Really Very Hungry

More M. F. K. Fisher, also from As They Were, also from my hours of traveling and dining alone in Peru. (Another aside: The more exotic my travel locale, I’ve found over the years, the more literary the reading material I crave; during weeks in a mosquito-infested Fijian surf camp, many years ago, I had a rapturous experience with Henry Miller, finally understanding what made his work worthwhile, beyond all the dirty sex and wild times.)

One of her great short pieces is called “I Was Really Very Hungry,” and it appears in this book as well as another of hers. It feels like a masterpiece of creative nonfiction in the way it takes a carefully observed real-world event and, using some but not all of the tools of fiction, renders the event into a hilarious slice of life. The piece concerns a meal Fisher once ate alone, at a small French country inn, and it revolves around her interactions with “a young servant in northern Burgundy who was almost frighteningly fanatical about food, like a medieval woman possessed by the devil.” It’s truly comical, perhaps my single favorite piece of food writing, for the sheer mania of the scene, and I raise it now because it captures something that is meaningful to me. The essential interaction in the piece is the spare verbal exchange between Fisher and the waitress around what food Fisher would like to eat, and what wine she would like to drink. The waitress has a wildly precise and exalted sense of what haute cuisine is all about, and she develops a kind of craven, barely restrained erotic joy as Fisher’s food-and-wine requests reveal a perfectly attuned sensibility. Here’s a great example, beginning when the waitress, who has been insisting that Fisher try some hors d’oeuvres, realizes that Fisher has not yet ordered wine:

‘Madame, the wine! Before Monsieur Paul [the chef] can go on—’ Her eyes watched my face, which I perversely kept rather glum.

‘I think,’ I said ponderously, daring her to interrupt me, ‘I think that today, since I am in Burgundy and about to eat a trout,’ and here I hoped she noticed that I did not mention hors d’oeuvres, ‘I think I shall drink a bottle of Chablis 1929.’

For a second her whole face blazed with joy, and then subsided into a trained mask. I knew that I had chosen well, had somehow satisfied her in a secret and incomprehensible way.

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