I recently found a broken cigar box of recipes that used to belong to my grandmother. It was filled to overflowing, with the box’s cover resting on top of a heap of typed index cards, scrawled bank envelopes, and newspaper clippings covering a variety of dietary interests from every decade of my grandmother’s adult life. Somewhere in that box I found a pamphlet called Stretching Meat dating back to World War II and, in keeping with the times, Stretching Meat is full of tips and techniques on how to use your meat ration points to feed your family. It’s a strange, anxious little book chock full of cartoons of tiny-waisted women and forced cheerfulness (“A Hobo Party… for an evening of fun”), but the text itself deals mostly with how to make it through the war without starving.
How to Cook a Wolf, written by Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher in the 1942 atmosphere of fear and belt-tightening, was written as a kind of response to this sort of publication. “Every slick magazine in the country,” she writes early on, “is filled with full-page advertisements suggesting that all Americans ‘try the new thrill of thriftier meat-cuts,’ and home economics editors in the women’s journals are almost incoherent over the exciting discovery that dollars can and should buy more.” How to Cook a Wolf, which many consider to be Fisher’s best work, is part cookbook, part food memoir, and part humor writing. In this collection of short essays with recipes, Fisher seeks to calm the mounting anxiety of women tasked with making do with very little, and her voice is level, funny and smart as hell.
I’m not sure how it would stand up as a survival guide, but How to Cook a Wolf is food writing at its best. The prose sparkles (“Probably one of the most private things in the world,” she writes, “is an egg before it is broken”), and the work itself goes beyond discussing how merely to subsist. In fact, How to Cook a Wolf works as a philosophy on how to continue to enjoy eating — in essence, how to remain human — in a time of such austerity. “Since we must eat to live,” Fisher writes, “we might as well do it with grace and gusto”; in fact Fisher’s chapters all seem to insist that, in the face of such hard times, we can and should try to continue to eat with pleasure. “How to Boil Water” turns into a primer on delicious soups and chowders, “How to Make a Pigeon Cry” has instructions on the best way to roast a pigeon and prepare small game, “How to be Cheerful Through Starving” is a small essay on foraging, and “How to be Content with a Vegetable Love” covers vegetable cooking, just to name a few examples. There’s even a recipe here (aptly called “Sludge”) for when there’s nearly nothing left in the fuel tank or the bank account, and the main goal is just to survive until tomorrow.
Throughout the book, Fisher insists not just on economy, but also that “man’s need for food is not a grim obsession, repulsive, disturbing, but a dignified and even enjoyable function.” Pleasure, she insists, is as important to survival as learning to use what’s available. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that her instructions on how to stock your underground bomb shelter in “How Not to Be an Earthworm” involves stashing something inside that’s just a little extra special. Drinking a glass of wine or eating a bit of good chocolate might not keep the bombs from falling, but it might remind you that you are a human being and not an earthworm.
In her foreword of her other classic, The Gastronomical Me, Fisher answers the question of why to write about food when there seem to be so many more pressing concerns in the world: “Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do? They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft. The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry.” By writing a cookbook that functions as an essay collection about living, Fisher has done something better and deeper than a list of ingredients and a method. Take the final chapter of How to Cook a Wolf, for example, which provides a menu for when it all gets to be too much: “When you think you can stand no more of the wolf’s snuffing under the door and keening softly on cold nights, throw discretion into the laundry bag, put candles on the table, and for your own good, if not the pleasure of an admiring audience make one or another of the recipes in this chapter… Sit back in your chair, then drop a few years from your troubled mind. Let the cupboard of your thoughts fill itself with a hundred ghosts that long ago, in 1939, used to be easy to buy and easy to forget.” The pleasure of the meal, however imaginary, remains not only relevant in Fisher’s world, but an essential ingredient even for survival.
I picked up How to Cook a Wolf because I wanted a change from contemporary food writing. I admire, on one hand, Pollan’s well-argued ethics and, on the other, Bourdain’s smart but often snarky commentary on food, but this time around I had a hankering for something a little different. Fisher did not let me down in this food writing classic: this is a droll, elegant read that levels with us over a cocktail made with homemade vodka about how to deal with that damned wolf snuffing at the door. Pick it up if you’ve enjoyed the work of any contemporary food essayist; Fisher, like Julia Child and James Beard, has likely had some hand in informing their work anyway.
Melissa is writer who lives with her husband and two warring felines in Portland, Oregon. When she isn’t reading, writing, or cooking, there’s a good chance she’s trying to clicker-train her cats.