Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Dec 13: M.F.K. > D.F.W.: Reconsidering the Lobster

by Lawrence Lenhart

The first time David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” was dropped in my lap, I wasn’t impressed. The timing was all wrong anyway. It arrived the same semester as Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (subtitled A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals), and I was unusually primed to read Wallace as sanctimonious, not to mention showy. At the time, I was into brevity. My favorite album for many years in a row was Short Music for Short People, a compilation of 101 thirty-second songs, each by a different punk band. The album was released by Fat Wreck Chords, a label founded by Michael Burkett (aka Fat Mike) of NOFX. Unlike Singer, NOFX preached through farce. Their debut album, for example, was Liberal Animation. Not only is it a spoonerism of the Singer text, but the cover art features cows wining and dining over plates of human corpse. The first words to any NOFX album ever feature Fat Mike railing against PETA slogans: “‘Affection not dissection’ / ‘Meat is murder’ / ‘Animals are for petting’ / Oh shut the fuck up already.” So, upon encountering Wallace, you can understand why I chaffed with his ceaseless nuance.

One of the most excellent NOFX songs is “Clams Have Feelings Too (Actually They Don’t).” Released a few years before “Consider the Lobster,” I was always excited by the research-y parenthetical in the middle of the chorus:

No chowder for you, ‘cause clams have feelings too
(Actually they don’t have central nervousness)
No Manhattan style, clams have the right to smile
Come to think about it, they don’t have a face

Compare this with Wallace’s treatment of the subject of sentience during his reportage at the Maine Lobster Festival:

Before we go any further, let’s acknowledge that the questions of whether and how different kinds of animals feel pain, and of whether and why it might be justifiable to inflict pain on them in order to eat them, turn out to be extremely complex and difficult. Since pain is a totally subjective mental experience, we do not have direct access to anyone or anything’s pain but our own; and even just the principles by which we can infer that others experience pain and have a legitimate interest in not feeling pain involve hard-core philosophy—metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, ethics. The fact that even the most highly evolved nonhuman mammals can’t use language to communicate with us about their subjective mental experience is only the first layer of additional complication in trying to extend our reasoning about pain and morality to animals. And everything gets progressively more abstract and convolved as we move farther and farther out from the higher-type mammals into cattle and swine and dogs and cats and rodents, and then birds and fish, and finally invertebrates like lobsters.  

It’s not the most entertaining stretch of the essay, but it is entirely characteristic of Wallace’s cerebral style. In preparing to write his article for Gourmet, Wallace requested editors send him anything they’d ever published relating to lobsters. And it may have been in these back issues that Wallace first encountered the work of M.F.K. Fisher.


To this day, Jeff Oaks is still the only writer to have ever uttered her name to me. In his Writer’s Journal class, we read How to Cook a Wolf, a cookbook—sort of—published while America rationed its way through WWII. In his New York Times review of the book in 1942, Orville Prescott writes:

Cook books are indisputably indispensable for the welfare of the human race, and they sell very nicely… Few indeed have any claims to literary merit. At least, few did until a knowing lady who signs herself austerely M.F.K. Fisher began conducting her one-woman revolution in the field of literary cookery. Mrs. Fisher writes about food with such relish and enthusiasm that the mere reading of her book creates a clamorous appetite. She also writes with a robust sense of humor and a nice capacity for a neatly turned phrase.

Towards the end of the review, Prescott cannot disambiguate Fisher’s humor from her mysticism:

She insists that boiling water too long before using it is a great mistake and deleterious to whatever is being cooked. Again, as a mere man, I am bewildered. Is she joking, or is water that has boiled for several minutes any different from water that has just come to a boil?

He seems to be genuinely soliciting his reader for clarification. Fisher’s playfulness paired with her reader’s uncertainty is a fair indication that she is as much a prose stylist as she is a food writer. Fisher herself wouldn’t appreciate the designation. Towards the ends of the 800-page tome, From the Journals of M.F.K. Fisher, she admits astonishment, even embarrassment, when critics dub her a stylist. She denies the charms of stylized writing: “the so-called style of such writers bores me, turns me off, makes me feel tricked.” As far as I can tell, she’s really talking about what we now call the lyric essay: “preoccupation with the rhythmic use of words, [shining] with the same strange luster of an acquired tongue.” And yet if you read her work, it’s unmistakable. Consider these excerpts from Gastronomical Me, a decadent preparation for tangerine consumption.

            Separate each plump little pregnant crescent…

            Tear delicately from the soft pile of sections each velvet string…

Take yesterday’s paper (when we were in Strasbourg L’Ami du Peuple was best, because when it got hot the ink stayed on it) and spread it on top of the radiator…

After you have put the pieces of tangerine on the paper on the hot radiator, it is best to forget about them. Al comes home, you go to a long noon dinner in the brown dining-room, afterwards maybe you have a little nip of quetsch from the bottle on the armoire. Finally he goes…

On the radiator the sections of tangerines have grown even plumper, hot and full. You carry them to the window, pull it open, and leave them for a few minutes on the packed snow of the sill. They are ready.

