Sea Change: Quarantining With M.F.K. Fisher
The first question my host Samia asked me when I arrived at her house on an afternoon in late August was, ‘What do you want to eat?’
I said, ‘Anything, anything you have,’ and meant it. It had taken me about fifteen hours to travel from Toronto to Cambridge. My parents and I had to say goodbye in the middle of a dim hallway in the airport garage because only travellers were allowed inside the terminal. I barely slept on the flight – a few hours in, I tried to look out the window, saw nothing but my own reflection against a deep black screen, and felt more alone than I ever had in my life. At the Heathrow bus terminal, where I waited all morning, the shop selling coffee and sandwiches was closed. When I arrived at Samia’s house for my two-week quarantine I was starving. I could eat anything.
Less than ten minutes later Samia called my name. By the time I opened the bedroom door with my mask on, she was already back downstairs. On the landing there was a large tray: a steaming golden omelette that almost covered the entire plate, a generous portion of greens, two thick slices of bread toasted and buttered, a glass of water, a glass of apple juice, a cup of milk tea, a small red apple. I inhaled it all and immediately fell asleep.
When I woke up the next day, I realized that I hadn’t yet arrived in Cambridge. I’d gotten on a plane, on a bus, into a cab, into a bed. I wasn’t in Cambridge – I was in a little room overlooking a tidy garden. I was inside my quarantine the way you can be inside a mountain or a mine shaft or a whale. As the two weeks crept along, and I picked up the heavy tray of food from the landing and returned it empty to the same spot three times a day, I started to think of quarantine as the final leg of my journey, with its own strange and halting sense of time and space and routine. To pass the time, I was rereading some of my favourite essays by American food writer M. F. K. Fisher, and I found myself fascinated by her accounts of crossing the Atlantic; I was convinced that I was experiencing what Fisher called sea change, the ‘rich and powerfully strange things’ that living away from land does to passengers on a ship.
M. F. K. Fisher is often introduced by way of W. H. Auden who, in 1963, claimed not to ‘know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose.’ What this remark implies is that Fisher’s writing is singularly excellent despite the literary limitations of genre of her choice. Writers and critics, many of them inspired by Fisher, have in recent decades contested the old-fashioned dismissal of food writing as typically unserious and indulgent, but few have disagreed with Auden’s assessment of her skills. Reading The Gastronomical Me, the memoir she wrote in 1943 following the death of her second husband, it is easy to see why Fisher is so adored by her readers, and why her style is so often imitated in literary meditations on food and eating. Besides effortless and enviable warmth, elegance, and good humour, Fisher cultivated a way of talking about food, and about the rest of the world in relation to food, that is both deeply compelling and almost impossible to replicate. Neither the straightforward subject of her writing nor just a means of getting at more important matters, food is for Fisher a kind of master key to human experience. ‘It seems to me,’ she writes in the foreword to The Gastronomical Me, ‘that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.’ Hunger and satiety, pleasure and revulsion, taste and temperament, sharing and withholding: together, these constitute the gastronomical language with which Fisher attends to everything from childhood memories to travel to political violence to, of course, food itself.
Throughout her memoir, Fisher uses ‘Sea Change’ again and again as the title for chapters that recount her many journeys across the Atlantic. During my quarantine, I returned often to these chapters, finding in them analogues to my own experience of transition and isolation. In the first ‘Sea Change’ chapter, Fisher suggests that the passengers’ distance from land, their being untethered from the lives they leave behind and the lives that wait for them at their destination, leads often to strange habits, flare-ups of emotion, unwelcome realizations. ‘And always,’ she writes, ‘they eat and drink with a kind of concentration which, according to their natures, can be gluttonous, inspired, or merely beneficent.’ As a young woman who often travelled alone, she was keenly aware of the danger and instability of sea change – she felt it rising in her own heart and mind, and saw how it could be passed from one passenger to another. She mitigated this risk of contagion by developing what she called ‘my system of public independence.’ ‘There are many parts to it,’ she writes of this system, ‘but one of the most important is the way I eat … In general I preferred to eat by myself, slowly, voluptuously, and with an independence that heartened me against the coldness of my cabin and my thoughts.’ Eating was at the centre of Fisher’s systematic solitude, I think, because food was her way of thinking about how we exist with and for each other – what we owe to ourselves and to others, how our desires pool together or diverge or rush against one another. With the language of food, Fisher sketched out a kind of sensual embodiment that extends beyond individuals and crosses between them, encompassing––to borrow a phrase from Deleuze and Guattari––the ‘obligatory, necessary, or permitted interminglings of bodies’ thrumming with the shared and entwined needs for food, security, and love.
