Callie turned off the light. As darkness settled in the room, the sounds of the city shifted. A distant train horn blared then fell silent. The hushed whisper of traffic deceived her ears with its ebbing and flowing like an ocean. From the pillow in her new, quiet neighborhood, Callie envisioned the city’s infinite complexity. From the gap in the curtain, she saw the haze of lights hanging below the clouds. The rain’s first drops pattered on the window. The grey peace tempted the Muse that dwelled in her mind, but sleep stole her away.
I’ve been working on my fourth novel since 1994. It’s been such a long time that it feels surreal to say that it’s being published this fall. The Muse for this particular story has been around so long that it’s an old friend I’ll be sad to say goodbye to (I’ve come to realize there seems to be a Muse for each one). There has been a special Muse serving as an advisory role for this novel, and it’s one of the reasons why I’ve been almost reluctant to finish writing the novel: my brother, Matthew.
This week would have been his 45th birthday. The idea for this novel came to me the week he died in July 1994. It was my way of keeping him alive, but it has evolved into a complex work of speculative fiction that very much reflects the anxieties of our time: governments exploiting their citizens, big data serving as an overlord of surveillance, and revolutionary movements that struggle to promote their idea of freedom. The first draft of this story included a group that was much like the hacktivist enclave Anonymous, so it was kind of eerie when they actually popped up as a real thing in the 2000s, and really became well-known during the Occupy Wall Street movement. Other unsettling things that I conceived back then came to pass as well, and have matured in the novel.
The basic concept has remained the same: what if ancient Sumer never collapsed, but became a space-age super power? A young woman with the powers of an oracle has been suppressed by her guardians. One night she indulges in a psychoactive drug at a club, inadvertently quotes an ancient text, and attracts the attention of an emissary of the gods, sent to right the balance of power in this society. She re-enacts Inanna’s journey to the underworld, and emerges as one of the gods’ emissaries on earth.
While mythology plays a strong role, so does the idea of colonizing space. Research and mining colonies are scattered throughout the solar system, but are in early stages of development. The government promotes living off-world, but most people aren’t interested until all the comforts they want are widely available. It’s very much a pioneer’s life, so in order to build the luxury colonies needed, mass incarceration fills the gap by sending prisoners to do hard labor on the colonies. People are convicted of minor offenses (frequently falsely) and sent off-world. This was also an opportunity to explore the Overview Effect, written about by author Frank White. An avid supporter of space programs, White interviewed a number of astronauts about the profound change in perception of Earth after having seen it from space. Because space has always fascinated me, too, I attended several events that featured the astronauts he interviewed (plus, he was in one of the coolest writing groups I ever belonged to, and miss dearly as everyone got caught up in the usual life stuff). You can check out the videos here.
Lords of Kur is the longest novel I’ve written, and the most layered in terms of themes, characters, and worldbuilding. It’s a true departure from following the life of a real woman marginalized by history, as I have done in the first three novels and a few short stories. The fifth novel to come is also one that has been waiting in the wings a long time, so I struggle with impatience. But I’m a few short weeks away from the editing phase, and I’m delighted with the cover art. Very worthy of my brother’s style. It’s been somewhat of a melancholy journey without him. He was the artist; I was the writer. We helped each other on our respective projects, and I can only imagine what we could have accomplished together. I continue the endeavor without him. It goes without saying that Lords of Kur will be dedicated to him. It’s a story that gave me strength for years, and I hope it finds its audience.
I think my favorite weekly writing challenges from the Terrible Minds blog are the ones with the randomized titles. This one was a bit ghoulish, but as soon as I started working on the piece, it became part of a larger worldbuilding project I’ve been thinking about for the past few months. Herewith, “The Arsonist’s Locket.”
Gregor crouched in the darkness and wiped the soot from his hands. No fire had been as satisfying as this one. The house was built like a fortress with grates covering the windows. He blocked the doors to prevent the captain of the guard and his family from escaping. He hoped the pompous duke watched in horror from his commanding view at Bell Rock Manor. The spate of fires across the city were no coincidence. Vengeance spread in memory of Gregor’s dear sister, Sadie, who was burned at the stake for witchcraft.
