Jackie Kai Ellis is the owner of Vancouver’s Beaucoup Bakery, the leader of culinary excursion group the Paris Tours, and the author of the upcoming cookbook The Measure of My Powers. Here, she reflects on the cookbook author who inspired her connection with food.
The first time I heard about M.F.K. Fisher, I was hungry… and confused.
I had heard somewhere that there was a portrait of her, an icon, hanging on the dining room wall of Chez Panisse, a restaurant (perhaps better known as a place for culinary worship) in Berkeley, California. It was years ago when I was a designer—one that had supposedly “made it”—and it was around the time I began to wonder what “it” meant: success and happiness. I owned a design firm, I had a home, savings, a car, and a husband. I had everything we are told to want, and yet I was sad and starving for answers. And so it goes that when we are lost, we tend to go back to the places we know most instinctively. For me it was food, and so I bought her book.
As I read through The Art of Eating, an anthology of Fisher’s works, I was drawn into her stories of Sunday picnics by swimming holes, eating peach pie with her silent father; of pre-war Paris, warming segments of clementine on radiators while watching soldiers march. Her advice was pithy and realist—suggesting, for instance, one wrap an intentionally leathery fried egg sandwich in wax paper of “honest quality”, since it will inevitably “merge with it and be eaten”—ideally on a hilltop at sunset.
I was drawn into her stories of Sunday picnics by swimming holes, eating peach pie with her silent father; of pre-war Paris, warming segments of clementine on radiators while watching soldiers march.
I found myself laughing, amused by her sharp sense of humour (she titled one of her chapters “Pity the Blind in Palate”). I was taken by the way she placed modest words beside one another to create images, tastes, and smells so whole that I could have sworn the memories were my own.
With her stories, Fisher led me to the kitchen to bake, cook, console, feed, feast, and connect back to who I was, which diffused my confusion and helped me understand what was truly important to me: inspiration and happiness. And so I shut down my design firm, went to Paris to study pastries, to travel around Italy, France, and Africa, tasting and learning. And it was soon after that Beaucoup Bakery, the Paris Tours, and my travel writing came to be.
When I began writing a book of my own stories, I naturally thought of M.F.K. Fisher. With her as my muse, I recalled memories of being fed as a child, my belly warm and full of savoury porridges dotted with rustic dumplings that my grandmother would spin out of leftovers, stories of depression, stories of losing loved ones, stories of losing, and rediscovering, myself.
I opened Fisher’s book, The Gastronomical Me, and once again found myself in the pains and joys of each narrative, strung together with food. Then I read this:
“To be happy you must have taken the measure of your powers, tasted the fruits of your passion, and learned your place in the world.” – Santayana.
I titled my book, “The Measure of My Powers”, after The Gastronomical Me (11 of its 26 chapters bear the same name). And I wrote the book for the same reasons that I like to imagine she wrote hers, because she was a woman made peaceful from hungers satisfied and who wanted to share her observations on life’s most significant beauties: courage, happiness, and, of course, food.