Excellent Women: The Gastronomical Me by M. F. K. Fisher and I Used to be Charming by Eve Babitz

Two terrific books for you today – by prose stylists of the highest order. Enjoy!

The Gastronomical Me by M. F. K. Fisher (1943)

This is a book for anyone who enjoys food – not the fancy, pretentious kind of food the word ‘gastronomical’ might suggest, but honest, simple, good quality fare, typically fashioned from flavoursome ingredients.  It is, in essence, a blend of memoir, food writing and travel journal, all woven together in Fisher’s wonderfully engaging style.

Backlisted listeners among you may have encountered Fisher through How to Cook a Wolf (1942), her wartime guide to keeping appetites sated when decent ingredients are in short supply. In The Gastronomical Me, Fisher looks back on some of the most symbolic meals and food-related experiences of her first three decades – the quality of the dishes consumed, the people who shared them and the memories they evoked. She writes lovingly of her early life, the most notable culinary occasions, irrespective of their simplicity, and the way our feelings towards certain foods are often entwined with memories of people, places and key moments in time. There is a sense of meals being part of the fabric of a person’s life here, inextricably linked to love, friendship and family – encompassing both happy times and sad.

Throughout the book, Fisher relates her most memorable food-related experiences, from her first taste of the frothy ‘skin’ on her grandmother’s homemade jam to the trepidation of swallowing a live oyster at the high-school dance. We learn of her travels from California to France, following her marriage to Al Fisher, an academic studying for his doctorate at Dijon. On their arrival in France, the Fishers were eager to experience the European lifestyle, delighting in simple yet flavoursome food, courtesy of their boarding house and the city’s modest restaurants.

The memoir gives us snapshots of Fisher’s life, mostly from the late 1920s (when Fisher would have been around twenty) to the late ‘30s, when Europe was in the grip of a tumultuous war. Various sea crossings are dotted throughout the memoir – as are various friends, family members and other eccentric acquaintances the Fishers meet on their travels. Naturally, there are affairs of the heart too, particularly when M. F. K. falls for the American writer and artist Dillwyn Parrish (or Chexbres as he is affectionately known) in the mid-1930s. In time, he becomes the love of her life; although sadly, their time together is very short, cruelly curtailed by Chexbres’ suicide, prompted by the debilitating impact of Buerger’s Disease.   

Where the book really excels is in Fisher’s ability to convey a genuine love of food. Not in a way that reeks of privilege or pretentiousness; just warmth, passion and enjoyment, laced with an admiration for the people who prepare it. In this scene, Fisher recalls a meal of freshly caught trout, potatoes and hot buttered peas from the garden of a Swiss guesthouse near Lucerne.

It was, of course, the most delicious dish that we had ever eaten. We knew that we were hungry, and that even if it had been bad it would have been good…but we knew, too, that nevertheless it was one of the subtlest, rarest things that had ever come our way. It was incredibly delicate, as fresh as clover.

We talked about it later, and Frau Weber told us of it willingly, but in such a vague way that all I can remember now is hot unsalted butter, herbs left in for a few seconds, cream, a shallot flicked over, the fish laid in, the cover put on. I can almost see it, smell it, taste it; but I know that I could never copy it, nor could anyone alive, probably. (p. 217)

It’s a glorious vignette, beautifully conveyed in Fisher’s elegant, eminently readable style.

I Used to be CharmingThe Rest of Eve Babitz (2019)

I’ve written before about Eve Babitz, the American writer, journalist and album cover designer who died last December. Her 1974 collection, Eve’s Hollywood, could be described as autofiction or maybe a semi-fictionalised memoir. Either way, it’s a luminous book – like a series of shimmering vignettes on bohemian life in LA.

Slow Days, Fast Company followed in 1977, cementing Babitz’s reputation as a leading documenter of the Californian lifestyle/counterculture. Both books are currently in print with NRYB Classics, along with a third volume of Babitz’s work, I Used to be Charming – The Rest of Eve Babitz, compiled in 2019.

Charming comprises some fifty articles/essays, mostly published in magazines between 1975 and 1997. Far from being a collection of odds and ends, Charming contains some of the very best of Babitz’s writing – the titular essay, recounting her recovery from life-threatening third-degree burns, is worth the cover price alone. It’s a searingly honest yet funny piece, conveyed in Babitz’s thoroughly engaging style. Also of particular note is a sixty-page essay on the ethos of Fiorucci, the pioneering Italian fashion brand based. Much to my surprise, I found this absolutely fascinating and immersive!