As industrial innovations accelerated over a few short years, the king and his men saw fit to reform religion. When the decree came, the king unveiled new statues in the capital’s cathedral. Gone were the horned god of the hunt, the sorceress, and the rugged blacksmith. The aspects of the natural world they represented were replaced with austerity. The faces of the gods appeared stern. The new rituals were equally cold; no ecstatic songs were welcome any longer in the redesigned and stark chambers for the congregation. The gods now favored an unyielding aristocracy that wanted to keep the rest of society under tight control. The Old Ways, as they were now called, were not tolerated.
The duke’s men enforced the decree and swept the city for practitioners of witchcraft, making examples of the women and men who chanted over candles and collected seashells and feathers for their shrines. Sadie shunned the decree and continued to read tarot cards for worried wives and young women who yearned for something more than long shifts in the factories that churned out textiles at a rapid pace.
Gregor kept a pinch of her ashes in the locket she gave him on a winter solstice many years ago. He pulled the chain holding the locket from the inside of his shirt and kissed it when the fire reached the top floor of the captain’s house. “For you, dear sister.”
Bell Rock Manor loomed on the steep hill above the city of Raynport. Gas lights around the perimeter of the property replaced the torches of a newly bygone era. He removed a scrap of smudged paper from a pocket and dug out a shard of blackened bone. He reviewed his list. The members of the jury—done. The bailiff who twisted Sadie’s arms until her shoulders dislocated when they hauled her out to the stake—done. The captain of the guard was still screaming, but would be done soon enough. That just left one more.
Gregor glared at the mansion and spat on the ground, wiping his chin with the cuff of his jacket. “I’ll come for you soon enough.” He scuttled deeper into the shadows to enjoy his handiwork.
Nearby, the captain’s deputy reviewed the same list of names on a paper of his own. “I think we know who we’re looking for. Search the area; he’s probably watching. Send a squad to where he lives. I don’t care if we have to search every inch of the city. We’ll catch him.”
The deputy searched the area around the house, shaking his head. “See here, this is where it started. Underbrush piled up under the back porch and set alight. Smell that? Kerosene.”
Gregor sneered in the darkness. So what? You know how the fire started. Soon I’ll write your name on the list using my blacked spur of bone.
An idea flashed. He ducked out of his hiding place in the bushes and dashed down an alleyway. Debris shielded him from detection. When he emerged by the Rusty Cleaver, he crouched again to watch a homeless carny performer entertain a small crowd in front of the tavern. A jar of magefire sat on a crate behind him. An innocuous substance that made it appear as though things were really burning, the magefire caught Gregor’s eye.
As the carny performer dazzled the small crowd by juggling flasks coated in magefire, Gregor swooped in and swiped the jar on the crate. He resisted the urge to douse himself in the substance and set it alight. The jar fit easily in his coat pocket. He turned the corner to the pyramid of empty barrels behind the tavern. He pulled one from the stack and rolled it to the area where deliveries were prepared. He spotted the reserved barrels for the duke. Prying off the lid, he crawled inside.
He had nothing but time.
Hours later, he was jostled awake as the barrels were loaded onto a cart. He relished each bump in the road—the cart lurched along on its journey, filling him with glee in anticipation of reaching his destination.
The kitchen staff at the manor rolled the barrels into the cellar. From his muffled perspective, he listened to them complain about the duke and his insufferable family. When silence descended, he crawled out of the barrel and looked around.
“Almost too easy.” Gregor jumped at the sound of his own voice. He clasped a hand over his mouth.
And now…to get to work.
He filled his pack with bottles of kerosene he found on the cellar’s shelves. He hoarded matches in his pocket. Before he left the cellar, he opened the tap on a barrel of mead and set the leaking alcohol alight. He whispered a prayer to the god of the forge and snuck into the passageway that allowed servants to pass unseen throughout the manor.
