The food and travel writer M. F. K. Fisher is turning out to be a wonderful new discovery for me – largely due to the sterling efforts of the Backlisted team who recently featured How to Cook a Wolf, Fisher’s wartime guide to keep appetites sated when good ingredients are in short supply, on their fortnightly podcast. It’s a timely read, particularly given our recent lockdown when planning ahead and making the most of store-cupboard staples swiftly became the order of the day. How prescient then of Daunt Books to have scheduled their lovely reissue of Wolf for the beginning of June, when many of us were still in lockdown. It’s a situation that gives Fisher’s insights into eating with ‘grace and gusto’ a whole new level of resonance, especially as *normal life* still seems somewhat fragile and uncertain in these challenging times.
Initially published in 1942 and subsequently updated in the 1950s, How to Cook a Wolf is a terrifically witty discourse on how to eat as well (or as decently) as possible on limited resources. The ‘wolf’ of the book’s title is the one at the door – a metaphor for hunger, particularly when money and other supplies are very tight.
In her characteristically engaging style, Fisher encourages us to savour the pleasures of simple dishes: the delights of a carefully cooked omelette; the heartiness of a well-flavoured soup; and the comforting taste of a baked apple with cinnamon milk at the end of a good meal.
Amongst others, there are chapters on eggs (How Not to Boil an Egg), meat (How to Carve the Wolf) and fish (How to Greet the Spring), together with sections on more philosophical topics, e.g. How to Distribute Your Virtue – all culinary-related, of course. The book is peppered with various recipes; some straightforward and recognisable (e.g. Napolitana Sauce for Spaghetti), others more bizarre or idiosyncratic (e.g. War Cake, ‘an honest cake, and one loved by hungry children’ despite its absence of eggs). The infamous Tomato Soup Cake also warrants a mention here: ‘a pleasant cake, which keeps well and puzzles people who ask what kind it is’. I’m almost tempted to give it a whirl myself…
Refusing to be phased by the lack of a particular ingredient, Fisher is more than happy to suggest passable alternatives. ‘Substitute’ or ‘whatever’ make frequent appearances in her recipes. Bacon grease can be used as a replacement for shortening in the aforementioned War Cake as the use of cinnamon and other spices will hide the meaty taste; decent oil will do in place of butter in certain dishes, but only if absolutely necessary.
Never being one to waste precious resources, Fisher extols the virtues of slipping a pan of apples below whatever else is being cooked in the oven at the time, whether we fancy baked apples for supper or not. In essence, it’s a way of making the most of the energy needed to heat the oven; plus, the apples could be considered a future meal in themselves, particularly if supplemented by some buttered toast and tea. In a similar vein, vegetables should be cooked quickly in as little water as possible to preserve their vitamins and minerals. Moreover, the cooking liquor must never be thrown away; instead, it should be decanted into an old gin bottle and squirrelled away in the freezer for use in stocks and soups. Only an idiot would tip such riches down the drain.
It is best to keep it in an old gin bottle in the icebox, alongside the other old gin bottle filled with juices left from canned fruit. You can add what’s left of the morning tomato juice. You can squeeze in the last few drops of the lemon you drink in hot water before breakfast, if you still do that. You can put canned vegetable juices in. You can steep parsley stems in hot water and pour their juice into the bottle. In other words, never throw away any vegetable or its leaves or its juices unless they are bad; else count yourself a fool. (p. 26)
By now, you might be thinking that this all sounds rather dry and wholesome. However, that’s really not the case at all. Fisher is a prose stylist of the highest order. Her writing is glorious – a marvellous blend of the wise, pithy and perhaps unintentionally witty. I love this introduction to a recipe for An English Curry, a modest dish that lives or dies according to the capabilities of the cook who executes it.
There are always curries, of course, which are not really curries at all, but simply leftover meat served in a gravy flavoured with curry powder. [This is a horrible definition, and only the next sentence saves me from gastronomical guilt.] They can be very good or ghastly, according to the cook. The following recipe is uninspired, but dependable. (p. 137)
The quotes in square brackets are Fisher’s annotations to the original text, incorporated into the updated version of the book published in 1954. Some of these notes offer additional advice or revisions to recipes based on the increased availability of certain items in the 1950s, while others strike a more humorous or ironic note, such as the example in the passage on curries noted above.
Another thing I love about Fisher is her willingness to embrace a mix of high and low culture in her approach to crafting dishes. While Fisher clearly appreciates fine food as much as the best of us, she has no qualms about cherry-picking elements from the best French chefs and blending them with those from more rustic or homely sources – as evidenced here with this introduction to her recipe for Cream of Potato Soup.
