For the past week Mr. Henry has been turning out his light early, sleeping until one or two, and then rising quietly so as not to wake either Mrs. Henry, perfectly unperturbable as she busily thrashes, talks, and even
laughs in her sleep, or to rouse the faithful Pepper nestled at the foot of the big bed. Since unlike princes of yore Mr. Henry does not permit himself a midnight capon or goblet of vintage port, in place of victuals Mr. Henry sneaks off to his chilly office garret, carves out a free spot from his cluttered daybed and reads A Stew or a Story: an assortment of short works by M.F.K. Fisher, the doyenne of food writers, indeed, the most remarkable of writers about places and the feelings they arouse.
She studied at the University of Dijon in 1929 and was still writing in the 1990’s. Equally at home in California and in France, she absorbed the deepest secrets of both places. Ever the gracious hostess, she wrote in small servings humbly sandwiched in the most unliterary journals. Who today would remember the magazines Holiday or McCall’s, or expect them to hold such riches? Who would think House Beautiful a trove of great writing?
For Mr. Henry, her sentences and paragraphs are finer than food or drink. Her styles, for indeed there are very many, established the template for this century’s food blogging. Rather than make you ache for a seat at her table, she quietly invites you, slyly prepares the tone, conjures the physical setting, and lays out recipes in amusing, clear prose that is readable and re-readable. She adds unexpected spice to a line, never too heavily, that illustrates concisely and elegantly exactly what taste truly is. She is never fussy or bombastic. (Might Mr. Henry find a lesson herein?) Her spirit is mischievous and what was once called ‘gay.’ Her laugh must have been indescribably attractive.
In A Hymn to Left-Overs (Pageant, 1950), writing of serving room-temperature roast chicken to her disapproving father, she says, “He is baffled…and I am happy, for nothing is more devoutly to be wished for in family gastronomy than the strong element of bewilderment.”
Housebound by last week’s unremitting winter wind, Mrs. Henry embraced this ethos and served up a truly original stew composed of odd bins found in the fridge. It began with chick peas soaked all day and boiled in preparation for a hummous that Mr. Henry failed once again to prepare. (Such things, after all, take time.)
After sputtering and fuming in the direction of her feckless consort, exclaiming how he never, ever comes up with new dinner ideas, how he leaves her to do all the planning, and how there is now no possible way she could come up with a suitable dinner — a stream of invective nearly unsuitable for Little Henry’s tender ears — she yanked out every left-over container and set to work.
First she sautéed some crumbled-up Italian sweet sausage. Removing it from the fire and wiping away its grease, she quickly did the same with some chopped-up sliced ham. After sautéeing chopped onion in olive oil she added chopped tomatoes and kale. After the kale had wilted she added a small container of vegetable stock and the chick peas. Finally the meat went back in just long enough to heat but not to steam. Topped with grated parmesan this amusing, elegant invention was eagerly devoured on the new Henry couch in front of the TV.
Since the stew tasted vaguely Mediterranean but not exactly site-specific, Mr. Henry decided he had traveled to a hidden corner of Spain and chose to drink a glass of rich, dark de Ribera. This kind of traveling reduces jet lag.