As the first explosion in the cellar rocked the manor in its foundation, Gregor grew reckless. He dashed into rooms and set pools of kerosene on fire without checking whether anyone was watching. With the fire alarming the manor’s residents, panic drove them in search of escape—and in search of the cause. Word of an arsonist on the loose had reached the manor faster than he’d realized.
Gregor set a lace tablecloth on fire in the second floor tea room and ran back into the passageway. Footsteps charged in his direction. The booted footsteps of armored guards. Spotting him, they hollered and gave chase. He ran back into the tea room. Frantic, he charged through the tall window onto the balcony overlooking the back of the manor. The view staggered him.
The back of the manse faced a cliff. Waves crashed on the rocks as the ocean carried in a storm. Lightning cracked the evening’s violet sky.
A table laden with porcelain shattered when the guards tore through the room to get to the balcony. His heart pounding, Gregor raced over the side and climbed down a trellis covered with wisteria in full bloom.
Amid shouting, guards circled around each side of Bell Rock Manor. Gregor ran to the cliffside. Dropping the bag of kerosene, he pulled the bottle of magefire out of his coat pocket and doused himself with it. The guards pulled back.
He clenched the shard of charred bone he’d taken from the heap of Sadie’s remains in one hand, and held the locket in the other. Kissing the locket, Gregor uttered a prayer of homage to his sister. He looked out to sea, where the asylum that once held him stood on a lonely and rocky island stood a short distance away. She had helped him escape. She sheltered him until they took her away from him.
With the flick of his hand, the magefire came to life and consumed him. The guards reared in horror, not realizing the harmless effects. The dive awaiting him, on the other hand, was another matter.
Delighting in being enveloped in magefire, Gregor screamed. Clutching the bone shard and the locket, he leapt from the cliff and into the ocean.
The guards stood over, watching the fire be quenched by the waves. No body lay smashed on the rocks.
“That’s enough of that,” said the squad captain with a shrug. “We don’t have to worry about him anymore.”
The storm raged above Raynport well into the night. No one saw the figure creep out of the water and into a seaside cave along the bay. No one heard him shout in triumph. He shook his fist at the shadowy asylum on the water, the locket still clutched in his hand.
It’s astonishing to realize it’s been more than a month since my last post. What’s been keeping me away? Finishing my fourth novel, primarily. House projects, planned and unplanned. Taking on new things at work and preparing for my career to head into a new realm. The day job keeps getting cooler. You know—life—curveballs and all.
I ended my cable subscription a day after watching the sixth season finale of The Walking Dead. Whose head did Negan slam that bat down upon? Eugene? Too much of a cop out. Abraham? Nah. Too easy. He’s always harbored a death wish. Beloved Daryl Dixon? Fans would go mad and riot, as Nerdist Emperor Chris Hardwick suggested. Stick with the comic’s storyline and end Glenn’s life? Maybe, but if Negan was being Darwinian, wouldn’t it be an interesting twist for it to be Maggie? She either has a zombie fetus chewing on her insides, or that mysterious teen Enid poisoned her to upset the applecart in Alexandria and push them deep into Negan’s territory—if she’s connected to him, as the conspiracy-favoring denizens of Reddit claim. It will be months before we find out. What do I do about spoilers when I have to wait for a season of a favorite show to reach Netflix or Hulu in a post-cable world? Do I give up on “regular shows” and run with millennial portals like Pluto.tv? Time will tell. But one thing’s for certain—I’ve been spending way too much time worrying about Negan. That bat covered in barbed wire (that’s Lucille to you, buddy) has given me nightmares. My husband’s random whistling gives me the chills.
Unchaining myself from the steep expense of cable has been even more liberating than I thought. The concept of time seems to have opened up, despite my looming (and arbitrary) deadline for the novel. April’s Camp NaNoWriMo has been helpful motivation, but I see this novel lasting into May. It’s a big’un. Themes and metaphors and stuff, not a straight up historical retelling of a real woman in history, as my first three novels have been.
