The other night, I desired a well written nonfiction book to lull me to sleep. For as long as I can remember, we have had a copy of M.F.K. Fisher's With Bold Knife & Forktucked among our cookbooks. I have denied myself what I regarded as a somewhat off-topic treat for all these years. A few nights ago, I ended this fast and cracked open the old paperback.
Of course, I was enchanted from the opening quote — James Boswell (Samuel Johnson's wingman and chronicler) writing in his London Journal, December 25, 1762. Ah! Samuel Johnson deserves his legendary status as a genius of words and a guiding light to lovers of the English language, so naturally I am an inveterate Boswell fan as well. And to learn that Boswell provided Ms. Fisher with her title. Well done, and I haven't even gotten to the Table of Contents.
More literary lusciousness jumps out at me. She starts not on the main road, but upon an etymological tangent. In beginning her first chapter, "The Anatomy of a Recipe," she explores the current (1968) vogue for writing "anatomies" of this and that. But before she even finishes the first sentence, she alludes to Robert Burton's 1621 Anatomy of Melancholy!
In many untamed moments as a young, earnest seeker, when I felt I needed to raise myself up, or at least nestle into the comfort of kindred blues, I would heft the huge, clothbound library book from the stacks of the old Green Graduate Library at Stanford University. The cover was frayed and the title was handwritten in a white pen on the spine, along with the call letters. In the bright California sunshine of the summer of 1974, only a few lonely spirits (aka Losers) like me flitted through the oppressive gloom of the low-ceilinged stacks. Down a narrow aisle framed by metal stands packed with books enough to rival the great library of ancient Alexandria, I
would curl up on the hard wooden chair of my customary carrel, pensively chew a thick rope of black licorice, and commune across the centuries with my soul mate, my depression assuaged by the saving graces of language.
I was further smitten on the second page with M.F.K.F.'s bold pan across the epochs of civilized man. She notes, more elegantly than I paraphrase, that recipes are products of their cultural moment. If one considers processed foods to be products of industrial "recipes" of a sort, Fisher points toward the subject of my book — how capitalism and American foodways intertwine, each changing the other as our history unfurls.
Not much further on, Fisher does another dance of word and memory, and I, one of those word-lovers who actually read dictionaries for pleasure, am ready to believe whatever she says. She hates dips. Fine. They often struck me as unsanitary pits of unsavored caloric excess. (She does spare guacamole, however, as a true Californian ought.)
Then, since she is anything but a whanging Debbie Downer, she offers an excellent alternative for cocktail parties and other appetizing occasions: spreads. I'm fine with this, too, especially as she starts naming foods I like such as shrimp and olives. But then, whoa Nellie! The first three ingredients for her Tapénade are canned. M.F.K.'s recipe, too, is a product of its cultural moment. And so am I. My moment, a couple of generations later than hers, recoils a bit from the highly processed nub of her recipe. Affluent snob that I am, able to access fresh meats and produce of endless variety at any season, it is easy to dismiss canned food as déclassé and devoid of desirable flavor and texture with severely compromised nutrition.
However, the social historian in me brings myself to task. This nation was built and defended atop mountains of used tin cans. Canned food provides vital calories and nutrients to billions of people, who would otherwise suffer malnutrition. And I have to admit, of course, that all the anchovies I relish come to my pantry canned, as does the pasta sauce, and the chicken noodle soup that comforts my husband when the refrigerator is bare.
Canned food forms a structural arc in the history of American food ways. Nicolas Appert's L'Art de conserver les substances animales et végétales (or The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances) was published in Paris in 1810. Since then, canned food has become safer, more convenient, more nutritious, and more delectable due to innovations by can makers, industrial processors, big agricultural producers, and the U.S. military. Canned food has fed, traveled with, employed, often delighted, and sometimes saved Americans. Ms. Fisher's simple Tapénade recipe for the cultured-but-busy hostess of 1968 puts my own hypocritical, locavore snobbery to shame fifty years later.
We may have passed the optimal value in the arc of canned food's greatness, especially as the constraints of resource use and waste management grow, while extremely processed food raises the hackles of foodies and nutritionists alike. But as an engine of economic growth and a solid building block in the work of improving living standards for the average person, canned food earns my respect.