Provence with MFK Fisher

If you were to ask foodies who the best food writer of the twentieth century is, MFK Fisher would show up on everyone’s list.  She is on my short list of food writers I’ll never tire of reading (along with Robert Farrar Capon, Ruth Reichl, Julia Child, and Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin). 

Since I’ve only read one book by MFK Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf, I picked up Two Towns in Provence, two books bound into one.  The two towns are Aix and Marseilles. But there is precious little about food here. These memoirs focus on the people in Fisher’s daily life in Southern France: the waiter at her favorite cafe, her doctor, the proprietress where she boarded,  taxi drivers, a couple whose window faced theirs, fish wives, mendicants, students, even strangers whom Fisher repeatedly sees. 

Fisher is a sculptor and words are her tools.  She chips away the banalities and highlights the quirks and mannerisms unique to her subjects.  Her characters are not wooden; they were warm and vibrant. 

Both books would have benefited from stronger editing.  Sections could have been cut, leaving a tight, cohesive memoir.  I had to push myself through parts, knowing Fisher’s characters and turns of phrase would eventually reward me. 

The few people that used [the only bath in the hotel] evidently felt that this price [$0.10] included full maid service, but the two overworked slaveys in the hotel did not, so that I usually cleaned the tub in self-protection. I decided then that many people are latently swinish and that I would rather work anywhere than in a hotel.

I am intrigued by the skilled synthesis of fast and slow people in this description of the Two Sisters restaurant in Marseilles (emphasis mine).

What we see is the top of the iceberbg, as in any good restaurant. Beneath it is the real organization: the staff, both seen and invisible, the provisions, constantly checked and renewed; the upkeep of the whole small tight place, with all its linens, glasses, table fittings, and its essential fresh cleanliness. Above all, there is the skilled synthesis of fast and slow people, that they will work together on bad days and hectic festivals, through heat waves and the worst mistrals.

If you are a Francophile, you should probably read this book.  For the rest, pick up one of Fisher’s other titles.

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