I thought I could power through Camp NaNoWriMo, but the Muse has other plans. Can’t rush the process. I’m several blog posts behind, too, and don’t want to be stuck on one writing project. I miss the blog and the tempting weekly writing challenges from Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog. I miss taking part in Describli’s writing prompts, and making recipes based on literature I love for my “How Do They Feast?” series. It’s all too easy to set impossible standards. An email sits in my Camp NaNo inbox, saying “It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be written.” I’m too far along in this process to just scribble to the end. I’ve been through more revisions than I can count for this novel. While I know this draft won’t be perfect and there are edits to come, it does have to be the strongest story as I can make it this time around. Racing through a couple thousand words a day won’t be much help at this point if the Muse really isn’t there. That doesn’t mean I’m not writing every day. But sometimes the 500 words that I churn out are higher quality than the 2,450 words I came up with the day before. I’ve been so anxious to get this novel done I’m losing sight of the real goal. And it’s easy to get distracted.
I cut my Camp NaNo goal to a more feasible number. I’m breathing a bit easier. It is what it is, as they say, and the end of this novel will come. And it will be sooner than when we’ll finally find out who didn’t make it out of The Walking Dead season six finale alive.
In 1943, M.F.K. Fisher introduced her book with a question that was posed to her frequently: Why do you write about food, eating, and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do?
It’s a quandary many writers can relate to. There’s an inherent judgment that rears its head when people meet writers. We’re asked to account for other authors, such as when a fan asked Neil Gaiman whether George R.R. Martin “had a responsibility” to finish the Song of Ice and Fire series in a timely manner, lest he make his audience upset. The now-famous “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch” meme has become a joke at comic cons and blogs everywhere. When you’re an author, people are eager to share their ideas for books you should write, regardless of whether they’re in your oeuvre or if you are even remotely interested in the topic. And they’ll follow up on it at the next barbeque you attend, too. Most of it is perfectly benign and well-meaning. But for M.F.K. Fisher, she was starting a whole movement of food writing that paved the way for the likes of Ruth Reichl, Anthony Bourdain, and many others who are celebrities for it.
Fisher fought a battle on two fronts: being a woman pursuing the lifestyle she wanted, and as she often comments in her work, writing about food in a culture with Puritanical overtones that still can be rather uptight about sensual descriptions.
Why write about food? Food, security, and love are entwined. “I tell about myself and how I ate bread on a lasting hillside, or drank red wine in a room now blown to bits, and it happens without my telling it that I am telling too about the people with me then…and their deeper needs for love and happiness. There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.”
The Gastronomical Me breaks from her usual format by writing about food without describing it. She tells stories about the people she meets in her travels. In Burgundy, she visits an old mill converted into a famous restaurant by a Parisian chef. The food server is eager to provide a rich feast, but it’s more about the experience of eating rather than details about the recipes.
There’s a dearth of recipes overall, but we learn a tamale casserole caused a flood of tears and that Fisher liked to shake people from their routines by “conquering the printed recipe” by being inventive. Eccentric approaches are more memorable, she argues, and guests should be delighted by innovative meals.
Not that she doesn’t have her old favorites. Time and again in her books, she mentions Dijon gingerbread, a French classic.
I’m at a stage of writing my fourth novel where the urge to finish it soon rises above all else. I’m well past the mid-point, and the latter half is cruising along at a good pace. April’s round of NaNoWriMo should bring it to its conclusion. An intensive editing process will follow before it goes out to beta readers. Happily, I anticipate a fall release. While each word of a blog post feels like a slight against the novel, I miss keeping up with the blog—and working on this series about how food is portrayed in literature. My shiny new Surface Book has given me the chance to write *and* cook for the blog, now that my home office is too far away to keep an eye on a skillet that may get too hot. I’ve been researching Dijon gingerbread for some time, and was delighted to have the time to finally make it this weekend.
Recipes for Dijon gingerbread varied, so it led me to experiment. Honestly, my first impression was that the combination of ingredients would result in a super dense brick. What I got was an amazingly fragrant and rich loaf of bread perfect for tea or breakfast. My search also led me to find a chicken recipe where the gingerbread is used as a breadcrumb coating. The hubs and I each enjoyed one solitary, sweet slice of the bread and now it’s about to be pulverized for the sake of the chicken recipe. But I will be making this Dijon gingerbread again soon.
