“I’d hit 40 by the time I began to write real words,” writes Betty Fussell, now 89, in the preface to “Eat, Live, Love, Die,” her new essay collection. “By then I’d married a professional writer/teacher, typed and edited his manuscripts, raised two children, entertained like crazy, finished a doctorate in English Lit, taught Shakespeare, performed in community theaters, traveled as a family all over Europe, lived in Princeton, London, and Provence.”
What Fussell doesn’t say is that she was, like many midlife women of her generation, desperate to make up for lost time.
She doesn’t have to. A restless intelligence and energy pulses under the surface of these essays, even when the topic is as banal as the deliciousness of French chicken.
“The Beautiful Birds of Bresse,” the magazine piece with which Fussell began her career in 1969, shows all the hallmarks of her work: scrupulous research, taut prose, arrestingly voluptuous descriptions of sensual pleasures (the meat of the French birds is “thick as a fist, white as milk, juicy as melon”) juxtaposed with unsettling reminders of the price of those pleasures.
In its last days the tasty French chicken was imprisoned in a dark cell, “its gullet crammed by the farmer’s wife with a paste of corn and skimmed milk as it awaits the guillotine.”
Fussell takes the tragic view of both gastronomy and life: For her, pleasure and pain are inevitably intertwined. The pieces gathered here span almost five decades and range from the food writing for which Fussell is best known (she has published acclaimed histories of corn and American beef) to travel journalism and autobiographical meditations.
Whatever the subject at hand, Fussell meets the chief requirement of the essayist: She’s good company. Opinionated and sometimes caustic, she moves easily from high to low, from the scholarly to the deeply personal. She is as comfortable singing the praises of hamburgers as she is souffle au calvados, as confident in her allusions to 1930s radio jingles as in her quotations from Andrew Marvell.
Although her reported pieces are strong, her best work here springs from her own life, a subject she mined for her 1999 memoir, “My Kitchen Wars,” about her unhappy marriage to historian Paul Fussell. In “My Son the Body Builder,” she writes of meeting her adult son, Sam, who had taken up bodybuilding, at the airport, likening him to a monster as he approaches: “slow-thighed, arms flared by a massive chest, neck engulfing his jaw — an incredible hulk who parted the crowd like the Red Sea and kept on coming.”
She proceeds to unpack the possible reasons for his obsession, genetic and Freudian, as well as her own complicated responses.
In the deft “Love and Mayonnaise,” Fussell uses the creamy sauce as a metaphor for grace throughout her life.
As a child, mayonnaise was sturdy Hellmann’s from the jar, a delicacy she took for granted and spread on peanut butter sandwiches and vanilla ice cream. (She doesn’t indicate that she knows how weird that is.) In adulthood, obsessed with French cooking, she began making mayonnaise from scratch — and learned that real grace, like real mayonnaise, is anything but shelf stable.
Her mayonnaise story culminates on a sweltering Greek island vacation with a group of boisterous friends, her husband and her erstwhile lover.
Anxious and unhappy, Fussell went through a dozen eggs and a liter of oil trying to make a basil mayonnaise that, despite all her strenuous efforts — or perhaps due to her strenuous efforts — wouldn’t emulsify. Such failures, in Fussell’s view, make the fragile successes of both mayonnaise and life all the more precious.
A few of these pieces feel like filler, such as Fussell’s 1989 homage to Alice Waters for the now-defunct magazine Savvy Woman, which tells us nothing we haven’t heard a hundred times about the sainted founder of Chez Panisse. The sketch is outdated, to boot. (Waters wrote the introduction to this book.)
Her portrait of M.F.K. Fisher, on the other hand, is memorable, perhaps because it springs from lived experience and her long-standing fascination with the celebrated writer.
Fussell gives a precise and vivid account of lunch at Fisher’s home, rich with odd detail: Fisher, who was then 81 and in a wheelchair, wore a hot-pink blouse and a black velvet pantsuit, her hair held back in multicolored combs. The two women consumed tomatoes, sprouted wheat bread and cheap wine.
“I’m a junkie about writing, I have to have it,” Fisher told Fussell. “That is my way of screaming primally.”
Fussell is now older than Fisher was at the time, and you get the sense in these essays that writing has also been Fussell’s way of screaming primally. Fussell writes of her first encounter with Fisher’s work in the 1960s as she was about to embark her own career: “That she could write so wittily, learnedly, and sexily about a subject as base as food shocked my Puritan upbringing and threatened my literary snobbery. But as I gobbled up her pages, I saw that food was merely the ruse of this libidinous oyster-eater, wolf-killer, gastronomical storyteller, kitchen allegorist, American humorist, metaphysical wit. She was an American original and a writer of the first order.”
Fussell might as well be describing herself.
Jennifer Reese, the author of “Make the Bread, Buy the Butter,” writes the food blog The Tipsy Baker.
“Eat, Live, Love, Die: Selected Essays” by Betty Fussell (304 pages; Counterpoint; $28)