Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Sharing a home: The Life of a Biographer

Ah, the break between Christmas and New Year. A perfect time to sit down - regularly - with a good book. For this book it would make sense to enjoy it with a good wine... and a good meal to follow.

What’s it like to inhabit the home of another person? A person you have never met and has already died? This is the parallel universe biographers have to absorb themselves into, but what happens when they return to their own homes? Do their subjects travel with them?

Anne Zimmerman recently published a biography about the great American food writer, M.F.K. Fisher titled An Extravagant Hunger: The passionate years of M.F.K. Fisher. She never set out to write a biography. Instead, while looking for a subject for her thesis, she stumbled upon one M.F.K. Fisher book in the library and was fascinated.

‘First, I fell in love with old black and white photos of her. I remember shots of her lounging in a hammock by Lake Geneva, at the World's Fair in Paris, or travelling through Italy. Very soon after I discovered that her writing was even more evocative than those beguiling photos. I quickly realized that I wanted to know everything about her and her life. Needless to say, what I found in her life and her work was so inspiring, I wanted to share it.’

‘M.F.K. Fisher led me to a love for food and wine -- sort of! I grew up in a family that valued food. My mother is an amazing cook and we sat down to dinner together every night. But I was a picky eater until I studied abroad in my early twenties. I was just discovering food and wine when I moved from Portland, Oregon to San Diego, California for graduate school. I was very lonely in San Diego and missed my friends. Fisher's work inspired me to take care of myself. I'd cook elaborate meals each week even if I had no one to share them with. It really made me understand that food is love, and that it's possible (and advisable!) to nourish yourself if you are lonely.’

Before realising she would write a book, M.F.K. Fisher already had a strong influence on Anne.

‘I used Fisher as a writing tutor of sorts. I would come home from a long day and write food focused mini-essays. I wrote about peaches, about making an onion pie, about eating alone. I think I was vaguely lonely and unsatisfied at that time, and writing helped. It also helped me realize that the dramatic events of M.F.K. Fisher's life definitely inspired her prose.’

Anne says that working on the biography only made her feelings about how much she loved food and wine, ‘and the conviviality that comes from sharing meals with people’ stronger.

‘Cooking is my daily hobby -- finishing up with work and walking into the kitchen at the end of the day is one of my favorite things. And of course, food and wine are a magic pairing. Nothing makes me happier than to sit down to a home cooked meal and open bottle of wine. It doesn't matter if it is a Tuesday or a Saturday, this is always a great ending to the day.’

‘The other day someone asked me which room we spent the most time in (aside from sleeping!). When I said the kitchen, the person looked surprised. But I'm surprised by people who don't spend time in the kitchen! It is undoubtedly my favorite room in the house. I like cooking and [husband] Sean does too. At the end of the day you'll usually find one of us prepping dinner while the other one sits and watches (or helps). Next we're in the dining room eating and then it's back to the kitchen to clean up. It's an essential part of our home and married life.’

But what was it really like for Anne to inhabit the world of someone she had never met so intimately? Did Fisher’s world ever filter into Anne’s?

‘It was a great gift to be able to spend 18 months writing about M.F.K. Fisher almost every single day. And it's funny -- I don't ever think that her life encroached on mine, but I will say that I went through a very major heartbreak when I was mid-way through the book. Many people close to me have commented that my own writing became richer and better afterwards, and I was definitely able to "tap" some of that emotion when writing about the end of M.F.K. and Al Fisher's marriage.’

‘I've heard that a lot of biographers end up hating their subjects by the end of their books and I feel very lucky that this did not happen to me. The best part of book writing was writing. I loved waking up early and working hard till midday. Even when I was exhausted, hungry, and in my pjs in mid-afternoon, I was still insanely happy to be doing the work.’

‘Surprises only added to the fun. I'd done so much research prior to starting the book that there weren't any big surprises about M.F.'s life -- the big surprise came when I traveled to Smith College to do more research on Al Fisher. It turns out that after the two divorced he became quite a lothario. This image of Al as a sexual beast was quite different from the pensive poet I'd grown accustomed to -- and the book is richer and more dynamic because of it.’

‘Writing a book is hard, much harder than I ever thought. I'd argue that writing a biography was "easier" -- only because I knew what would happen next! Still, as challenging as it was, it was such an amazing time. I was totally focused on one thing -- my writing, my book -- and got to be very selfish. Even if I write another book I am not sure it will ever be quite like it was that first time.’

