It seems fitting somehow that my copy of M.F.K. Fisher’s “How to Cook a Wolf” is remaindered, the publishing world’s term for overstock, which is usually marked by a black slash across the bottom page edges to alert those who care about such things that I didn’t pay full price.
I didn’t pay attention to what the book was about when I bought it. I picked it up because Fisher is one of the all-time great food writers and anything of hers is likely to be pure pleasure to read.
Yet I seemed to be waiting for the right time to read it. So, it lingered for the past two years on my too-tall to-read stack.
It was only after I was laid off in March that I picked it up and discovered my timing could not have been more perfect.
That’s because the wolf she refers to is the one that howls outside the door of those in need.
In her case, she was writing about the world of rations and shortages that accompanied the second world war. The same attitude of living frugally, though, applies to many of us today in pinched circumstances.
Fisher didn’t let the war stop her. As she wrote, “All men are hungry. They always have been. They must eat, and when they deny themselves the pleasures of carrying out that need, they are cutting off part of their possible fullness, their natural realization of life, whether they are poor or rich.”
She devised a series of recipes that stretches the food budget to the point of snapping. Knowing how to boil water leads to the creation of soup. From there you can build to eggs and dishes beyond your tastiest dreams. She even offers some recipes for homemade liquor, because many would not want to go without that completely, either.
Sprinkled liberally throughout the book are tidbits of the opinionated cooking advice that Fisher is known for. Some of suggestions I wouldn’t follow, yet I enjoyed savoring her every word:
- “One thing to remember about cooking any fowl, whether wild or domesticated, is that a good scrub with a cut lemon, never water, will make it tenderer and will seal in its flavors.”
- “Of course, the best gravy is one quite innocent of flour, in spite of what your grandmother would say. It is made by swirling a little boiling stock or water into the rich odorous pan as soon as the roast is removed. It is boiled for a scant five minutes, skimmed slightly, thickened with a little fresh butter, and strained into a hot sauceboat.”
- “A rolled roast seems more economical at first sight, because you do not buy the rib bones. But you must remember that bones are conductors of heat and make meat cook about six minutes faster to the pound, thus cutting down on the fuel bill …”
- “Probably the wisest way to treat an egg is not to cook it at all. An accomplished barfly will prove to you that a Prairie Oyster is one of the quickest pickups known to man, and whether you are hungover or merely tired, a raw egg beaten with a little milk or sherry can you feel much more able to cope with yourself, and shortly too. ” (I guess salmonella scares were not so common in 1942.)
Her conclusion was a tonic for her times — and ours: “Now and then it cannot harm you … 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 bleed, to possess in this troubled life both the capacity and the wherewithal to forget it for a time.”
To do that, I have shaved many items off my must-have list — in addition to reading books I already own, that is. I don’t pour the expensive extra-virgin olive oil quite so lavishly any more. I share bulk packages with fellow unemployed friends, which means less food will go to waste. Potlucks are certainly less expensive than having people over for dinner — and you still get to share their company, which is what entertaining is all about.
I’ve started focusing on foods in season, which really are much cheaper and taste much better.
Most of all, I pay more attention to the foods I grow in my own backyard, from herbs to tomatoes to figs, because they taste far fresher and, consequently, far better than anything I could get even at a farmers market. Try a tomato and basil salad with your own homegrown ingredients, and you’ll see. You don’t even need olive oil with it. Only a dash of salt and some freshly ground black pepper.
An anchovy on the side would certainly be a nice complement. They’re still affordable and a great way to thumb your nose at wolves or whoever else may be at your door.
Need any more lessons from Fisher? “How to Cook a Wolf” is still in print.