Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

M.F.K. Fisher's A Cordiall Water

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was the original American food writer, the woman who lived and ate in France before the word "Provence" became a tagline for bestsellers about middle-aged writers purchasing charming farms (surely all those farms are bought up? Is paradise paved for a parking lot?). I have a decrepit copy of The Art of Eating, acquired during a time of poverty. I read "How to Cook a Wolf" whilst deadly ill from a virus contracted by one of my stripper colleagues. I lay on the couch, our empty kitchen looming, reading about how to weather the indignities of war rationing. I myself was unable to eat a thing, and after watching me for a week, Hockeyman insisted I visit the local ER.

This connotation having stamped itself into my subconcious, I never sought out the rest of Fisher's works. Occasionally I happened across something in an anthology and read happily.

But a couple weeks ago I found A Cordiall Water in Spectator Books, and as I am a sucker for an interesting edition, I picked it up. The book itself is small, palm-sized, with a sturdy yellow dust jacket. I love books with dust jackets, especially books you don't expect to have them--small paperbacks like this one, cookbooks intended for serious use, poetry volumes. Some of you may find this admission weird, but the bibliophiles are all nodding.

But back to Mary Frances. Orginially published in 1961, Water is a compendium of ancient recipes--receipts--addressing the ailments of animal and man. Many, Fisher notes, utilize alcohol, while others involve warm poultices, fluids, and rest. Others are emetic in nature, or address the need for the occasional "cleansing."

While most of these receipes are charmingly archaic, any person living in California, as I do, cannot read without thinking of the alternative practitioners plying their trades all round. I am a block from a Naturopath/Acupuncturist, three blocks from a tradional Chinese physician. If I am so inclined, I can drive the five miles to Elephant Pharmacy, where the staff will happily lead one amongst the aisles of tinctures, formulae, and pills, explaining the virtues of this or that.


Even those of us outside easy radius of alternative medicines are increasingly aware that the contents of our medicine chests may be doing more harm than good. I write this as a grateful recipient of Western medicine, which has saved my life on more than one occasion. I heartily endorse and participate in much that Western medicine has to offer, and have no intention of abandoning my health insurance program.

But about the Lunesta I swallowed just last night...clearly it's not great stuff. As a sleep aid it helps. That is, if I take it I can be certain of four solid hours of sleep. After that I begin waking, far too early. My insomnia is stress-related, and I am unwilling to clobber it with Ambien, which I have taken a couple times. I am a small woman, and broke the sample capsule given me in half. I was sitting up in bed, reading, when I began feeling the sheets were moving toward me in waves. I woke hours later with the lights burning and the metal barrettes I'd used to put my hair up still in place. This happened before sleep-driving and eating were known about. I refused my doctor's offer of a prescription. Insomnia is horrible. It makes me insane. But which is worse? The illness or the cure?

When my bowel troubles spiraled out of control, I was offered every med in the world except for the ones that ultimately worked--opiate-based narcotics. To put it bluntly, opiates constipate. They also, mercifully, reduce pain. But my doctors were certain amitryptiline, Zoloft, Prednisone, Lotronex, and a host of even more dangerous meds were the tickets. In the end, an aspirin-based drug called Pentasa, coupled with the opiates, changed my life. Both are plant-derivatives. As one pharmacist once told me: "Opium is older than God. It will never, ever hurt you."

So what are we to make of MFK's charming little volume? That at 142 beautifully written pages, it is an evening's enjoyment, a visit to a more primitive time. Or that, like her works on food, it transcends time. Here are her words on growing fat, written nearly fifty years ago:

"In other words, we eat too much...(she was speaking specifically of Americans)...Most doctors, for hundreds of years, have urged people not to get reduce their weight gradually and sanely...Eat when you are hungry, eat according to the seasons of the year, and always rest afterwards." (101)

We may smirk at the rubbings of animal dung or the ingestion of powdered stag horn. Or we can read the oft-repeated prescriptions for fluids, rest, mindful eating of fresh foods, a touch of drink, and allow, perhaps, the tiniest bit of ancient knowledge in to rest beside our bottles of Vioxx.

M.F.K. Fisher. A Cordiall Water. North Point Press: San Francisco. 1961.


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