So how did it feel when it was all over and Anne had to completely slip back into her own life without sharing it with her subject?

‘Ha! I carefully timed my wedding to coincide with the end of my book tour. Thus, when book events started to putter out, I immediately had a new creative project to focus on. It was nice to have something to work on that wasn't related to books or to writing -- it took some of the pressure off. When people would ask me about my next book I could always say, "First, I have to get married...!"

‘Looking back at my wedding photos it is easy to tell that Fisher inspired my day. We had a small wedding with a long, luxurious lunch. There was lots of wine and amazing food. My dress and other details were inspired by the 1930s. It was a beautiful day.’

While Anne felt it very ‘bittersweet’ to finish the book, she has managed to continue her relationship with M.F.K. Fisher.

‘I selected some lesser known Fisher essays to be included in a book called Love in a Dish... And Other Culinary Delights. This Spring, I have another book coming out: M.F.K. Fisher's Musings on Wine and Other Libations (Sterling Epicure). M.F.K. Fisher is an amazing subject -- I think she is sort of like a first love. It will be hard to find someone to top her!’

For more information about Anne Zimmerman and her writing, visit her blog
Poetic Appetite or her author website, here.

All photos © Anne Zimmerman

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Merry Christmas... & Luck?!

One recent midweek night, while making spinach pie for dinner and compiling boring lists in my head – check if there are clean school uniforms; don’t forget to put the bins out – I mindlessly started cracking eggs into a bowl.

And suddenly, not so mindlessly, I noticed a double yolker. Not one double yolker but three. Three double yolkers in a row. I stupidly decided to Google what such a finding could mean. Great luck or dreadful luck it seems, depending on which ‘yolk-lore’ you choose to follow.

I hope it’s a sign of luck and good things to come. With that in mind, I’d like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a lucky 2012. Thanks for continuing to read my slightly sporadic 2011 thoughts!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

How organised are you?

Have you ordered the turkey yet? Written the Christmas cards? Bought the presents? I haven’t. It just doesn’t feel Christmassy yet. Perhaps that is due to the unseasonably cold weather in Sydney at the moment but then I look at the calendar and realise we are hurtling towards the middle of December! School breaks up next week!

Instead of writing lists, ordering the turkey, braving the shops or buying those cards I recently chose another way of getting into the Christmas spirit. Sitting – alone – in my favourite bookshop / cafe I picked up a copy of the newish book Cooking for Claudine by John Baxter.

For anyone who loves food, wine and armchair travel, this is the book for your Christmas stocking. John Baxter is the acclaimed Australian film critic who, many years ago while living in America, fell in love with a French woman and followed her to Paris.

For the last 18 or so years, he has also cooked Christmas lunch for his French in-laws, a French family ‘with roots so deep in the soil of medieval France’, living in a ‘country house dating from before Australia was even discovered’.

This memoir collects vignettes from previous Christmas lunches and journeys around France to source ingredients for the big day. Throughout are wonderful observations of this family’s love affair with food:

“ ‘We could pick up the cheese.’ Even as I said it, I recognised I’d made an error. The French approach cheese with the reverence the Spanish accord the corrida, Americans baseball and the English their tea. It is not to be ‘picked up’, or grabbed, snatched, or scored, nibbled, scarfed, or snacked on...”

In fact, Baxter has a whole chapter devoted to cheese, including this piece of trivia:

“To Charles de Gaulle, the diversity of French cheese was evidence that France was in robust political health and in no danger of becoming, as some people feared after World War II, a Communist nation. ‘How can one conceive of a one-party system,’ he asked, ‘in a country that has over two hundred varieties of cheese?”

And what happens if the piglet you decide to roast for Christmas lunch is too big to fit in your oven?

“No meal of this magnitude would fail over a few centimetres of snout.” Baxter says. But does it?

Family heirlooms are brought out for the day – the generations old silverware, the linen tablecloth bought at a market for 10 euros – the ceremony and ritual that preparing the Christmas meal brings that every reader will relate to.

As Baxter writes, “Proust was right. Any house or garden or town existed only as the sum of the feelings experienced there. It was remembering history and maintaining tradition that kept the material world alive.”

An enjoyable, tasty read. Enough to get me to the butcher to place that turkey order.

Cooking for Claudine
by John Baxter
Faber, $22.99


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