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon finely chopped candied orange peel (*recipe below)
1/2 teaspoon ground aniseed
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 cup milk (almond milk works well, too)
3/4 cup honey
Butter for the loaf pan
Preheat oven to 325 Fahrenheit. Mix dry ingredients first, then the milk and egg. The batter is thick! Spread evenly in greased bread pan. Bake for 35 minutes, or until you can insert a skewer into the middle of the loaf and have it come out clean. (For me, the cook time was closer to 45 minutes.)
Candied Orange Peel
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
Using a vegetable peeler, remove zest from oranges in 1 1/2- to 2-inch-long pieces. Cut the pieces into very thin strips, about 1/8 inch wide. Cook in a small saucepan of boiling water for 5 minutes. Drain. Bring more water to a boil and cook the orange peel for another 5 minutes. Drain.
Bring sugar and 1/4 cup water to a simmer in a small saucepan, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add the orange peel, cover and simmer for 3 minutes. Transfer the syrup and peel to a bowl. Cover and chill overnight.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the orange peel to paper towels to drain before using.
(For Chuck Wendig’s writing challenge week of Feb. 8—my roll got me a combo of time travel and mythology—herewith, a famous TV host finds his way to Odin’s tavern to get away from it all, at the edge of Asgard.)
Hafvilla. (n.) Norse. The state of feeling bewildered while lost at sea.
Lex faced the camera and smiled. “Next, on Arcane Fortunes with Lex Colson, I’ll set forth on my own journey to test the accuracy of the long-rumored sunstone. Did the Vikings succeed in navigating on cloudy days because of them?” He held the chunk of calcite up to the sky. “It’s a perfect day to test out our theory, so let’s find out!”
Lex gestured to cut the film. “I feel ridiculous in this outfit. This is like a Renn fest for fur fetishists.”
The cameraman burst into laughter. “Dude, you look amazing! The Vikings would think you’re one of them. Hoist that drinking horn high and make a toast to Odin!”
“Ha. Funny guy. I’m hardly worthy of a journey to Valhalla.”
“Don’t I know it, bro. That five-star hotel back in the city already has your champagne cooled. Hardly a warrior’s abode.”
“Hey, ease up. I’m planning on proposing to Jenny under the northern lights after we film this; give me a break!”
“Whatever. Just look good for the shot.”
With the obligatory b-roll shots taken, Lex made sure the cameras on his replica ship were secured. “Okay, so I’ll take a spin out there for a bit and be right back for the next scene.”
Steve waved and set his video equipment down. “Don’t go too far out, son. You know you can’t swim.”
“Ha ha, very funny. I’ll catch a walrus for you.”
Lex dipped the oar into the water and pushed. The serenity of the drifting boat made him pause and enjoy the scene. The rough Norwegian landscape made for one of the most beautiful episodes he’d ever filmed, and he was looking forward to the results.
A low mist crept across the water. The wind was light; no storm approached. Lex let the boat drift further into the fogbank. “This is perfect. Just the shot I need!”
He held the sunstone up to the clouds and faced the camera. “As you can see, the sun is completely blocked out now. Yet, if I hold the calcite up just so, a line of light catches on this mark here, showing I’m moving northwest. While this makes navigating across the Atlantic much more plausible when we consider the Vikings, it doesn’t mean it was easy, even in their seaworthy dragon ships. They were always one storm away from Valhalla!”
Amused, Lex ended the shot. He rowed out further to capture additional footage. He wasn’t aware of time passing until a flash of silver light rippled over the water. His gaze shot to the sky, but it was still foggy.
No voice came from the shore.
The lapping water remained his sole companion. “Damn, how far out did I go?”
Lex rowed in earnest, eager to make his way back. “Oh man, we still have several more scenes to do, and all those people in costume in the mead hall waiting on our dime. Damn it!”
Just when his heart began to pound in panic, the shore came into view. The crew was nowhere to be found. He jumped ship and pulled it up the shore alone. “All swilling mead by now, I bet,” Lex said. “Here I come, guys, fill my flagon!” He hoisted the drinking horn to the air.
