We put a clean cloth, red and white, over one of the carpenters’ tables, and kicked wood-curls aside for our feet, under the chairs brought up from the apartment in Vevey. I set our tumblers, plates, silver, smooth unironed napkins sweet from the meadow grass where they had dried.
While some of us started to bend over the dwarf-pea bushes and toss the crisp pods into baskets, others built a hearth from stones and a couple of roof-tiles lying loose and made a lively little fire. I had a big kettle with spring water in the bottom of it, just off simmering, and salt and pepper and a pat of fine butter to hand. Then I put the bottles of Dezelay in the fountain, just under the timeless spurt of icy mountain water, and ran down to be the liaison between the harvesters and my mother, who sat shelling from the basket on her lap into the pot between her feet, as intent and nimble as a lace-maker.
I dashed up and down the steep terraces with the baskets, and my mother would groan and then hum happily when another one appeared, and below I could hear my father and our friends cursing just as happily at their wry backs and their aching thighs, while the peas came off their stems and into the baskets with a small sound audible in that still, high air, so many hundred feet above the distant and completely silent Leman. It was suddenly almost twilight. The last sunlight on the Dents du Midi was fire-rosy, with immeasurable coldness in it.
“Time, gentlemen, time,” my mother called, in an unrehearsed and astonishing imitation of a Cornish barmaid.
I read An Alphabet for Gourmets one summer when I was 20 or 21 and working for a place that exported cars to the US, back when the exchange rate was favourable for that kind of thing. It was my first non-retail job; I’d never realized before that how much sitting you could do and get paid for it.
On a good day, I’d drive some nice car down to the Seattle Auto Auction, sit around for a couple of hours, and drive some other car back. On a bad day I’d be stuck in a white cargo van with no rear-view mirrors and a sense of worry, or I’d be in one of those silly giant pick-up trucks when a snow-storm struck and remain stranded on the I-5 with not enough money for gas to get home. There was a lot of driving, but also a lot of waiting, and so in those lulls I’d read MFK Fisher. She always got me through.
While How to Cook a Wolf is a book for simpler, leaner times, much of the rest of Fisher’s work is lush and decadent, and even when she’s describing something as simple as peas, there’s extravagance in the details. You want to go to there, wherever it is (most likely France). The way she writes, it’s as if the whole scene is set in that late-August evening light that’s so yellow that the shadows are blue, so golden that everything just sort of sparkles. It’s all like that, verdant, even when it’s nighttime or raining. She’s wonderful. Her life is the stuff of paintings and good poetry.
My bias is showing. She’s one of my favourites.
If you can find The Art of Eating, her selected works, buy it. I picked up my copy in that San Francisco bookstore I told you about before; it was another trip, but I never learn and picked up that book and a couple of other similarly dense, heavy books to lug around until Nick finally got sick of my complaining and carried the bag for me. If all you can find is An Alphabet for Gourmets, that’s fine; you can collect the others as you find them. It’s a good one; that and How to Cook a Wolf will get you started.
Since we’re talking about peas, kind of, here’s a recipe for one of my favourite summer sides; it’s not a Fisher recipe, but it’s a good one and sort of fits the theme I was kind of going for (French, peas).
Peas with lettuce and mint
- 1 tbsp. butter
- 1 shallot, minced
- 2 cups shelled peas, preferably fresh but frozen will do if you get those little baby peas
- 1/2 head of romaine or green leaf lettuce, cut crosswise into ribbons
- 1/2 cup chicken stock
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tbsp. finely chopped mint
- 1 tbsp. heavy cream
Melt the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add your minced shallot, and cook until translucent. Add the peas, lettuce, and chicken stock, and cover. Cook for three minutes, until the lettuce has wilted. Add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with mint.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a serving dish. Drizzle with cream.
This dish is nice with cold chicken or grilled fish; I quite like it as a side with barbecued Sockeye salmon and buttery steamed new potatoes.