This is a book we read in chunks online during the week. It seems quite difficult to find it in shops. But M. F. K. Fisher’s (1908-1992) work was written for households during WWII.
As with Jack Monroe’s Tin Can Cook now, it’s a rallying call for resourcefulness during difficult times. Or should that be… thymes?! Indeed. Let’s take a look at this one.
How to Cook a Wolf
Published in 1942 at the height of food shortages during the war, it’s full of ideas on how to stretch out ingredients into a tasty meal.
In the modern era, Monroe talks of wondering how to turn tinned peaches and some other weird ingredients into a meal—the startling results of protracted austerity in the UK.
During WWII, things were even worse. In America, citizens were feeling the consequences of America’s war effort. In the UK there was also rationing, of course, but everywhere folks had to make do with limited supplies.
And M. F. K. Fisher set about rallying home cooks so that everyone could make the most of whatever they had.
Having lived through the Great Depression, too, she knew what she was on about. And she writes:
"There are very few men and women, I suspect, who cooked and marketed their way through the last war without losing forever some of the nonchalant extravagance of the '20s. They will feel, until their final days on earth, a kind of culinary caution."
Interesting to note that, as we’re now in an era of wild excess. Perhaps not in lockdown, but normally we can sit around dining on lobster, caviar, and ice cream. If we want.
That’s not advisable every day, but the point is we’re in an era of abundance. It’s all cheap and affordable and an easy option for us.
But coronavirus has brought a sense of spartan living back onto our conscience.
And now it’s important to try and get by in the best way possible, with the least amount of resources. Enter the likes of Fisher and Monroe.
Interestingly, Fisher amended subsequent editions of How to Cook a Wolf. Decades down the line. The 1988 edition, for example, has annotations and notes—the author and chef correcting her younger self.
Writing about polenta (boiled cornmeal) in 1942 she says:
"It can be the mainstay of a poor family’s nourishment or the central dish of a buffet supper for twenty jaded literary critics with equal nonchalance."
But in 1988 she chastised herself and admitted she was wrong about that.
Anyway, we should point out this isn’t a traditional cookbook. There are recipes, sure, but this was written in the midst of global warfare.
As such, she throws in a bit of polemics and whatnot—How to Cook a Wolf is more of an essay then anything else.
Peppered in amongst he fine prose are recipes involving chicken, bread, and other basics.
"The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight.[Making bread is] one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with one of the world’s sweetest smells… there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread."
Sludge is one we came across. Enough sludge to feed a person for a week at 50 cents.
As for the figurative wolf in the title, we think of it as a hungry beast hanging around outside. Sniffing at your doorway and wondering if anything is inside.
Well, not thanks to M. F. K. Fisher. Food for thought, here. And food for eating purposes, too, from a deeply tumultuous time.
It’s a very different type of war right now. And food is more readily available (even if bog roll isn’t), but it’s an uplifting read all the same. Hunt it down, eh?
M. F. K. Fisher
The author of some 27 books, Fisher was one of America’s top food writers for many decades.
Her personal philosophy was about eating well—that was an art form for her. And in many ways she was right. Food is glorious. Never more so than when it’s scarce or exceptional (or exceptionally scarce, eh?).
She also founded the Napa Valley Wine Library Association, which is a library about fine wine. And that makes us think of the film Sideways (2004) for some reason.
Fisher reminds us somewhat of Julia Child, for which there was the film Julia & Julia back in 2009. Starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams.
Child (1912-2004) was an ebullient presence in the world of cooking. More of an enthusiastic celebrity than Fisher, that’s probably why she had a film about her.
But we think How to Cook a Wolf has a universal and everlasting appeal to it.
Like a pitta bread left in a bread bin slightly too long. It’s old, but my word you’ll enjoy it with some houmous all the same.