He passed a wooden rack with fish dangling from it. He pulled the small camera out of his pocket for an impromptu shot. “Did you know the Vikings cured their fish by the sea? Nothing better than fresh salt air to season the fish!”
A group of men stood nearby in full costume. Lex whistled. “Wow, you guys look so authentic—great job! Look at those beards!” He clapped a man on the shoulder as he walked by. “Very cool, bros. Love the axes, too. You borrow them from that show about Ragnar Lothbrok?”
Lex walked to the grand long house and whistled again. “Place looks more amazing every time I see it. I’ll be damned if this episode doesn’t earn us an award.”
He entered the building and stood, stunned. “Fuck me—if this isn’t a scene right out of Beowulf. Did I land on a movie set? Hey, who’s the director around here? I think I’m lost.”
Men stared. Dogs stared. Lex made his way through the crowd, apologizing if any film was rolling. At last, he saw the man on a gigantic throne. Dragons were carved on either side of it, like the figureheads on the ships. A one-eyed man watched him from it, nodding and tapping his finger along his own drinking horn. The main door to the long house opened, and two ravens flew to the man, cawing loudly as they landed on either side of his shoulders.
“Now, what did you see today?”
They conferred with their heads bowed for a few moments before the one-eyed king regarded Lex. “A stranger comes. And what news do you bring? Did someone raid your farm? You look like you barely escaped with your life—were you having a roll with your woman and need to rush out with just the blankets on?”
The men around him roared in laughter. Lex shrugged and smiled. “I suppose I deserved that. I do look ridiculous compared to you guys. What movie’s being filmed here? Beowulf?”
The king took a swig from the horn. “Beowulf. A worthy name in Valhalla, but no. This is but a mere tavern at the edge of Asgard. I come here to collect my thoughts when I need to get away from the wife. Right, men?”
Men with whorls of tattoos and rings in their beards laughed and joined him in drink. The great fire in the rectangular pit burned bright, flanked with spits of roasting meat. The power bar Lex had for breakfast now seemed woefully inadequate. His stomach agreed with a low growl.
Two growls accompanied him. He looked down to see two—wolves. He raised his hands quickly in a gesture of helplessness, much to the amusement of the watching crowd.
The king beckoned. “Freki, Geri—don’t judge a man by his hunger. Come here.”
The wolves trotted to the dais and came to rest.
Lex gaped. “This is one hell of a setting! This is probably one of the most authentic sets I’ve ever seen. Odin, the ravens, the wolves—the warriors—you have it all!”
Odin nodded and stood. He made his way down to the area by the fire. “Young man, what is your name?”
“Lex. I’m the host of Arcane Fortunes. Maybe you’ve seen it on the History Channel?”
Odin chuckled. “Arcane Fortunes, eh? Let me tell you of arcane fortunes…the wisdom of Yggdrasil, the coming of Ragnarok—when that good-for-nothing Loki steers Naglfar, a ship carrying an army of frost giants to destroy the world, and the wolf Fenrir devours me. A wolf devouring a god, you wonder—how can it be so? Well, I may have made my peace with that knowledge long ago, but it doesn’t mean I won’t fight. Come, let me show you something.”
Odin escorted Lex out the door of the hall. The night sky shimmered above. A colorful bridge covered the sky over the hall.
“That is Bifrost—the bridge between your plane and Asgard. I don’t know if Loki was involved in this prank, but you don’t belong here, my friend. Not that I don’t want to be a hospitable host. You’re certainly welcome to feast with us and enjoy. You’ll have a long journey home, though. It’s a long walk across that bridge.”
Lex stayed. He feasted and drank mead, and scratched the ears of the wolves. He recorded it all, or so he thought. After falling asleep by the fire, he was astonished to find himself back in his paltry boat in his pathetic fur outfit. He was still surrounded by dense fog.
He ran the camera. The video was blank.
“And I still have no fucking idea where I am.”
