• Madeleine Feeny

Eating in a Crisis: How to Cook A Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

‘You can still live with grace and wisdom .... to keep the wolf from snuffling too hungrily through the keyhole'

M. F. K. Fisher knew how to live (as you’d expect from the high priestess of American food writing). Even wartime rationing is fun when she’s in charge. In an agile piece of publishing, Daunt Books have responded to our current crisis by rushing out How to Cook a Wolf, Fisher’s invigorating guide to eating well in straitened circumstances. It makes for pertinent reading in a pandemic, with plenty of transferrable advice – including this passage, which would have served the supermarket raiders of March well:

‘It is often a delicate point, now, to decide when common sense ends and hoarding begins. Preparing a small stock of practical boxed and canned goods for a blackout shelf, in direct relation to the size of your family, is quite another thing from buying large quantities of bottled shrimps and canapé wafers and meat pastes, or even unjustified amounts of more sensible foods.'

Her words on booze also strike a chord: ‘Liquor by the case is generally about ten per cent less expensive than by the bottle, and generally it disappears at least ten per cent faster, so you must gauge your own purse and proclivities.’ If I’d only known about her half-and-half cocktail (vermouth, dry sherry, lemon juice and angostura bitters), I might have made fewer phone calls to Majestic during lockdown.

First published in 1942, this book was later revised to accommodate postwar shops and budgets. This new edition includes Fisher’s 1951 annotations, which crackle with scathing criticisms of her foolish younger self. Each whimsically titled chapter – from ‘How to be Cheerful Though Starving’ to ‘How to Make a Pigeon Cry’ – opens with a choice quotation from the likes of Tolstoy, Swift and Shakespeare (‘appetite, a universal wolf’).

The wolf metaphor is sustained to compelling effect throughout the book which is founded on good sense and the guiding principle that ‘since we must eat to live, we might as well do it with both grace and gusto.’ Like all the best food writers, Fisher combines recipes and practical wisdom with philosophy, literature and social commentary, all dished up in the effervescent and confiding prose that is distinctively hers, generously seasoned with dry wit. ('Butchers, usually, are very pleasant people, in spite of having at some time in their lives deliberately chosen to be butchers.')

By turns lyrical, wistful, droll and trenchant, her writing is a joy; even a boiling kettle is dynamite in her hands: ‘Myself, I would say that when it bubbles with large energetic bubbles, and looks ready to hop from the kettle, and makes a rocky rather than a murmuring noise, and sends off a good deal of steam, it is boiling.’ It’s rather like having a lovably bossy and very perceptive aunt in the kitchen with you.

Her advice is always sensible, and often ahead of its time. She rails against the ‘bugbear of meal-balancing’, entreating her readers to simplify their diets and balance each day, not meal. No need to consume meat daily, just because you always have – instead, why not use it as Chinese cooking does, in composite dishes of vegetables with rice or noodles, which are far more economical (and delicious). I enjoyed the diatribe against sliced white loaves, ‘packaged monstrosities’ from which all nutritional value has been stripped – this book having been written in an era before artisan bakeries became places of worship, and sourdough the messiah. The elaborate and overlong cooking of meat also gets short shrift – steak should be eaten rare, or ideally tartare. Couldn't agree more.

Wartime frugality casts long shadows: 1940s cooks ‘will feel, until their last days on earth, a kind of culinary caution: butter, no matter how unlimited, is a precious substance not lightly to be wasted; meats, too, and eggs, and all the far-brought spices of the world.’ There are ingenious tips for lean times, such as refrigerating leftover vegetable water in an old gin bottle to be used again in drinks or dishes, so no minerals are lost.

Having read the publisher’s opening caveat that some of the recipes ‘should be approached with caution’, I was surprised by how well they’ve stood the test of time. Most are inventive, international and enticing, with occasional exceptions period curiosities such as 'Aunt Gwen’s Cold Shape', aka calf’s head, sliced and served cold. Others are surprising yet intriguing: who’d have thought of baking spaghetti with honey, butter and shaved almonds? Not I, but I might give it a go.

A cold buttermilk shrimp soup sounds disgusting, she acknowledges, but is apparently reliably toothsome. I was tempted by the retro-fabulous Baked Ham Slice with mustard, apple and sweet potato. There are useful formulas for basic stews, soups, curries and breads, along with variations, and a healthy encouragement of experimentation: ‘Once the cupboard is stocked with things you like and a few you are not sure about, start combining!’ The egg chapter is especially strong – ‘probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken’ – and I was moved to try my hand at Eggs in Hell (Uova in Purgatorio), a rustic Italian concoction of eggs coddled in passata with garlic and herbs.

Other highlights include the description of gazpacho, a failsafe hangover cure and ‘a soul-satisfying thing to drink, chilled, midway in a torrid morning’. Likewise roasted pigeon, ‘the most heartening dish to set before a man bowed down with grief or loneliness.’

How to Cook a Wolf is a rich larder of treasures from Fisher’s brisk resourcefulness and depth of knowledge to her infectious enthusiasm and inimitable turn of phrase. It offers a snapshot of a society in crisis, and feels remarkably relevant as we face a different one today. There’s a strong sense that, yes, cooking is essential for survival, but it’s also a kind of magic, even when you're on your uppers. Whether you’re a reader, writer, eater or cook – or all four – this book will enlighten, enchant and equip you.

How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher was published by Daunt Books Publishing on 4th June.

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