There are notes of self-parody. While most readers look to the cook-book author for help with dishes like veal and grated parmigiano, few expect a lesson on how to consume citrus. It’s the kind of impracticality one finds in Julio Cortázar’s “Instructional Manual” (Cronopios and Famas) where he explains “How to Cry” and “How to Climb a Staircase” and other mundane maneuvers. It seems that part of Fisher’s stylism denialism originates in her identification with her father’s newspaper writing. She wants to prove that she hasn’t fallen far from that tree. And yet one senses their styles couldn’t be more different: apples and tangerines.

More famously than tangerines, though, M.F.K. Fisher is the ultimate perceiver of the oyster. Consider the Oyster (yes, Wallace's piece is homage to Fisher) is easily one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books. Okay, so it helps that I’m always aching for a next dozen oysters. (There’s even a pearled oyster ornament dangling on the tree, inches from my face as I write this.) Still, though, Fisher’s approach to the evergreen theme of sentience strikes the all-important balance: It’s NOFX with a dash of reverence, D.F.W. with a helping of pith. Voila!

Danger is everywhere for her [“our oyster”], and extermination lurks. (How do we know with what pains? How can we tell or not tell the sufferings of an oyster? There is a brain…) She is the prey of many enemies, and must lie immobile as a fungus while the starfish sucks her and the worm bores. She has eight enemies, not counting man who is the greatest, since he protects her from the others only to eat her himself.

She goes on to delineate the oyster’s eight predators along with their particular cruelties. Just look at some of these observations about the enigmatic oyster, beginning with the first sentence of the book:

            An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life.

It is to be hoped, sentimentally at least, that the spat—our spatenjoys himself. Those two weeks are his one taste of vagabondage, of devil-may-care free roaming. And even they are not quite free, for during all his youth he is busy growing a strong foot and a large supply of sticky cementlike stuff. If he thought, he might wonder why.

            He is by now about one-seventy-fifth of an inch long, whatever that may be… and he is an oyster.

For about a year this oyster—our oyster—is a male, fertilizing a few hundred thousand eggs as best he can… Then one day, maternal longings surge between his two valves in his cold guts and gills and all his crinkly fringes. Necessity, that well-known mother, makes him one. He is a she.

She has grown into a gray-white oval shape, with shades of green or ocher or black in her gills and a rudimentary brain in the forepart of her blind deaf body. She can feel shadows as well as the urgency of milt, and her delicate muscles know danger and pull shut her shells with firmness.

Life is hard, we say. An oyster’s life is worse. She lives motionless, soundless, her own cold ugly shape her only dissipation, and if she escapes the menace of duck-slipper-mussel-Black-Drum-leech-sponge-borer-starfish, it is for man to eat, because of man’s own hunger.

And that's all in the first three pages! The language is Doyle's ("Joyas Voladoras"), the register Deming's ("Hood River Oyster"), the research Neely's ("Chiton"), and the form (we shall call these micro essays) akin to Nicole Walker's (Micrograms, Egg, Where the Tiny Things Are). Consider the Oyster will call to mind Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series, except it's brimful with annotated recipes. I recommend reading only if you have some ingredients on hand; inevitably, you'll want to try one of these: oyster stew, butter crackers, tartar sauce, oyster gumbo, oysters a la foch, oysters a la bazeine, dressing for turkey or other fowl with oysters, oyster stuffing, oyster catsup, dried oyster with vegetables, oysters Rockefeller, oysters with cream sauce, roast oysters, grilled oysters, pain d'huitres, oyster loaf, cream of oyster soup, oyster soup, oyster bisque, Hang Town fry, oysters and onions. And then there's this recipe, to be found within the essay "Pearls Are Not Good to Eat." 

To Make a Pearl

1 healthy spat
1 mature oyster
1 bead
1 wire cage
            scrubbing brushes, etc.
unnamable wound-astringent 
   provided by Japanese government
             1 diving-girl

Introduce the spat, which should be at least 1/75 of an inch long, to the smooth surface of the cage. Submerge him in quiet clean water, where the cage will protect him from starfish, and frequent inspections and scrubbings will keep his rapidly growing shell free from boring-worms and such pests.

In three years prepare him for the major operation of putting the bead on his mantle (epithelium). Once the bead is in place, draw the mantle over it and ligature the tissues to form a wee sac. Put the sac into the second oyster, remove the ligature, treat the wound with the unnamable astringent, and after the oyster has been caged, put him into the sea.