As in the earlier books, Babitz turns her eye to various topics here – mostly related to California with the occasional sojourn to New York. She writes beautifully about men, relationships, actors, musicians, locations, fashion, body image and various personal experiences. Her style is naturally breezy – conversational, almost – both easy-going and whip-smart. It’s a tricky blend to pull off, but to Babitz it seems intuitive, as in this 1979 piece titled Gotta Dance.  

Once you feel what it’s like to dance with someone who knows how to dance, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. You may even come to realize, as I have, that dancing is better than sex. I mean that, I really do. It’s better because it’s a flirtation that can go on forever and ever without being consummated; because you can do it with strangers and not feel guilty or ashamed; because you can do it outside your marriage and not get in any trouble; and because you can do it in public, with people watching and applauding. And when you’re doing it right, you can’t think about anything else, such as what you forgot at work or that the ceiling needs painting.

Which is why women love to dance. (p. 203)

Babitz can be funny too, as in Tiffany’s Before Breakfast, an article about coping with an impending crisis. Here, she has arranged to meet her friend Tina to make plans to avert a collapse.

So we met at Nickodell’s, a thirties Hollywood restaurant which has stuff like “turkey croquettes” on the menu, it’s so Mildred Pierce. Nickodell’s – it’s sort of the only place in L.A. you can go without accidentally bumping into an alfalfa sprout. It makes you feel grounded. It’s a good place to discuss your nervous breakdown. (p. 136)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Babitz writes evocatively about cities, neighbourhoods and locations – not just her beloved L.A. but also the more friendly San Francisco.

Here, it seemed to me, was the essential San Francisco: a city of lights, a city of radiant beings, a city of taxis and tourists and back alleys, a city of crazily shaped enterprises, of too-high hills and too much romance from long ago, where the past and the present blur into each other… (pp. 315-316)

I’ve merely scratched the surface of this beguiling collection of pieces, which I read over several weeks during the dark days of January. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in California, especially during this era.   

Both of these books qualify for Karen and Lizzy’s Read Indies event in support of Independent Publishers. The Gastronomical Me is published by Daunt Books, I Used to be Charming by NYRB Classics; my thanks to the Independent Alliance/publishers for kindly providing review copies.

31 thoughts on “Excellent Women: The Gastronomical Me by M. F. K. Fisher and I Used to be Charming by Eve Babitz

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it wonderful? I think it captures something of Babitz as a person alongside her fluid, seemingly effortless prose style. She comes across as a free spirit – a force of nature so to speak, but gloriously charming too. You’d enjoy her work, I suspect!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, she’s such a joy to read. Not in the least bit aloof or pretentious, just a lover of good quality food. I read this in December, quite close to Christmas I think, and it was a great choice for the season.

      Reply
  1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Very enjoyable review as always! I must admit the genres aren’t ones I naturally read but Fisher’s writing is very attractive; I’m sure I’ll sample at some point. As for Babitz, I actually have a copy of I Used To Be Charming, thanks to an NYRB flash sale (NYRB has great flash sales). The quote about the diner’s lack of an alfafa sprout is priceless (must of been the only place in LA at the time not to have one!).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! That quote about the restaurant being an alfalfa-free zone made me laugh out loud as I was reading it. As a comment on LA food culture, it still stands up today, especially in this age of veganism and ‘clean’ eating. Lovely to hear that you have this collection to look forward to – I’ll be very interested to hear what you think of it!

      Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    What a fantastic pairing, Jacqui! I love reading a good cookbook anyway, so mix in a memoir and travel stuff and it would be perfect for me! I’ve hear such good things about Fisher I really will have to look out for her. And as for Babitz, those quotes are excellent and although I’m not sure if her fiction would be the right fit for me, I think the essays could well be a good way in for me – I like a good essay! :D

    Reply
    1. fswolfe

      I’ve been a fan of Fisher’s from my youth. What I love most about her writing–as delectable as her feel for food is–is how she weaves her observations about food with memories of her the romantic, exciting, momentous, sometimes tragic aspects of her life. And her book “Sister Age” is a very helpful guidebook to growing old. As for Babitz, I’ve just ordered “I Used to Be Charming.” Thanks for the lead.