“The destiny of nations depends upon what and how well they eat.” —Brillat-Savarin
Years ago, the title of M.F.K. Fisher’s book evoked fantastical images. I read a lot of Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, and others that would lead me to believe that a book about cooking wolves had to be intriguing. Alas, as a child, I was disappointed, as there were no monsters of mysterious elf rangers. Just practical advice about making ends meet. Having spent years with my great-grandmother, I’d already seen the economy she practiced: slapping the toast onto the cast iron skillet to cook it in bacon fat. The things we preserved and stored in the cellar.
Decades passed, and as I search for the best in food writing, I was drawn to her books again. How to Cook a Wolf has probably been my favorite so far. Like The Ravenous Muse, the theme of the book is anthropomorphized into a recurring character. The wolf stalks M.F.K. Fisher throughout: “The wolf has one paw wedged firmly in what looks like a widening crack of the door. Let us take it for granted that the situation, while uncomfortable, is definitely impermanent, and can be coped with.”
Wartime shortages are the central theme. Coping with limited utilities, making the best of canned goods (and saving the liquid for soup stocks later on), and stretching ingredients are economical bits of wisdom that go far beyond the wars of the mid-twentieth century. While in America the kinds of sacrifices made by everyday people is no longer what it was in the past, people are turning away from industrial agriculture and the effects of climate change are making many people rethink how they sustain themselves. Urban gardening is a sign of a smart city, and while many of the kitchen tools she refers to are no longer a wonderment (she goes on quite a bit about the “modern” pressure cooker), the practical advice in this book would do a lot of good in reducing waste and saving energy.
One of the most interesting aspects of How to Cook a Wolf is her view on food production and trendy diets. She places the blame on fad diets squarely on the growing magazine industry. The balanced diet of three square meals a day is perpetuated by advertisers, she argues, and the needs of the individual should take precedence. Much like patient-driven healthcare is changing traditional medicine today, our attitude toward food needs to change. No one “miracle diet” will work for everyone.
In the chapter titled “How to be Sage without Hemlock,” M.F.K. Fisher lamented the mass production of bread. The refined flours rendered bread tasteless and nutritionally worthless, and imposed a false sense of snobbery. Darker breads were poor, foreign. You were moving up in the world by buying chemically treated foods. Coupled with America’s Puritain reluctance to really enjoy food, she muses, will put us on a bad path leading to large-scale health problems. Indeed it has. If she’d only been around to be vindicated in an era where chefs rediscover “artisanal” cooking, and present us with the kind of bread people knew from the Old Country.
Fisher offers up a number of recipes that are worth a try—her roast is fabulous, and the French technique of drizzling the beef juice on a salad is a revelation. According to Fisher, rubbing chicken in lemon is a good way to tenderize it. And as always, beautiful, stately quotes make every page of her work a pleasure to read: ““Polenta is one of those ageless culinary lords, like bread. It has sprung from the hunger of mankind, and without apparent effort has always carried a feeling of strength and dignity and well-being.”
In addition, she advises the housewife on making mouthwash and soap from myrrh, and how to make a pin cushion by sewing fabric around old coffee grounds. Evidently, the coffee grounds prevent the needles from rusting. If I were a habitual sewing-type, I may have tried it, but sewing is one of those things I do only if I absolutely must.
Of all the recipes, the onion soup is the one I had to go with for this series. It’s been one of my favorites forever. And while I typically rely on Julia Child’s recipe, this one is great too…though I’d switch out the Parmesan for a super thick slice of Jarlsberg Swiss, and add sherry as well as wine when deglazing the pan. (But then again, I really like boozy flavors, just like Julia!)
Parisian Onion Soup
4 sweet onions, very thinly sliced
4 tablespoons butter or good oil
2 heaping tablespoons flour
1/2 cup white wine
1 quart beef consommé
Grated snappy cheese (Parmesan cheese)
Rye bread, sliced thin and toasted
Brown the onions in the fat, sprinkle with flour and stir while it simmers for 10 minutes. Deglaze with white wine. Meanwhile heat the consommé. Add it to the onions and let boil slowly until the onions are tender. Spread the cheese thickly on the toast and melt under a quick broiler. Pour the soup into a hot soup tureen, cover with the toast and serve at once.