Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Dec 20th, Alysia Sawchyn: Teaching Food, Revision, and MFK Fisher

Some years ago, I was gifted MFK Fisher’s doorstopper The Art of Eating. I’d never heard of her; I knew only that I liked to eat and I liked to read, and so it seemed a sensible enough present. I didn’t suspect it would be some kind of love. I tore through the near-750-page book in its entirety before and while applying to MFA programs.

Flash forward a few years, and I was preparing to teach an expository writing class—one of those beautifully open-ended courses with a broad course description and no assigned textbook. I decided to run it as an essay-writing course, and it was the first time I’d taught nonfiction with complete control over the syllabus and reading. I was giddy with excitement. Anthologies upon collections upon lit mags sprawled across a dining room table, making the furniture barely usable. I knew I wanted to teach some of Fisher’s work and broke the semester into three themed units, starting with food.

The course I taught is predominantly comprised of non-English majors. On the first day of the semester, I asked the students what prompted them to sign up for the class, and the vast majority of them answered that it met their writing intensive requirement for graduation, which is perhaps what I deserved for my wide-eyed hope. However, I barreled forward. Food is an excellent entry point to the essay genre because it is one of the few conscious decisions we make every day (What shall we eat?) and because our tastes are often shaped by our identities, cultural (What would we like to eat?) and socioeconomic (What can we eat?). The food we do and do not put into our bodies often says much more about us than we realize.


Clifton Fadiman’s 1954 introduction to The Art of Eating describes Fisher’s writing as “only ostensibly” about hunger. Rather, food is “the mirror in which she may reflect the show of her existence.” Indeed, I used Fisher’s introduction to The Gastronomical Me as the first supplemental text of the semester because in it she directly addresses how the subject of food is an entry point to larger concerns. She writes, “People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, as others do?” I imagine my students were silently asking similar questions as we went through the course overview. You want us to write a what? An essay? About what? Using “I”? Many hadn’t written an essay since the mandatory first-year-writing courses in their freshman year of college, and our assignments were markedly different than the annotated bibliography and rhetorical analysis, essay as exploration rather than essay as argument.

Happily, Fisher answers the questions posed to her in that same introduction: “our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens when I write of hunger I am really writing about love and the hunger for it.” Though I’m now jumping to another book of hers here, this use of food as an entry point to more abstract desires is particularly evident in How to Cook a Wolf, first published in 1942 during wartime rationing and then later revised and republished in 1951. True to the essay as the tracking of the author’s mind on the page, this text features numerous parenthetical asides and bracketed revisions.

Fisher’s writing is both funny and reflective. In “How to Be Content with a Vegetable Love” she writes, “Almost all vegetables are good, although there is some doubt still about parsnips (which I share). [I am no longer doubtful. I know. And rutabaga has joined the exclusive group.]” “Vegetable Love” is about learning to cook and eat vegetables with some modicum of enjoyment, but also to eat them “with the comfortable knowledge that you will be a better man for it, in your spirit and your body too, and will never have to worry about your own love being a vegetable.” It is in the final paragraphs of these essays where Fisher often turns outward, explicitly addressing the underlying concerns that have been driving the author forward. Also in How to Cook a Wolf is her essay “How to Lure the Wolf,” filled with half (but only half) tongue-in-cheek recommendations for cleanliness and appearance in the kitchen. After five pages of these suggestions she lands the essay with the sentence, “I’ll not care, really, even if your nose is a little shiny, so long as you are self-possessed and sure that wolf or not wolf, your mind is your own and your heart is another’s and therefore in the right place.” Love through the lens of vegetables and hot-water washing.

The only way I know to bring such careful syntax, exposition, and duality to an essay is to spend time with it, lots of time with it, drafting and revising. My ideas about revision (that is, the extent that I revise) have changed drastically between my undergraduate studies and now, and so I knew the extent of required rewriting might be new for the students. That push/pull of the delete button versus a page count can be a difficult one when a student is writing an assignment for a course in which they are not invested. That said, most of the comments on my students’ food-themed essays were places where I thought they might be able to expand to talk more about what lies beneath the food, and I was hopeful.

As we moved through the semester, away from Fisher and food, onto other authors and subjects, the question of the underlying concerns of the essay as first illustrated by The Gastronomical Me remained our through-line. (Vivian Gornick termed the two layers of an essay “the situation” and “the story,” and I asked questions like this often: Okay, T—, so does your situation of building of keyboards and computers say something about the story of our desire for instant gratification? The joy of making things ourselves?) During the last three weeks of course, students revised one of their three essays (to my delight, many chose their food piece) to bring in to a full-class workshop, which they revised again for the final portfolio. With each pass, the layers of their essays became both more subtle and well-defined, the sweet spot between two jarringly unrelated subjects and unnavigable opacity—the drafting process at work.

I’m not going to claim that my students’ exposure to Fisher converted them into die-hard essayists, but I will say her writing made for a solid introduction to the genre. I am one of those annoying professors who burdens assignments with overly-lofty titles like “Final Portfolio: Illuminating the Human Condition” and then winks as she reads their descriptions aloud to the class saying, Simple, yes? while my students good-naturedly (I tell myself) groan in response. All jokes aside, I was happy while reading their portfolios and revision letters. They’d done work. To deeply engage with thought processes and beliefs across the page, to be willing to press that all-dreaded delete button and begin again because there is something better or truer to say, isn’t that all we want from our students, all we want from ourselves?

Alysia Sawchyn currently lives in Tampa, Florida, where she is a nonfiction editor for Sweet: A Literary Confection. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming at Indiana Review, Assay, Fourth Genre, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @happiestwerther.

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