Classical Effects

The incipit of a piece by Jonathan Tepperman in Newsweek:

In 1942, a little-known Michigan-born journalist living in Europe decided to write a cookbook of sorts. Her name was M.F.K. Fisher, and the result, How to Cook a Wolf, was less a collection of recipes than a guide to, and a fierce defense of, eating well when the world was at war, food was scarce and the proverbial wolf was “snuffling at the door.” Fisher was adamant that, whatever the circumstances, one must try to exist as richly as possible. As she later told an interviewer, “One has to live, you know. You can’t just die from grief or anything. You don’t die. You might as well eat well, have a good glass of wine, a good tomato.”

I’ve been thinking about Fisher a lot lately. While the wolf has not yet reached the threshold again, she’s been sighted in the neighborhood and can be heard baying up the empty canyons of Wall Street. Which makes advice like Fisher’s as important now as it was 60 years ago. For her point was not just that we should struggle to live well for the sake of the struggle. It was that, when conditions are rough, finding comfort—whether in a tomato or a lovingly prepared meal—is especially important, both to salve our wounds and to remind ourselves of our humanity.

It’s a lesson I first learned about a decade ago. The circumstances were far less astringent and romantic than occupied France, but the grub was almost as bad. I was a student living on a narrow budget in England, before Cool Brittania made the U.K. part of Europe again, bringing cappuccino and tapenade even to remote academia. Back then the dorms were cold, the plumbing erratic and the dining-hall food comically bad, either gray or beige and fat or starch. Albion was still the land of dishwater coffee, the chip butty (a french-fry sandwich) and bacon dinners. I’d come to study law and was overwhelmed by the course load and losing weight so rapidly I was eating two chocolate bars a day to keep my pants up. And then I fell in love, and everything changed.

She studied Latin poetry and was strong-willed, beautiful and brilliant—and a maniacal cook, who fed me candied ginger the first time we had tea (who knew there was such a thing?) and soon started serving me elaborate, exquisite meals. Then the rules shifted and I soon found myself drafted into twice-weekly shopping trips and nightly kitchen duty. At first, panicked at the library hours I was losing, I resented this drudgery deeply; not helping never seemed an option. But it wasn’t long before I realized, over a forkful of wild Scottish trout, a plate of orrechiette with rapini and sausage or a post-dinner glass of vin santo, that this extraordinary food and the time spent preparing it wasn’t undermining my work—it was enabling it. Left to my own devices and an institutional menu of mushy peas, I wouldn’t have lasted a full term. The classicist showed me how to slow down and live better. I succumbed to it and Oxford’s other eccentric charms—like inkwells in the libraries, the white-tie ensemble we wore for exams or the bicycles we rode everywhere (often while wearing white tie). I made room and time for the Good Life, and the Good Life saved me.

The classicist is long gone, despite my obedient kitchen servitude and the stock-pot I bought her for Valentine’s Day (which she took with her). But her lesson sticks with me. [...]

Sound like a Classicist I know, but then again, what do I know …

About these ads

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s