Starved for company
Or, the delicious opinions of M.F.K. Fisher
What would you give to meet a friend at a restaurant right about now?
Might I suggest a little place where the headwaiter will “peel an orange at your table with breath-taking skill and speed, slice it thin enough to see through, and serve it to you doused to your own taste with powdered sugar and any of a hundred liquors.”
As dining out is off the table for the foreseeable future, I’ve been vicariously ordering three of everything on the menu via the writing of Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher.
M.F.K. Fisher (1908-1992) remains the grand dame of American food writing, famously praised by W.H. Auden as the best prose writer in the country. She used wit like salt: Not with a heavy hand, but just enough to bring out the flavour of what she served.
In her first collection, Serve it Forth, she announces that “Recipes in my book will be there like birds in a tree — if there is a comfortable branch.” Later, she breaks her rule with a chapter titled “Two birds without a branch,” opening by announcing “Herewith I give you two recipes, for no reason at all unless it could be because I said that such a thing would never happen.” That sort of matter-of-fact insouciance makes for an ideal dinner companion.
But if you were able to go out for dinner, how many such companions would you corral? Fisher believes “gastronomical perfection” can only be attained in the following combinations:
“One person dining alone, usually upon a couch or a hill side; two people, of no matter what sex or age, dining in a good restaurant; six people, of no matter what sex or age, dining in a good home.”
I cross-referenced this with Keith Waterhouse’s 1986 manifesto The Theory and Practice of Lunch, in which he also advocates for a party of two, because:
“Three’s a crowd, four always split like a double amoeba into two pairs, six is a meeting, eight is a conference.”
Waterhouse is a lunchman through and through, as he sees a midday meal as a chance to play hooky from work and life. “Lunch is a celebration, like Easter after winter,” he writes. This year, Easter falls on April 4. If we can lunch by then, we’ll be out of practice. Here, via Waterhouse, are the words good lunch companion should utter:
“Listen, why don’t we start the proceedings with a nice glass of champagne?”
“You’re not in any great hurry to get back, are you?”
“Could I have my chips on a side plate, please, so that my guest can dip into them?”
“Taste this — it’s delicious.”
“Good heavens, we seem to be the last ones here.”
But never, under any circumstances, such blasphemies as:
“God, this place has gone downhill, don’t you agree?”
“Right, well I suppose you’re wondering what this is about.”
“All right, so long as you don’t mind drinking most of it yourself.
“You seem tense.”
“Why don’t we split the bill?”
Back to reality. In most jurisdictions, all of the above will be impossible for some time yet. You still might indulge in one of Fisher’s memorable meals, devoured solo:
“When I was much younger and proportionately hungrier and less finicky, a minor form of bliss was going to a drive-in near school and eating two or three weird, adulterated combinations of fried beef, mayonnaise, tomato catsup, shredded lettuce, melted cheese, unidentifiable relish, and sliced onion.”
Though be warned that her memory ends thusly: “They seemed wonderful then. Now I gag.”
Quick quips; lightning
“A man may be a pessimistic determinist before lunch and an optimistic believer in the will’s freedom after it.” — Aldous Huxley
“Tell the cook of this restaurant with my compliments that these are the very worst sandwiches in the whole world and that, when I ask for a watercress sandwich, I do not mean a loaf with a field in the middle of it.” — Oscar Wilde
“No man is lonely while eating spaghetti.” — Frank Morley
Virginia Ostman was somebody’s aunt.
Ms. Ostman appeared way back in GWQ No. 20 as an unknown quantity in an old book of quotations. To underline the point that it’s very hard for a normie to sneak in between the lines of Parker, Churchill, and Wilde, I singled out this one anthologized line of hers:
“If lawyers are disbarred and clergymen defrocked, doesn’t it follow that electricians can be delighted; musicians denoted; cowboys deranged; models deposed; tree surgeons debarked and dry cleaners depressed?”
Who was she? I didn’t know. But earlier this month, her niece went down an internet rabbit hole, found that mention, and got in touch.
“Virginia was a very kind, creative, and intelligent person,” wrote Janet Shoviak. “Unfortunately, her poor health limited her ability to live and work to her fullest potential. She had degrees in education (math teacher) and library science. Her main focus was writing for contests and various publications. Jingles, puns and funny lines were her specialty.”
Shoviak dug up some old notebooks of Ostman’s, filled with lines like “To keep young, associate with young people. To get old in a hurry, try keeping up with them” and “The United Nations should get United Notions.”
Previously, I’d thought Ostman might have known Laurence J. Peter, compiler of Peter’s Quotations. Now, it seems more likely that she submitted her best quip to “Tell Me More,” a syndicated joke column that ran in The Toledo Blade, her local paper.
Virginia Ostman died in 1979 at the age of 54. As she loved quotations, here’s one from David Eagleman:
“There are three deaths: the first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.”
Check, please! Was everything absolutely wonderful with GWQ No. 83? The sliced orange mentioned above was served “under the high-glassed Galeria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan before the bombs fell,” as per Fisher’s 1949 book An Alphabet for Gourmets. Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting makes a fine dining companion, as its absorbent pages will sop up all that unidentifiable relish. Gratuity for groups of one or less can be delivered via the ♥️ below.