the queen of all vocals
& one of my absolute favorites
Ella FiTZGERALD with
I'm working my way through MFK Fisher's anthology the Art of Eating. It is not a cookbook, but a series of books that contain short essays about food and eating and cooking and their social implications. Although I have come across her work in "best of" food writing collections, I decided to make the commitment to read through her whole body of work.
She is a fantastic writer, full of wit, tongue-in-cheek humor, insightful examinations of human behavior seen through the eyes of the cook and the eater. If prose can be poetry, she nails that subtlety. There are over 700 pages of nuance, so I'm not going to summarize it all. But I was so struck by something I read last night, I wanted to take note of it and share the experience with you.
The final book in this collection is Alphabet for Gourmets. As you'd expect, each chapter has some alphabetical significance in it's title and inspiration.
H is for Happy is a love song. She starts out by discussing the times when people are most happy at the table: when they're young, when they're in love, when they're alone... There are many more.
In a prior essay called The Pale Yellow Glove from Serve it Forth, Fisher discusses those moments of "complete gastronomic satisfaction". They're rare if you're a foodie, maybe because we are often more aware of the short comings of a food experience. But in this essay, she touches on those times when the stars align, when the food and the experiences, internal and external, are in harmony to produce a scintillating memory. It is the sense of being simultaneously satisfied, physically and emotionally. It could be the complicated result of a good friend making you a five star birthday dinner or the simplicity of eating blackberries from your garden that are more sweet than sugar and still warm from the heat of the afternoon August sun. For me, music can provide the same sort of accord between the physical and emotional. For a pregnant second, the world seems to stop so you can absorb something bigger than yourself, something immortal. It's as if you can feel LIFE.
Keeping that in mind, we'll travel back to H is for Happy. Fisher dwells on a memory of eating fried egg sandwiches, but not just any... Aunt Gwen's friend egg sandwiches. They were a secret treat at the time, something that neither her grandmother or mother would have indulged in. Take a look at this excerpt and recipe.
When I was a child my Aunt Gwen (who was not an aunt at all but a large-boned and enormous-hearted woman who, thank God, lived next door to us) used to walk my little sister Anne and me up into the hills at sundown. She insisted on pockets. We had to have at least two apiece when we were with her. In one of them, on those twilight promenades, would be some cookies. In the other, oh, deep sensuous delight! would be a fried egg sandwich!
Nobody but Aunt Gwen ever made fried egg sandwiches for us. Grandmother was carefully protected from the fact that we had ever even heard of them, and as for Mother, preoccupied with a second set of children, she shuddered at the thought of such grease-bound proteins with a thoroughness which should have made us chary but instead succeeded only in satisfying our human need for secrets.
The three of us, Aunt Gwen weighing a good four times what Anne and I did put together, would sneak out of the family ken whenever we could, into the blue-ing air, our pockets sagging and our spirits spiraling in a kind of intoxication of freedom, breathlessness, fatigue, and delicious anticipations. We would climb high above the other mortals, onto a far rock or a fallen eucalyptus tree and sit there, sometimes close as burrs and sometimes apart, singing straight through Pinafore and the Episcopal Hymn Book (Aunt Gwen was British and everything from contralto to basso profundo in the Whittier church choir), and biting voluptuously into our tough, soggy, indigestible and luscious suppers. We flourished on them, both physically and in our tenacious spirits.
AUNT GWEN'S FRIED EGG SANDWICHES
1/2 to 1 cup drippings
6 fresh eggs
12 slices bread
The drippings are very English, the kind poured off an unidentified succession of beef, mutton, and bacon pans, melted gradually into one dark puddle of thick unappetizing grease which immediately upon being dabbed into a thick hot iron skillet sends out rendingly appetizing smells.
The eggs must be fresh, preferably brown ones, best of all freckled brown ones.
The bread must be good bread, no puffy, blanched, uniform blotters from a paper cocoon.
The waxed paper must be of honest quality, since at the corners where it will leak a little some of it will stick to the sandwich and in a way merge with it and be eaten.
These have been amply indicated in the text, and their prime requisite-Aunt Gwen herself would be the first to cry no to any further exposition of them. Suffice it that they were equal parts of hunger and happiness.
Heat the drippings in a wide flat-bottomed skillet until they spit and smoke. Break in the eggs, which will immediately bubble around the edges, making them crisp and indigestible, and break their yolks with a fork and swirl them around, so that they are scattered fairly evenly through the whites. This will cook very quickly and the eggs should be tough as leather.
Either push them to one side of the pan or remove them, and fry bread in the drippings for each sandwich, two slices to an egg. It too will send off a blue smoke. Fry it on one side only, so that when the sandwiches are slapped together their insides will turn soggy at once. Add to this sogginess by pressing them firmly together. Wrap them well in the waxed paper, where they will steam comfortably.
These sandwiches, if properly made and wrapped, are guaranteed, if properly carried in sweater or pinafore pockets, to make large oily stains around them.
Seasoning depends on the state of the drippings. As I remember Aunt Gwen's, they were such a "fruity" blend of last week's roast last month's gammon, that salt and pepper would have been an insult to their fine flavor.
To be eaten on top of a hill at sunset, between trios of "A Wandering Minstrel I" and "Onward Christian Soldiers" preferably before adolescence and its priggish queasiness set in.
As I've said before on the Last Bite, sometimes food is fuel, and when you're cooking for a family, preparing food spiritually might feel like a stretch. But we should all remember that providing sustenance is more than fulfilling a physical need. It is filling a need bigger than a stomach. Because it is life sustaining, most literally, it carries a heavier weight than caloric input. It has the opportunity to reach someone deep down in their core being. It has the capacity to stop the world for a second, to cause a person to take inventory of where they are in the universe, to create a memory that will stick with them through the rest of their days.