How To Cook a Wolf

I can’t remember why I requested How to Cook a Wolf from the library. It must have been recommended online somewhere and I’m sure that the kick-ass title caught my eye, but by the time it came around on my library holds list all I could remember is that it was about cooking during World War II. And I guess you could describe it that way, but that summary really does a disservice to an entertaining, funny, and thoughtful book. No interest in cooking or history is required here–the writing is enough.

MFK Fisher was one of America’s premier food writers (and was also, based on the portrait on the front of the edition I read, a stone fox) was published in 1942, right as food rationing was kicking in, in order to offer readers advice about how to make the best of their meals during the war years. However, she never mentions the war directly, talking instead about how cooks can work to keep away the wolf of poverty, always sniffing at the door. As a result, the book has a timeless feel–she could be talking about about any hard times that stretch to the kitchen, and a lot of her suggestions fit remarkably well into out post-recession world. Especially since the book is not so much about the specific how-to-cook-things instructions, but is more about a philosophy or a way of approaching food that is frugal and reasonable, but also hopeful. So her chapters are called things like How to Rise Up Like New Bread, How to Be Cheerful Though Starving, and How to Comfort Sorrow.

There are recipes involved here and you could definitely cook from this book, although I suspect that the dishes Fisher describes are made for the palates of a previous generation (she wants you to add tomato juice to A LOT of things that I don’t think should have tomato juice anywhere near them). But even when she is talking about specific dishes, her writing reminds you that food is not just about the ingredients, but that it speaks to how we feel about ourselves and about life. For example, before offering her minestrone recipe, she says, “Probably the most satisfying soup in the world for people who are hungry, as well as for those who are tired or worried or cross or in debt or in a moderate amount of pain or in love or in robust health or in any kind of business huggermuggery, is minestrone.” And some of the recipes sounded pretty good–I was tempted by something she recalled from her childhood as War Cake, and at least one blogger out there made this with great success.

The other awesome thing about the edition of the book I read is that it was a re-release from the 1950s, and Fisher had gone back through and added notes throughout the book either agreeing with her original statements or offering an updated perspective. Here’s an example from the How Not To Boil an Egg chapter:

“Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken.

Until then you would think its secrets are its own, hidden behind the impassive beautiful curvings of its shell, white or brown or speckled. It emerges full-formed, almost painlessly {The egg may not be bothered, but nine years and two daughters after writing this I wonder somewhat more about the hen. I wrote, perhaps, too glibly.} from the hen.”

I think I would have liked having cocktails with her. Anyway, it’s a quick read and it’s quite funny, while also reminding the reader how different things were not all that long ago, and that there are likely still tough times to weather ahead. Also, if you would like the read a sexist but otherwise entertaining original 1942 review of How to Cook a Wolf from the New York Times, you can find that here.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review:
Wonderful historical snapshot.

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For more great food writing, you can check out Julia Child (obviously and forever) or Ruth Reichl. But if you’d like to read some fiction of the era with a similar voice, try the Mitfords or Barbara Pym.

One comment on “How To Cook a Wolf

  1. Rebecca says:

    Ooh, that sounds quite good. It definitely needs to go on my To Read list.

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