Supervise things closely for seven years, with the help of your diving-girl. Any time after that you may open your oyster, and you have about one chance in twenty of owning a marketable pearl, and a small but equally exciting chance of having cooked up something really valuable.

While David Foster Wallace demonstrates an enormous capacity for inhabiting subcultures, only M.F.K. Fisher, through her living, can be said to have created one.[1] In Two Towns in Provence, she writes about an encounter with her hostile hostess in France: “Tell me, dear lady… tell me… explain to all of us, how one can dare to call herself a writer on gastronomy in the United States, where, from everything we hear, gastronomy does not yet exist? Explain to us, dear self-styled Gastronomer, to us poor people of this older world…” Fisher, along with “everyone who was anyone in the American food world,” migrated to southern France in 1970. Herein lies the paradox of M.F.K. Fisher. As Bee Wilson puts it in The New Yorker, “Our need to revere [her] as [a model] of impeccable French taste after all these years is a little odd, considering that [she] sought to puncture the spirit of snobbish reverence which infected the food writing of previous generations.”[2] Indeed, if it wasn’t for the occasional French diacritical mark, I’d probably give her some stupid label like: uniquely American. In many passages throughout her journals, Fisher seems to be, as Wilson puts it, "translating these French memories to an American public who had not experienced them firsthand. [She] wrote for those who had never tasted croissants, never mind jambon persillé.” In “Poor Food,” for example, Fisher aims to convince her reader the best sauce she ever ate was “not at Foyot’s, in the old days in Paris,” but “in a cabin with tar-paper walls on a rain-swept hillside in southern California.” (Likewise, the best stew was “not a bouillabaisse at Isnard’s in Marseille,” but by “a very old small woman for a great lusty batch of relatives.”) It seems like she is equally interested in renouncing her own elitism as she is in empowering all those who have “honest flour, pure water, and good fire.”

Fisher seems to follow an unwritten rule in which every essay must make a turn for the sentimental. Those moments are always so hard-won, though; having gotten through the calamities of empty cupboards, divorce, the death of a sister, war, air pollution, each flecked with memoir, it just feels kind for Fisher to recommend (as she does in How to Cook a Wolf): “One way to look your prettiest in the kitchen… is to put up a little mirror… Usually I look into it… and I can see either that things are under control beautifically or that a certain amount of smoothing, poking, and composing will do some good.” (Nevermind that Orville Prescott concludes his book review with flirtatious overture: “But judging from her picture, Mrs. Fisher is one cook who has grounds to be very confident indeed without a kitchen mirror.”)

Not long before she died in 1992, M.F.K. Fisher had settled finally on an ideal metaphor for her life’s work, which by then consisted of 27 books: “There is one word that I love… It is, as far as I know, completely American, and I feel that I am one and that I write and talk as one.” That word is glory hole. First, she conjures her mother’s usage: those cupboard or closets where cast-off odds and ends are stored. “One mysterious thing about a real glory hole,” she writes, “is that there is always the knowledge, the belief, the feeling that sometimes whatever is in it will turn up, and be infinitely useful and valuable.” The original glory holes, of course, were caches where California gold rushers hid valuable-looking ores. I like that idea—the essay as a glory hole in which a bunch of dusty, forgotten baubles vie for relevance until one, suddenly, shimmers: a flake, no a nugget, or in the case of Fisher’s oeuvre, a whole goldfield.

Since these past paragraphs have been chock-full of scraps of Fisher’s writing, it seems appropriate to leave you with “Leftovers,” one of the shortest essays in Journals. Please, though, once you’ve gobbled the leftovers, go seek out a full meal. Consider the oyster stew.


Lawrence Lenhart is the author of The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage. His prose has been published in Conjunctions, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the University of Arizona, teaches genres at Northern Arizona University, and is reviews editor of DIAGRAM. He writes about islands and black-footed ferrets. [Web] [Twitter]

[1] Please don’t mistake me as anything less than enchanted by David Foster Wallace. It seems important, in this moment of D.F.W. disavowal (see Jessa Crispin’s “Enough David Foster Wallace, already!” & Deirdre Coyle’s “Men Recommend David Foster Wallace to Me”), to set the record straight: Not long after my initial revulsion, I became an admirer of his work like so many others. Still, though, as Crispin suggests, let’s not pretend literary criticism is objective. It’s important to be wary of any gatekeeper who would claim: “These are the books that are important. No really, just these ones. Those other writers are ‘minor.’” It’s this kind of practice that necessitates an Advent Calendar of “recoveries” in the first place. Still, though, rather than banish Wallace, I’d rather burnish Fisher.

[2] Fisher is all-too-happy to puncture the reverence that accompanies Christmas as well. If the Advent Calendar commissioner will allow it, behold Fisher’s inner-humbug: “Sometimes the spirit of Christmas seems nothing more than a conditioned reflex, and it is hard to make it work successfully when the calendar calls it up.”  

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