John Engstead/Look Magazine/ MFK Fisher in 1942
I am not entirely sure how I haven’t come across M.F.K. Fisher until now, but I am glad fate intervened before it was too late. I managed to get my hands on an original copy of How To Cook A Wolf Trb, and fell in love with her writing. I mean, anyone who can use the word “huggermuggery” in a sentence is someone to read in my mind (Seriously….huggermuggery? How can I use that in my regular vocabulary? It is my new favourite word).
“How to Cook a Wolf” (the title a reference to “the wolf at the door”) is a collection of essays interspersed with recipes that focus on the topic of cooking during food shortages and wartime. What I found most interesting about it was how relevant it seemed now even though it was written in 1942. It is full of wonderfully vintage language, and quite a few recipes that I am sure aren’t ever made anymore( such as a sludge made of cheap meat and wilted vegetables recommended if you must keep yourself alive for under 50 cents a week), but she also wrote of many issues that seem to be just as timely now as they were then. For instance, she mentioned often the tendency of magazines and popular advice to confuse us as to what is best to do, rather than offer anything of substance – something that I think is even more of an issue now with the abundance of information that we are exposed to on a daily basis.
I found the chapter titles very charming. ”How to Rise Up Like New Bread” ( a Tolstoy reference), ”How to Be Cheerful Though Starving” and “How to Distribute Your Virtue” were just a few of my favourites – all referring to the general principles of economy and survival in difficult times.
I also enjoyed her thoughts on what was considered a “balanced diet” at the time and how that way of eating was prescribed so religiously, causing “gastronomical monotony” and loads of extra strain both on women and on food budgets. She advocated creativity in the kitchen, recommending that as long as you balance the day with a good amount of variety you will still be healthy enough and likely find more enjoyment in food. One of my favourite lines in the book was her reference to institutional “balanced menus” as “…what kills the least number with the most ease.” I have eaten in enough institutions (colleges, camps, hospitals) to know this is still true!
Throughout the book she advocated using good sense “..weeding out what you yourself like best to do, so that you can live most agreeably in a world full of an increasing number of disagreeable surprises.” I think this advice holds true today, as it is so easy to be mindlessly swept up in what the current advice is from media, or other people around us. We each need to find our own path, both in the kitchen and elsewhere, and I found much of this book to be a good reminder of that. She says to use our minds as well as our hearts when approaching the tasks of cooking for ourselves and our families and to “live gracefully if we do at all”. I find this an inspiring thought, as I am often overwhelmed and bored by the tasks of cooking.
Another of the ideas that keeps coming up in the book is the fact that “…sharing a meal makes it dignified” and that no matter what we have or don’t have on the menu, approaching it gracefully and thankfully and in good company makes “flavours clearer and a certain philosophic slowness possible.” I love this approach to food – it is better shared, and when approached with creativity and love, you can dine like kings with next to nothing.
All in all I loved this book, and thought it was charming, engaging, funny and very quirky. For her time, she was quite advanced in her thinking, and I think that is why it seems still relevant. I haven’t yet read any of her other books, but I am keeping an eye out for them now.
Any other MFK Fisher fans out there? I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this book as well…
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