Here is a recipe, a combination really of Escoffier’s Soupe à la Bonne Femme and one I found in a calendar published by the gas company in the Canton of Vaud in Switzerland. It is excellent hot, but to make it into a mighty passible Vichyssoise it should have some cream [sour, or very thick] beaten into it and be put into the coldest part of the icebox for at least twenty-four hours. (p. 40)
If it’s not clear already, I adored this book. The writing is spirited and full of intelligence, a style that seems to reflect Fisher’s personality as well as her approach to cooking. The book ends with a chapter on more extravagant dishes, occasions when something more luxurious is called for as a break from reality. It’s a fitting end to a volume devoted to practical advice for keeping the wolf at bay, thereby giving us licence to dream of such treats as Shrimp Pâté or Bœuf Moreno should the requisite ingredients ever become available.
Yes, it is crazy, to sit savouring such impossibilities, while headlines yell at you and the wolf whuffs through the keyhole. Yet now and then it cannot harm you, thus to enjoy a short respite from reality. And if by chance you can indeed find some anchovies, or a thick slice of rare beef and some brandy, or a bowl of pink curled shrimps, you are doubly blessed, to possess in this troubled life both the capacity and the wherewithal to forget it for a time. (p. 255)
How to Cook a Wolf is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers / independent alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.
Daunt have such a sharp editorial eye, don’t they. I’ll add this one to my list. I’ve enjoyed reading Elizabeth David’s food writing in the past. She seems to me to be the British equivalant of Fisher.
Absolutely. They’ve made some terrific choices over the last few years. I think you’d like this, Susan. Fisher has more ‘bite’ (if you’ll excuse the pun) than Elizabeth David, but her prose is just as engaging!
Sounds like an awesome book to have. Many of the charms here remind my if The sixth edition and earlier versions of The Joy of Cooking which still is published alongside of newer editions. That book also has recipes for things like turtle and bear as well as all sorts of strong, sometimes sarcastic opinions, about food.
Is that the book by Irma Rombauer? (I just googled it.) It sounds great. There’s something wonderfully idiosyncratic and nostalgic about these kinds of books, a sense of character that really shines through.
I recently read a wonderful collection of her essays about the town I live in, that she spent quite some years living in as well, just post WW2 ‘Map of Another Town’ and beautifully evoked the character of Aix, the light, the people and that post-war feeling that seemed to have left a crack in the psyche of many. Her frustration at never quite being able to enter the small society, even if it was around the dinner table of her landlady, she addresses with amusement and humour, determined to overcome the stereotype of being an American. But is well practiced in verbal combat.
“She is keenly aware the grand dames consider her an ‘outlander’, an emissary from a graceless, culture-less people.”
Oh, wow – that’s quite a coincidence! What was it called, Claire? I’d love to read more of her work…and how wonderful that it covered the place where you live, something that must have given a whole additional layer of resonance to the text. That quote gives a real sense of how Fisher must have felt back then, like an outsider on the periphery of society, being ‘judged’ for her background/heritage ahead of any personal qualities…
It’s called ‘Map of Another Town’ and was also released by Daunt. One of the best essays takes place in a train station where she is delayed and decides not to leave, thus enduring hours and delivers a delightful stream of consciousness narrative of her discomfort and observations and what to do about it all. Delightful and hilarious, the cultural and ordinary life encounters.
Brilliant! Thanks, Claire. I think you’ve pretty much sold me on that. I’ve just been reading Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, a series that contains some wonderfully vivid scenes in train stations in the midst of WW2. Fisher’s book would make an excellent companion piece, I’m sure!
This sounds absolutely joyous. I love her voice, and the recipes are just how my grandmother and great aunts (who lived through the war) used to cook. They never wasted a thing!
Yes, I think her voice clinches it. In the hands of another (less engaging) writer, this could have been terribly dry and wholesome, but Fisher’s verve really makes it sing. A really wonderful book!
Food writing is a genre I’ve yet to explore, although your review confirms what I’ve read about Fisher’s work, i.e., that it’s fabulous. Have you read anything by Ruth Reichl? She’s a former editor of Gourmet magazine and restaurant critic for the New York Times who’s writen a series of memoirs. I read an excerpt from “Tender at the Bone,” which recounts the experiences and people who shaped her passion for food (it was amazing) to “Save Me the Plums,” which chronicles the last days of Gourmet magazine. I’m not sure anyone is in the same league as Fisher, but judging from my brief exposure Reichl is worth checking out.
It’s not a genre I’m terribly familiar with either. I’ve only read Elizabeth David and Nigel Slater in any level of detail, and both of those were at least 10 years ago. Still, there seems to be quite a lot to explore with Fisher, not just her food writing but her travel memoirs too. Many thanks for the tip about Ruth Reichl. I haven’t read her, but I’ll take a look at Tender to the Bone based on your recommendation. She sounds like someone with plenty to say about the food/restaurant industry…
Reichl has actually written quite a bit, so I’m not sure which of her many books would be the best place to start. I found my little excerpt from Tender to be quite funny & well written, although I think that particular book is a sort of personal journey, a “how I ended up here” kind of thing. I do believe Reichl throws in recipes, more in some books than others . . .
Oh, great. Thanks for that. I will take a look at her work – the addition of a few recipes here and there is always a bonus. :)
I heartily second the Reichl recommendation! “Garlic and Sapphires” is a wonderful place to start – it’s a memoir of her years as food critic at NY Times where she wore costumes and wigs to disguise herself. (But you really can’t go wrong with any of her stuff.)
