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Book Review : This Revised Food Classic Is Still a Banquet of Hearty Fare

June 05, 1986|JOHN ESPEY | Espey is a UCLA English professor and gourmand.

Here Let Us Feast: A Book of Banquets by M.F.K. Fisher (North Point Press: $11.50)

M. F. K. Fisher's splendidly varied collection of passages from world literature on feasting, opening with one from the Bible and closing with one from Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," all linked by her characteristically elegant comments, has been out of print for more than 30 years. Now it is reissued in what its new publisher describes as an "extensively revised" edition.

For the Fisher aficionado, the fascination here lies in discovering what she has changed and brooding over why she felt changes necessary. It may sound churlish to suggest that instead of "revised" a more accurate description would be "somewhat shortened." And it may be equally churlish to complain over the small type and the crowded text that make for harder reading than the original 491 pages of the 1946 Viking original.

These complaints duly noted, it is pleasant to report that the three passages taken from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's "Physiology of Taste" now appear in Fisher's attractively relaxed prose of her own translation of that classic, and the first serious revision (outside of an occasional elision in her running commentary), the reduction of a passage from Pearl Buck's "The Good Earth" by two thirds, is hardly serious. Farther on, a rather tedious passage from Scott's "Ivanhoe" is cut with the same severity and without injury.

Wide-Ranging Feasts

The sections following the Bible and China remain pretty much as they first stood, each with its own apt title, as Fisher courses through Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, 18th- and 19th-Century England and Russia, France, Germany and again England, without forgetting some stirring passages on cannibals and poisoners.

But when it comes to the final section, "O Pioneers!" on America, the cutting becomes more radical. Fisher's original introduction here reads: "It is a good thing that we have in this country a day set aside for the special thanksgiving to our God for what mercies He has let fall upon us during the past year. It is good, too, that we choose to show our gratitude by the age-old gesture of eating and drinking in His name."

I am sympathetic with the impulse behind Fisher's revision of this to: "It is a good thing that we have in this country a day set aside for the special thanksgiving to our gods for the mercies they have let fall upon us during the past year. It is good, too, that we choose to show our gratitude by the age-old gesture of eating and drinking in their names," but I'm glad that my New England forebears (yea, unto the eighth or ninth generation) cannot comment on it, and I confess that for me, at least, accepting or rejecting a lower-case god lacks dignity.

I am not particularly troubled that Thomas Wolfe is now represented by only one selection instead of two, and the same holds for Hemingway. But poor Sinclair Lewis has gone down the drain altogether and I regret this extinction of George Babbitt. How, after all, are today's youth to know "about the effect of Prohibition on American gastronomy" as Fisher first put it, without him? And only a belief that Fisher is now limiting her choices to happy celebrations can justify the disappearance of the most painful 20th-Century American middle-class meal ever recorded: that dreadful dinner in Booth Tarkington's "Alice Adams." Its aroma survives feebly in the uncorrected page proofs of this new edition's acknowledgments, but its absence is a real loss. Feasting, after all, can be a dreadful experience, though rarely with M. F. K. Fisher as one's hostess.

So, for the aficionados my advice is never to lend their copies of the original edition; and those who come to this amply spread table for the first time should be warned that they haven't been given quite a complete serving.

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