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        Oh, that’s great to hear! I really hope you enjoy the Babitz. She has such a charming, easy-going style, the sort of writer you’re happy to follow wherever she takes you. And you’re so right about Fisher! There’s a degree of romanticism to some of her vignettes, while others are more melancholy or poignant. I found her memories of Chexbres particularly moving…

        Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Hopefully they’ll quality for your Read Indies event, even if I read them in late Dec/early Jan! Fisher’s great, and well worth trying if you fancy something that brings together elements of memoir, travel writing and food. The Backlisted podcast would make a good intro – that’s how I found her, much to my delight!

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    The Fisher is definitely not a book I would ever be drawn (cookery,food books not really my thing) yet this one, clearly very memoir based sounds delightful.
    I remember your previous enthusiasm for Babitz, and these pieces sound excellent, and extremely evocative of LA. I love the quotes from Babitz.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think you’d enjoy this Fisher a lot more than How to Cook a Wolf (which is focused on food and making the most of meagre rations when resources are tight). She’s so delightfully engaging, a real pleasure to read. And the Babitz is excellent too – as you say, very evocative on time and place.

      Reply
  4. Julé Cunningham

    Fisher is always such a pleasure to read and maybe that’s partly why I enjoyed my recent read of ‘To Keep the Sun Alive’ with its evocative descriptions of food and family so much. I’m more of a Northern California girl than Southern California, but Babitz is fun to read on many subjects!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      When I think back to my own memories of childhood, I’m always struck by how many of them involve food and meals of various sorts. It’s often these shared experiences that resonate so strongly…

      And you’re right about Babitz; she’s like a breath of fresh air, especially in the cold, dark days of winter!

      Reply
  5. Jane

    These both sound wonderful Jacqui, I love food memoirs so The Gastronomical Me is very exciting and I do love California! I hope you’re feeling better?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Fisher is wonderful, and definitely a writer I would recommend to you given your love of food memoirs. She’s a joy to read. And yes, I am feeling a lot better now as the nerve pain has abated, much to my relief. Many thanks for asking!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, both very enjoyable. I’m cheating a little by squeezing them into Read Indies as they’re actually from my review backlog. That said, it was too convenient an opportunity to pass up!

      Reply
  6. Claire 'Word by Word'

    I loved the one Fisher I’ve read Map of Another Town and her engaging style, you do making this one sound equally enticing! And the Babitz too sounds excellent, even if I’m not particularly interested in the location, it’s the observation and I sights it provokes in her that appeal. Lovely review and pairing of books Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Claire. They just seemed to fit together quite well. In fact, NYRB Classics replied to my tweet yesterday with a nod to the pairing because Babitz once described M.F.K. Fisher as writing “just like Proust only better because she at least gave the recipes”. How apt is that! Thanks also for the reminder of Map of Another Town – I think that’s the Fisher I’d like to read next. :)

      Reply
  7. Marcie McCauley

    Hah, it’s true that the use of the word ‘gastronomical’ does whisper of a certain kind of food writing (the kind that I wouldn’t take to, personally)! You enjoy Babitz more than I do, but I do enjoy reading your thoughts on her work even so (I think I’ll stick with the single volume I’ve read….but you never know, I might be tempted yet heheh).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No worries at all! I’m glad you enjoy my writing on Babitz, even if the books themselves are not necessarily your thing. Life would be very dull if we all felt the same way…

      Reply
      1. Marcie McCauley

        I didn’t dislike her writing, I just wasn’t wholly engaged either. And sometimes in those situations I am almost relieved when another reader I know DOES like the author’s work more and I amble in some other direction feeling quite happy to know someone else is reading and enjoying them while I’m not. It doesn’t have to make sense, right? Heheh

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          No, I get it! I feel similarly about Margaret Atwood, whose work I admire but find hard to get excited about. Nevertheless, I love that you and Ali and millions of other readers find her work so compelling. :)

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Kirsty! I’m really glad you enjoyed it. Fisher is amazing – such a smart, generous and engaging writer. I definitely want to read more of her work.

      Reply
  8. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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