Quarantine is the obligatory and necessary separation of one body from others; it is a state in which closeness and intermingling are no longer permitted. Walled in by quarantine, I thought a lot about how I was physically implicated in my surroundings in the worst possible way: liable to harm them, but with no access to their joys. I worried for Samia who handled my dishes, and her husband whose laughter I would hear in the evenings when they watched TV. I ate every meal alone – not to craft, as Fisher had done, a deliberate boundary against my own and others’ inscrutable desires, but for the much simpler and grimmer reason that I might be contagious without knowing it, and a risk to anyone who came close. In the absence of physical company and even of a deliberate (and therefore dignified) solitude, the food I ate became the centre of my attention.
Samia cooked and baked all day and took care of the tomatoes and plum trees in the garden. When I woke up, jet lagged and groggy, she would bring me homemade scones, soft butter, apricot jam, strong black tea. Lunch was always something light with a big salad on the side––smoked salmon on toast with sliced tomatoes and plenty of black pepper, salami with olives, cheese, and cornichons––and sometimes, afterwards, there would be a custard tart with my cup of tea. It rained most afternoons and I would sit on my bed and watch the sky while the tea got cold. Dinner was always a big portion, and a bit heavy. On the Friday of the first week Samia and her husband went out for dinner and brought back fish and chips wrapped in thin grey paper – there is no way to describe, without sounding absurd, how good it felt to eat something from “outside.” I tried to eat slowly and without distractions, and, after I returned the tray to its spot, I liked to look out the window and have not much at all on my mind.
The first thing I ate when I left quarantine was a terrible croissant. I had to keep sweeping the flakes off my lap as I watched the people (people!) walking in and out of the train station. It was the perfect culinary experience. It would be a few weeks before I started to eat and drink in earnest with new friends – mulled wine in the rain, qatayef in the garden on the most idyllic blue bronze autumn day, birthday cake washed down with light beer. With my feet firmly on land again I still think about The Gastronomical Me, and about how Fisher, in Tom Conley’s words, changed my idea of ‘the world at large through micro-conceptions that become translated into a style.’ It has become easier to notice the different kinds of hunger and indulgence and commensality and communion that shape the world around me.
The most moving stories in The Gastronomical Me end with Fisher’s meditations on unfed hungers. In these stories, pleasure is intimately bound with dependence, anxiety, and need. Satiety and indulgence always gesture back to hunger. About her fellow travellers aboard a German ship on the eve of the Second World War, Fisher writes, ‘I felt that most of the other people were eating almost as if the whipped cream and pressed ducks and pâtés de foie gras
would be stored somewhere in their spiritual stomachs, to stay them soon, too soon, in a dreadful time of hunger.’ Now is of course another dreadful time of hunger. I am hungry for so many different ways of being with others: ways as quotidian as a sandwich at the train station and as fussy and filling as a meal planned weeks in advance. Embracing friends, going to the movies, cooing at dogs on the street, recognising regulars at a favourite café – for months the thought of these simple encounters gnawed at me, made me feel like a starved cartoon character who sees everyone around him transform slowly into a large walking ham.
Now, at least, I can eat and drink with new friends – and leave some room for another kind of indulgence. Back in Toronto, as with most other places, the pandemic has swept the most nourishing parts of life away from our reach. Witnessing this in person was unnerving and dreadful. But as long as I am in Cambridge, a safe distance away, I can be homesick; I can reminisce about the city without its uncanny presence looming around me.
I think about the people and food I am missing with so much concentration that I feel closer to them somewhat, like a ghost stopping by the table for a bite. Sesame brittle that we would buy from the college café along with a cup of hazelnut tea and, if we were hungry, a plastic container of green grapes. Saffron rice with barberries that my mother fries in butter and sugar, chicken she cooks in a deep red sauce, and a little white bowl of sour Balkan yogurt. A saccharine rosewater cocktail that gave me the courage to tell the first half of the truth. Hot soybean stew still simmering at the table where we listened to each other talk about everything while we interrupted ourselves endlessly, dirty snow melting from our boots into a puddle which had not yet revealed its plans to become an ocean.