Sunday, May 13, 2007

How To Cook A Wolf

First published in 1942, How To Cook A Wolf grew out of several columns MFK Fisher wrote for her father's newspaper in Whittier, California. World War II had just started, and food rationing was on with a vengeance. Lean times were nothing new to MFK Fisher. She'd lived in post World War I Europe on a student stipend, then returned to the United States where, like most other Americans, she suffered through the Great Depression.

How To Cook A Wolf could have been another deadly earnest and dull cookbook except for two things: Fisher spent several years in France, particularly in Dijon, which was well-known as a culinary center, and this has a profound effect on her; also, food -- its history, its preparation, its consumption, among other things -- brought out the playful and imaginative in her. She couldn't have been boring if her life depended on it. Fisher was superbly capable of a type of alchemy in her writing that kept her from being dismissed as shallow, out-of-touch, airy-fairy. She wanted her readers to come out and play and imagine with her, but she had just enough common sense and kitchen know-how as a sturdy foundation to keep them. Past and present, she informs, persuades and ultimately, seduces.

Nine years after its publication, How To Cook A Wolf was updated and reissued. Although food rationing was a thing of the past, it was still wartime -- The Cold War -- and although people had plenty, MFK Fisher felt that it was still important to know "how to eat with grace and gusto". In one of the last chapters, MFK Fisher deplores the types of foods generally used to stock a bomb shelter.

The way the update was done was quite clever. In brackets, MFK Fisher adds or refines recipes, cracks little jokes, chastises herself about advice she gave that hasn't quite proven out, discusses how she's changed as a person since the first edition, and constantly questions what she's written: [Is that important?]

At first, this structure grated on my nerves because, although MFK Fisher is charming and witty and knowledgeable, it felt as if there were two such people talking simultaneously. After a while, I adjusted, but for me, How To Cook A Wolf is best read twice: The first time, reading the original prose and ignoring the bracketed information, and the second time, concentrating on the updates.

When discussing meals, MFK Fisher will often describe a perfect accompaniment less than specifically. She'll use the terms "good" and "honest", as in "...this should be served with good, honest bread..."

Being far from a gourmet, I found this confusing, and sometimes, a little off-putting. I'm part of the generation that has watched Martha Stewart since young womanhood and I'm used to Martha's grim assurances that in order to duplicate her blueberry muffins, you really must have fresh blueberries that were picked right off the bush somewhere in Maine in the past three hours, or the whole recipe's not going to taste worth a damn anyway.

Part of me was suspicious that this was what MFK was up to, but if you keep reading, you start to understand what she means by "good" and "honest", as if it were shared, ancient knowledge hard-wired into you that you'd finally managed to access. Even better, you start to think, "Yes! I can do this!" Just one example of her alchemy.

Nobody describes food better than MFK Fisher. (Well, okay, Ruth Reichl is a close runner-up.) In a discussion of vegetables, her phrase "round, satiny onions..." rolls voluptuously around in my brain, pleasing to at least four out of five senses. Lately when I've been eating, I've wanted her to be right by my side, describing it all to me. (In particular, I wish I could sit at her feet while she described Pablo's mother-in-law's kimchi, which I firmly put above all other kimchi in Korea, South or North. The more mature it gets, the better it gets. It's difficult to explain that exquisite sensation when crunchy, salty, sour and spicy are at the ends of the chopsticks sliding into your mouth, but I know MFK Fisher would be equal to the task; it would truly be a case of genius saluting genius.)

Earlier, in a previous chapter, when MFK insists on the kind of salad she'd like to eat, "I want a salad of a dozen tiny vegetables: rosy potatoes in their tender skins, asparagus tips, pod-peas, beans two inches long and slender as thick hairs...I want them cooked [until nearly done] each alone, to fresh perfection. I want them dressed, all together in a discreet veil of oil and condiments..." I began to believe that this was the salad I'd been waiting for all my life and had only just now realized it.

MFK Fisher was not only a brilliant food writer, she was well ahead of her time. She argues quite persuasively that the "balanced dinner" is not really economical at all, and that many of the foods when combined can wreak havoc in more delicate stomachs. She advocates the "balanced day" rather than the "balanced meal." When I saw a chiropractor 3 years ago for my "frozen shoulder" (known as "50-year-old shoulder" here /-: ) , he had a list posted near the receptionist's desk, saying much the same thing.

In all, there are 73 recipes in How To Cook A Wolf. I'd love to try most of them, but some, such as the War Cake and Edith's Gingerbread will have to wait until I a) get back to the US or b) break down and buy an oven. The soup chapter, "How To Boil Water" is sublime, and I especially want to try her Parisian onion soup recipe. Some of the recipes in the other chapters, for example "How To Carve The Wolf" probably won't fly with most readers, but should be read anyway because of her gorgeous prose style.

My favorite chapter was "How To Keep Alive", in which MFK carefully gives instructions for a dish she calls "Sludge", which is comprised of ground beef and wilted vegetables, which are ground through a food-mill then boiled with all-grain cereal together in a large pot. The resulting "Sludge" is then put in a cool place, and can be eaten hot or cold. MFK recommends slicing it and frying it like scrapple, if you're rich enough to possess a little fat and gas or electricity for frying. (MFK cautions against using beets since it would turn the whole concoction bright pink, then a dull gray.) This dish is for people who are a whisker from starvation. I agree with 50 books who said that this would've been a useful recipe for George Orwell when he was Down And Out In Paris And London. In the chapter "How To Have A Sleek Pelt", Fisher returns to this recipe, noting that it makes an excellent dog food, which put me off trying it out for myself.