Ha – that sounds wild! I will definitely take a look at that. Thank you!
MFK Fisher–one of the heroines of my early adult years! An older friend recommended her and i felt the same thrill of discovery as yours when I (pardon the expression) devoured her writings. What I really loved about her books, though, was less the content about food, as mouth-watering as it was, but the way she related her experiences of food to events in her life. How many of us cherish memories of meals not only or even because they were memorable, but because of their associations with friends, family, people we loved, places we were exploring for the first time or would never visit again. Her restraint, her maturity in distilling those recollections, saying less than she could distinguishes her books as the best form of memoir.
I love what you say about Fisher’s ability to capture those personal reminiscences about particular meals and food-related experiences in a subtle, understated way. It one of the reasons why I’m keen to read more, to get a sense of Fisher as an individual through her food and travel writing. As you say, those memories and personal associations run deep for so many of us, capturing those moments in time for us to treasure. I can still recall certain meals from a trip to Bologna many years ago…such a wonderful city for a foodie with lots of terrific restaurants to discover.
I love that MFK Fisher is being discovered elsewhere. She’s not someone I turn to for the practicalities, but for her embrace of life and attitude – she’s a big personality. Though they were so different, she always reminds me a little bit of Julia Child, another big personality.
Yes, absolutely! She may not be as ‘classic’ as someone like Elizabeth David or Marcella Hazan, but her philosophy on store-cupboard staples is wonderfully spirited. I’m sure she would have thrived during our recent lockdowns. And yes, Julia Child is a great reference point – as you say, another woman with a very distinctive personality!
I love the sound of this, I’m building up a collection of wartime cookery books and this will make a good addition. I’ve just noticed the comment above about Julia Child, that’s exactly who I was thinking of!
Oh, definitely – it would fit right in! As you’ve probably noticed by now, I love pretty much anything related to WW2, so Fisher’s guide to survival was right up my street. :)
I can’t say I enjoy food writing myself, but I can see that this is a wonderful book if you do enjoy it. I have never heard of M F K Fisher she sounds quite a character. Not sure what I think about tomato soup cake though.
I know! It sounds quite bizarre. Once you know it’s made from tomato soup, you’re unlikely to be able to taste anything else…
Sounds fab Jacqui. I love a good cookbook and it’s a genre which can be particularly interesting to read – especially with the older books which so capture the changing times and the tastes. I don’t quite know if I could manage a tomato soup cake though… ;D
It’s more of a collection of Fisher’s food writing than a cookbook, but there are various recipes included here and there. And you’re right to raise the point about capturing a sense of the era. Anyone with an eye for the culinary aspects of social history will find something of interest here!
One of my favourite M F K Fisher’s books is her memoir of her childhood Among Friends. The “Friends” were the Quakers with whom she grew up with in Whittier, California at the beginning of the 20th century. I also love her food writing and her other set of essays A Considerable Town about Marseilles.My copy also has Map of Another Town so I am doubly blessed.
How wonderful – it seems she had quite the life! I’m particularly interested to read about her time in Southern France, so thank you for the tip.
This sounds excellent – I love reading home manuals, esp from the war, while still being a sloppy housewife myself!
So do I! It’s partly a nostalgia thing, a return to a simpler time when we valued the fundamentals in life. Good home cooking, fresh fruit and veg, making stocks, using leftovers to produce more meals etc. All the sorts of things my mum and aunt used to do when they got married…
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There was some renewal of interest in MFK Fisher in the late 80s I think, and I became obsessed by her – read all her books, and her collected letters. And more recently her lost novel The Theoretical Foot. She is one of the people I have been most fascinated by over many years – I’ve nothing against Elizabeth David, but give me MFKF any day!
Gosh, I didn’t even realise there was a novel! What a voraciously talented woman she must have been with her food writing, the travel memoirs and a foray into fiction, too. I definitely want to read more of her in the future. There’s something about her ‘voice’ that captivated me with ‘Wolf’.
Such a memorable title. I’m behind in my Backlisted listening (not since March) but usually they manage to convince me to read whatever they’ve been reading, by the end of an episode. For the most part, I’m not super keen on kitchen/food books, and I do cook all the time, so maybe that’s a little strange. One book that I did really enjoy, which I’d not expected to, along these lines, is one reissued by Persephone, Agnes Jekyll’s Kitchen Essays. Oh, and I do enjoy 19thC cookery books, the kind with the household advice included (love that). Regardless, I did enjoy reading your post. As always.
Oh, I’ve looked at Kitchen Essays in the past, so it’s great to hear that you enjoyed it. One for the future, I suspect – once I’ve worked my way through more Fisher, now that I’m hooked. And yes, listening to Backlisted can be a very dangerous thing. Like you, I’m often tempted to buy the featured book at the end of the podcast, largely as a consequence of their infectious enthusiasm for it!
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