginger will be used in a stir-fry with pork, onion and garlic.

 

Asian pear and ginger

Asian sorrel

Asian sorrel aka sour leaf.

 

I spotted this red-stemmed plant at several Asian farm stands. It was labeled as Asian sorrel, sour leaf and gongura at different tables. The latter is a word used by Telugu, people mainly from the states of Andhra Pradesh, India, where the leafy green is typically pickled. Known as rau chua in Vietnam, sorrel is a tart-tasting herb that is eaten raw as an accompaniment to spring rolls and soups. French sorrel is used in sauces with fish as well as in soups and purees, tucked into an omelette or stuffed in fish. I skipped the sorrel this week but might experiment with it next week if still available at the market.

Fresh chestnuts still in their prickly husk were another find at the market. Of the Earth Farm Distillery had a basket of chestnuts at their stand. I may buy them later in the season. Instead, I opted to by a bottle of blackberry liqueur made from blackberries sourced from the Mule Barn Berry Patch in Lathrop. Sarah from Of the Earth passed out a sample. One sip made a convincing argument to splurge on the liqueur. Slightly sweet with a kick from the 20% alcohol by volume, the blackberry liqueur will be enjoyed as an after-dinner sipper or perhaps added to fruit compote and served over ice cream. Of the Earth also makes and sells fruit-flavored brandy, eau de vie, rye whiskey and grappa.

 

Chestnuts

Chestnut basket

Of the Earth spirits

Sara Of the Earth

 

When I returned home, I was eager to eat some of the fresh produce and herbs I had purchased including an heirloom tomato, a remind that summer has passed. I made crostini, using rosemary focaccia from Bloom Baking Co., topped with blistered strips of yellow bell pepper that I bought at the market earlier in the week, sliced Cherokee purple tomato, Thai basil and a bit of sweetened goat cheese from Borgman’s Dairy Farm. Light, colorful and full of flavor, this dish hit the spot.

 

Bruschetta

Live Fire Dinner With Craig and Gay Jones at Powell Gardens

Live Fire Dinner With Craig and Gay Jones at Powell Gardens

Craig and Gay Jones, who cook outdoors on the grill more than 300 days a year, prepared a multi-course “live fire” dinner at Powell Gardens on September 12th, 2015, for about three-dozen guests. I was one of several people on their kitchen crew providing support for preparation and service.

My primary task was to cut pounds of matchstick potatoes on a mandoline slicer and fry those spuds to a golden crisp. Due to some equipment mishaps and a blown fuse, it took far longer than it should have. Still, tiny haystacks of seasoned golden fries made it onto the plate. Bonus, I didn’t cut myself on the mandoline. Craig and Gay provided a pair of Kevlar cooking gloves that enabled me to slice potatoes quickly by hand without slicing my hand. With all the time it took for that preparation, despite my past cooking experience, I don’t think I could hold onto a job making French fries at a fast food joint. Sheesh.

Nonetheless, it was fun knocking out a multi-course dinner with Craig, Gay, Tyler Gallagher, Elise Landry and Dan and Lorena Doty. Powell Gardens’ staff and servers also helped to make the service smooth on a beautiful night.

The menu included a chilled creamy corn (?) soup with lardons and edible flowers, Caesar salad with fire-charred Romaine lettuce, reverse-seared lamb with haystack potatoes and Jezebel sauce, fresh fruit bowls garnished with flowers from Powell Gardens, and vanilla ice cream topped with honey and smoked sea salt.

 

Tyler Gallagher and Craig Jones feel the beat before dinner service.

Tyler Gallagher and Craig Jones feel the beat before dinner service.

 

Table display.

Table display.

 

Preparing chilled soup.

Preparing chilled soup.

 

Soup close up 2

Lorena Doty (left) and Elise Landry plate Caesar salads.

Lorena Doty (left) and Elise Landry plate Caesar salads.

 

Fire-charred Caesar salad.

Fire-charred Caesar salad.

 

Dan Doty

Dan Doty

 

Craig Jones checks the coals.

Craig Jones checks the coals.

lamb prep

Lamb with haystack potatoes and Jezebel sauce.

Lamb with haystack potatoes and Jezebel sauce.

 

Dan Doty slices lamb.

Dan Doty slices lamb.

 

Gay Jones portions lamb.

Gay Jones portions lamb.

ice cream prep

Vanilla ice cream with local honey and smoked sea salt.

Vanilla ice cream with local honey and smoked sea salt.

guests at dinner

guests at dinner 2

fire

Gay Jones

Gay Jones

Elise Landry

Elise Landry

 

Dan Doty relaxes by the fire.

Dan Doty relaxes by the fire.

 

Lorena Doty

Lorena Doty

 

Tyler Gallagher resting at night's end by the campfire.

Tyler Gallagher resting at night’s end by the campfire.

 

Elise Landry

Elise Landry

dusk