“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.