Monday, August 29, 2011

A Cordiall Water!

Our book today is A Cordiall Water, a delightful curiosity assembled in 1961 by the redoubtable M.F.K. Fisher while she was living in Aix-en-Provence. She always maintained that unlike many of her classics such as Consider the Oyster or Serve It Forth, this book was written purely for personal pleasure, and whether or not that's true, the book certainly reads that way. This is an anecdotal bestiary of home remedies - nostrums, herbs, poultices, powders, miracle pills, and liquors of all sorts - every dubious or dead certain short-cut to health that the author ever came across in a lifetime of vigorously questioning everybody about everything. She dabbles a bit in the history of the home remedy (she's a delightful hostess, but this dabbling is to be taken with a grain of salt straight from her own well-stocked kitchen), and then she spends the rest of this enchanting little book ruminating on the possible causes and effects of all these peddled cures. She broadens the scope of her inquiry to include stories about all manner of animals: how sick they get, what 'natural cures' they seem instinctively to know and use, etc. And because she's M. F. K. Fisher, she can't resist opinionizing along the way, especially when it comes to animals she always described as "filthy":
It is not known, at least by me, whether snakes and fish suffer from this miserable affliction, but I have heard the theory, advance in an argument against keeping bedroom windows open in winter, that the reason birds never sneeze or cough is that they sleep always with their heads tucked into their warm yet aerated wings. The common hen was cited as a prime example of this idyllic prevention.

I cannot advance any arguments for or against it since I do not really like birds, at least enough to live much with them, and I actively dislike chickens. Once when I was very young, though, a neighbor asked us to watch over her canary while she went away for a few days, and I have a strong and distinct feeling that I heard him cough several times before he died, soon after she left him with us.

You see it done perfectly, and you shiver even while you're squirming with delight: the classic Fisher dead-cold comic timing embodied in the placement of that "before he died" is something nine writers out of ten would have botched. That comic timing pops up far more frequently in a book like A Cordiall Water than it does in her less self-indulgent volumes, very likely because a lot of this stuff is being pulled from her memory, from priceless stories often told and therefore highly polished. Just look at the genius of where she inserts the telling phrase in this little story:
One man who spent much of his lifetime studying the problem through his own reactions to it insisted, long before he was knocked down and killed when cold sober by an enormous dog, that the only real cure was sudden death. This assertion was even more macabre to his friends because he had always professed, and backed it by practice, that two aspirins and "a hair of the dog that had bit him" were of great help the morning after the night before ...

A less confident writer wouldn't have dared to drop the punch line itself in the first sentence like that, but how much blander would the story have been if she'd done it up the predictable way, "... and then he was killed by a dog!" Beholding calm, totally assured mastery like that on virtually every page is the main joy of this little book.

There are two other prominent joys to it all. The first is the treasure-trove of personal memories our author shares about her own life growing up (the piece-by-piece portrait that emerges of her mother answers a few key question about where Fisher got her comedic abilities), and of her own encounters with many of the nostrums she's discussing - like the time her adoring husband forced her to bite into a raw onion to cure her horrible head-cold:
Love as well as despair blinded me before the tears did, of course, and I still hope they all acted as a kind of anesthetic for the wild blasting of my senses that followed my first resolute bite. I was on fire. I was in Hell. From the shoulders up to the last hair on my head I buzzed like an agonized bee in every atom of my skin and flesh and bone. When I gasped, my husband whacked me and said, "Good, good. That's the way it should be. Clearing you out. Killing germs. Excellent reaction. You'll be fine before you known it."

I was not, and spent three days in bed with severe blisters in my mouth and throat, but the cold was gone. It had been routed. It is almost literally the last one I have ever had, just as that onion is the last one I have eaten raw for a cold cure since 1929, when the stock market and I crashed.

The other prominent joy in A Cordiall Water comes from realizing that the main reason these stories get to be funny is because they aren't true anymore, and that's an enormous blessing for the civilized Western world in which Fisher grew old and happy. Most of the memories she's revelling in during the course of this book date from the late 1920s - only a century ago, but it might as well be two millennia, what with normal, educated people rubbing juices on rabid dog-bites and gulping down family recipe home remedies for cardiac congestion. It's arresting to think that people in 1920s New York swapped poultice recipes because they knew their state-of-the-art hospitals could seldom do anything more effective. In addition to making you smile and laugh, A Cordiall Water will fill you with renewed appreciation for the 'cold & flu relief' aisle of your local Kwiki-Mart ... not to mention your local overcrowded hospital emergency room, dispensing miracles all day to grumpy hypochondriacs. Nagging ailments come with almost instant cures these days - something people in Fisher's day couldn't have imagined.

Instant cures ... except for hangovers, that is. Even Fisher admits there's no cure for those - and she was something of an expert. Probably curling up in bed with one of her books is as close as you'll ever get.

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