For those who ingest each and every Michael Pollan book, daydream of a simple frisée salad and Sancerre lunch with Alice Waters or nod along to John T. Edge’s latest argument over the sanctity of cornbread, you may thank one person.
M.F.K. (Mary Frances Kennedy) Fisher, practical gourmand and poet laureate of the pre- and post-World War II food scene, stands as one of the 20th century’s most influential culinary writers.
Fisher didn’t happen to be the first food-with-a-capital-F writer. She was, however, at least in America, the first to closely examine food—from cultivation to cooking to consumption—and fold it into memoir format. She paired daily bread with “wilder, more insistent hungers,” in her words.
How To Cook A Wolf, written in the throes of World War II, came as part cookbook, part essay, neither fish nor fowl … or maybe as both. Food served Fisher as a framing device for historical, societal, culinary, and sociological reflections. Today, to people who blog, bandy, and butcher musings on food all across the interwebs, this format feels like meat ‘n potatoes. In 1942, it seemed revelatory, particularly in light of world affairs. There’s a war on. Why should a writer spend her pages mulling over the merits of homemade bread?
For a very good reason, actually. To Fisher, well prepared and (more importantly) well savored food gave us respite from all human drama:
People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do? The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others . . . There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.
Recipes litter the pages of How To Cook A Wolf … just enough examples of how to cook not a wolf but a chicken and bread and other staples … to qualify it as a cookbook. But the real draw—then and now—is Fisher’s delicious prose. She uses what seems mundane as a springboard for philosophy, satire … and seduction. Her prose invites readers to go out of the kitchen and dream, or to come back into the kitchen and dream some more. She laces her instruction with enough common sense and culinary know-how for readers to successfully create great dishes:
The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight…[Bread-making is] one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with one of the world’s sweetest smells… there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.
Fisher’s words and recipes act as an umbrella against the dreary present.
The title’s figurative wolf comes sniffing at the door when times get tough and food scarce. Written at a time when hunger, uncertainty, and drudgery happened to be very much a reader’s reality, Fisher showed how to keep the wolf at bay with grace and gusto.
Nine years after How To Cook A Wolf’s original publication, Fisher released a revised copy, including her marginalia and footnotes. Fisher adds to, tweaks and cringes at her own recipes. She cracks jokes, chastises herself and points out what stays the same and what changes in peacetime. Ultimately, very little, Fisher suggests. In war or peace, in times of plenty or want, to eat sensibly and eat pleasurably adds beauty to life.
Almost certainly, Fisher would chide some modern-day gastronomes for their constant cries and unyielding insistence for grass-fed/free-range/certified-organic/single-origin/locally-foraged everything—to the point of ridiculousness. Fisher would point out how so many of these buzzwords fail to inherently indicate quality. They also, she would surely stress, reflect an attitude from the experiences of cooks who never lived through war or times of want.
Common sense in the kitchen should not be reserved for emergencies. Good, honest ingredients nearly always seem worth it … even if it means you don’t have quite as much.
Sometimes, though, if all you have is a Wal-Mart grocery or a can of tuna in the pantry, you do what you must. You make do with good sense, good grace, and good humor.
A little wolf goes a long way.
Avery Driggers is a Birmingham-based writer, reader … and eater. Her writing has appeared in Taste of the South magazine.