How To Cook A Wolf
One day long ago (before this blog existed), I came across a copy of M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating and enjoyed reading it as I have enjoyed few other books. I defy anyone to read Fisher on eating and not get hungry and try to make at least one of the foods she describes in such detail and so lovingly—buttered toast, at least, which she describes so often, and it always sounds delectable because she uses words like “crisp.”
So, having read everything else she’d written, I had the one remaining food book by Fisher on my wish list, and this past Christmas my sister-in-law picked it out and gave it to me. It was the first book I opened at their house, and I sat there with those of us who were ready while other people were getting ready (the holiday traditions of nine people and two bathrooms) and passed the tin of popcorn around and read How To Cook a Wolf.
According to the preface, this book “was first published in 1942, when wartime shortages were at their worst” and, as the saying goes, the wolf was at the door—I was surprised to find out that this saying comes from a verse by C.P.S. Gilman, quoted at the beginning:
There’s a whining at the threshold,
There’s a scratching at the floor.
To work! To work! In Heaven’s name!
The wolf is at the door!
The chapter titles are fun by themselves—the first one is “How to Be Sage Without Hemlock” and in it she discusses the idea of “balanced” meals and advocates casting off “the ghastly stupid monotony” of the kind of set menus that people she knew were taught, prior to the 1940s. The best chapter title, though is “How to Boil Water.” She begins with the joke about a person so clueless that she “couldn’t even boil water” and then launches into an earnest explanation about the right way to boil it, complete with horror at the thought of making tea with water that has been boiled twice. Part of my enjoyment of the chapter, I have to admit, comes from a story we still tell about Eleanor, who was 15 in December 2008 when I had my knee replaced and started this blog—old enough to make something involving a can of condensed soup, I thought, until the moment she called from the kitchen to ask her now-famous question: “Mom, where do we keep the cans of water?”
Fisher’s no-nonsense manner and the details about how she uses even the water that vegetables have cooked in or the fat she has trimmed off the meat are the pleasures of this book, and I especially enjoy the parts where she gets up on her high horse for a moment:
“…unless you are among those miserable ones who must have meat in some form every day because you always have had meat in some form every day. In that case, this little catalog of tricks on wolf-catching is not for you, and neither good sense nor the dictates of earthly war can still your carnivorous hunger.”
She gives a recipe for “Tomato Soup Cake” and comments “this is a pleasant cake, which keeps well and puzzles people who ask what kind it is.” This reminds me of one of the cake recipes my husband’s grandmother handed down to me—her pleasure in it consisted largely of telling people its name, which is “Baby Plum Cake.” She would say the name, watch expectantly for puzzled frowns, and then tell her audience gleefully “I put in a little jar of Gerber baby food plums!”
In the last chapter, “How To Practice True Economy,” Fisher urges her readers, “when you think you can stand no more of the wolf’s snuffling under the door and keening softly on cold nights, throw discretion into the laundry bag, put candles on the table, and for your own good if not the pleasures of an admiring audience make one or another of the recipes in this chapter.” The first recipe is for shrimp pate, which will keep, she says “if it contains enough spices and alcohol, is correctly sealed into its mold with coagulated fat, and is kept reasonably cold. Given these three prime benefits, it can be produced when you will, like a mad maiden aunt, or a first edition (in Russian, naturally) of Crime and Punishment.”
Reading this book during the holidays and after was more of a feast for the senses than I anticipated, given the title. I should have known, though, that M.F.K. Fisher would be able to derive pleasure even from the kind of cooking designed to keep people alive the longest for the least amount of money. And now I am sad that I have read everything she ever had to say about food. I must go and make some toast and try to feel lavish in serving it as she invariably describes: “piles of toast, generously buttered.”