Editor's note: As we shelter in place during a global pandemic, it seems like a good time to revisit Simona Carini's take on M.F.K. Fisher's wartime rationing recipes and reflections, first printed here July 3, 2008.
Of the books penned by legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher (1908-1992) that I have so far read, my favorite is How to Cook a Wolf. Published in 1942, James Beard described her fourth book as a "brilliant approach to wartime economies for the table."
Wartime brings special challenges to anybody trying to eat "with both grace and gusto." Fisher refuses to allow all pleasures to disappear from the wartime table and provides advice and recipes that creatively make the best of what can be obtained and prepared at a time of tight budget and scarcity. As usual with her books, the food at hand provides the springboard for reflections on topics ranging from the balanced diet to the choice of a drinking partner. An endearing quality of How to Cook a Wolf is the fact that, nine years after its publication, Fisher went back to it and annotated it with theatrical asides cheering or lamenting her original words.
At some point the war ends, and in time rations and shortages end as well. People want to forget the war years and the privations suffered during them. Fisher believed, however, that the majority of men and women "who cooked and marketed their way through the past war ... will feel, until their final 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, take on a new significance, having once been so rare. And that is good, for there can be no more shameful carelessness than with the food we eat for life itself."
Each chapter of How to Cook a Wolf presents Fisher's thoughts on a topic: "How to Boil Water," "How Not to Boil an Egg," etc. Expounded principles are applied in recipes inserted in the text. Although the recipes are interesting (they include the aptly named War Cake, in which bacon grease can be used, "because of the spices that hide its taste"), the main pleasure of reading the book is to listen to Fisher philosophize, muse, get passionate, gently satirize (herself first), and tell stories, where she describes people and events of her life.
My favorite character is Sue, protagonist of the chapter "How to Be Cheerful Though Starving." "She loved to eat, and she apparently loved, now and then, to eat with other people. Her suppers were legendary." As we read about Sue's house ("a little weatherbeaten house on a big weatherbeaten cliff") and about her meals ("There were the little bowls of chopped fresh and cooked leaves. There were the fresh and dried herbs, which she had gathered from the fields. There was the common bowl of rice ... There was tea, always."), we are drawn into what feels like a fairytale and we move in it like small children, awed and a bit afraid. "I have never eaten such strange things as there in her dark smelly room, with the waves roaring at the foot of the cliff." Sue knew about lots of herbs and wandered around her house to pick them, sometimes trespassing in other people's gardens. "The salads and stews she made from these little shy weeds were indeed peculiar, but she blended and cooked them so skillfully that they never lost their fresh salt crispness."
Beyond the appreciation for the food Sue prepared, Fisher tells her story as a lesson: "But anyone in the world, with intelligence and spirit and the knowledge that it must be done, can live with her inspired oblivion to the ugliness of poverty. ... Sue nourished herself and many other people for many years, with the quiet assumption (this is very important) that man's need for food is not a grim obsession, repulsive, disturbing, but a dignified and even enjoyable function. Her nourishment was of more than the flesh, not because of its strangeness, but because of her own calm. (And this, too, is very important.)"
Graceful and appreciative eating leads to a deeper understanding of the nobility of our life: "I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war's fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy, and ever-increasing enjoyment. And with our gastronomical growth will come, inevitably, knowledge and perception of a hundred other things, but mainly of ourselves."
Below is a vegetarian version of Fisher's Parisian onion soup from How to Cook a Wolf. Hers is made with canned beef broth and served with rye bread covered in "grated snappy cheese (Parmesan type)."
Vegetarian Parisian Onion Soup
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 ¼ pound sweet onions, thinly sliced with a mandolin
Leaves from 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
4 cups vegetable broth, heated
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Sliced rye bread
Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat and add the onions and thyme. Cook gently, stirring, for 15 minutes.
Sprinkle the flour over the onions, mix well and add broth and bay leaf. Cover and simmer until the onions are soft, about 30 minutes.
Discard the bay leaf and adjust salt and pepper to taste.
Grate a thick layer of cheese onto the toast and melt under a broiler. (This is better than putting the toast and cheese on the soup and then melting since the toast stays crispier.)
Ladle the soup into bowls, arrange the toast on the surface and serve immediately.