One dish I am eager to try is "Eggs In Hell". Eggs are generally easy to prepare, you can dress them up or down with a minimum of effort, and besides, who can resist a dish with a name like that? The recipe calls for tomato sauce or even ketchup, but in my mind, I've already substituted salsa. There's something about Mary (Frances Kennedy Fisher) that reassures me that any variations would not only be forgivable, but laudable.

How To Cook A Wolf has already proved useful to me in another non-food related way: My students saw me reading it on a recent field trip, and after they reacted to the totally dishy (pun intended) picture of MFK Fisher on the cover, ("She is my style! Bombshell!") I was able to give an impromptu mini-lesson about the idiom "the wolf's at the door", when they expressed puzzlement at the title.

CanadaBoy, (who should give up this teaching English gig and go be a chef somewhere) has already done a cursory examination of the recipes in the book, but I plan to loan it to him so he can peruse it at his leisure. But now that this review is FINALLY done, How To Cook A Wolf will go sailing first thing tomorrow morning into Pablo's mailbox. He also likes to cook, and I'm almost sure he'll find MFK's prose as mesmerizing as I did.

As MFK Fisher would recommend simple yet dazzling accompaniments for dishes, I recommend that How To Cook A Wolf be read in conjunction with: Hunger by Knut Hamsun; Down And Out In Paris And London by George Orwell; and The Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn.

And of course, the very best thing to go with MFK Fisher is more MFK Fisher -- I plan to put this into practice soon by abusing my credit card to order Serve It Forth, The Gastronomical Me, and Consider The Oyster.

9 comments:

acquisitionist said...

Your review has made me oh-so hungry on many levels. I want a serve of that yummy salad please and I'm now hankering after my own copy. My culinary skills are in their infancy though so how would someone like myself fare with it?

The new revamp is smokin' too. Once again the pic is great. It's nice to put a face to bybee.

Melanie said...

Marvellous review! I love food writing, but I haven't read this one. That is soon to be remedied! I would bet that quite a few people lately would be interested in the recipe that makes "an excellent dog food"; with all this fuss over tainted commercial pet foods, my library has had numerous requests for books on homemade pet food. Strange but true.

Dark Orpheus said...

I've just read Serve It Forth, Consider The Oyster, and How to cook a Wolf. (Going down the M.F.K. Fisher collection very slowly)

I think it's because I eat more than I cook, so I prefer it when she's more personal, or when she's being a little glib and funny, like in Consider the Oyster.

I've just started on The Gastronomical Me, and I am enjoying her childhood memories of food and dinners, and how the very first thing she cooked, she ended up poisoning her mother!

Ruth Reichl herself has rave review for M.F.K. Fisher. After I'm done with Fisher, I totally intend to start in on Ruth Reichl.

Glad there's one more MFK Fisher fan out there. Actually, why don't you consider getting The Art of Eating - which compiles all these works by Fisher, and one more?

kookiejar said...

Hey, Bybee, send me some of Pablo's mother-in-law's kimchi, would you? I've never had kimchi, but you made it sound wonderful.

On an unrelated note, I think I liked the gray better than the blue, but the blue is nice, too.

Lotus Reads said...

What a thorough review, Bybee, enjoyed it so much, thank you! Reading a book like that must leave one constantly hungry!

Sounds like a book I will relish, thanks for the review!

Bybee said...

Literary A,
I think even someone who wasn't a pro at cooking would benefit even more. MFK Fisher's got that sense of joy and wonder going on. A lot of meals she talks about are beautiful and startling in their simplicity. She can do the complicated stuff, but she knows that's not the whole bag of tricks. Plus, the English major in you will be blissed out by her yummy prose style.

Melanie,
The only dog I have access to right now is CanadaBoy's corgi, Ollie. I'd love to cook up some Sludge and see if Ollie gives it a good review.

Orpheus,
I'm trying to be strong and not order anything else until at least June, but You make The Gastronomical Me sounds so wonderful, that I'm weakening rapidly. [yeah, right, Bybee -- blame your bibliomania on an innocent bystander!]

Kookiejar,
Hymns should be written and sung about Pablo's mother-in-law's kimchi. I'd send you some if I could, but I don't trust it. Kimchi's kind of ...well, it's always fermenting, and sometimes, it explodes. Someone put kimchi in a suitcase last summer (not me, someone on my flight) and at customs in Chicago, there was a BIG orange mess.

Thanks for feedback about color: I'm going back to the gray. I can't get precisely the shade of blue I want. All the blue shades kind of hurt my eyes.

Lotus,
How To Cook A Wolf was so delectable, that my review didn't even scratch the surface. I hope you'll put it on your list -- I'm interested in reading a future blog entry of yours that has your thoughts about the book.

Brad said...

Great review! After reading a couple of Fisher's non-food related books a couple of years ago, I picked up "The Art of Eating," which I haven't touched yet. You have now peaked my interest again.

Viagra said...

What s clever book title!

Elliott Broidy said...

You review makes me wanna take a peak into it. Thanks for sharing.