Okay yes I know I said I would be doing this weekly on Wednesdays and then I didn’t but I’m still figuring out what I want to do with this blog so sue me.
Fans of food writing, sooner or later, will come across the work of M.F.K. Fisher, a food writer active in the middle of the 20th Century. She wasn’t a straight-up cookbook writer like Julia Child, though – her work tends to be a combination of recipe and memoir. I picked up her book How To Cook A Wolf on a whim years ago – and reread it on a whim a couple nights ago, and fell in love with it again.
How To Cook A Wolf was first released in 1942, during the days of wartime rationing in the United States – Fisher wanted to remind people that food is supposed to be enjoyable, and can be even if your resources are slim. Then, in the 1950s, when everyone was running themselves ragged trying to adhere to the latest advice from nutritionists – and paying more attention to vitamins than taste – she released it again, adding just a few notes and a couple extra recipes.
Her ideas, actually, are both ahead of their time and refreshingly timeless. Instead of knocking ourselves out trying to have three balanced meals in a day, why not balance the day itself? In the days when everyone else was suggesting huge breakfasts of eggs with bacon or sausage or ham or steak, and cereal, and fruit, and juice and milk, and then going on to have huge lunches with yet more meat and vegetables and then having big dinners with still more meat and vegetables, she was asking, why not have toast and fruit for breakfast, have your big lunch, and then a light supper of lovely fresh-cooked vegetables or a lively salad with a little more good crusty bread. You still get all the servings in, but you aren’t driving yourselves crazy trying to cook something huge for breakfast every day, you can pace the meals around what your body tells you it wants, and – most importantly – you actually stand a chance of enjoying what you eat. You also save a lot of money, too, not trying to have something with meat in it for every meal.
The economics of her book pan out as well – in time, if not in money. I’ve actually adopted one of her suggestions, that when you are making rice for something, to make extra so you have some left over. It takes just as much time, it costs just as much electricity or gas power to make it, and if you have some leftover rice in your fridge you’re that much closer to another meal on another day. Three of my dinners in heavy rotation all involve pre-cooked rice, and about six more are things that get served over rice. If it’s already made, then some nights all I have to do is chop some vegetables or saute some spinach, and dinner is ready in only fifteen minutes. She’s also a big advocate of meat only sometimes, and in not having huge portions; she is also a big fan of using offal, and some of the weirder cuts of meat that tend to be cheaper in the supermarket. This re-read has me considering a sort of Salisbury Steak thing with ground beef that sounds like it would be just as satisfying as a steak.
On top of her economic sense, her voice is also delightful – it’s like if Michael Pollan had a love child with Dorothy Parker. The book is filled with passages that were making me shout, “hey, listen to this” to my roommate and reading them:
Butchers, usually, are very pleasant people, in spite of having at some point in their lives deliberately chosen to be butchers.
One way to horrify at least eight out of ten Anglo-Saxons is to suggest their eating anything but the actual red fibrous meat of a beast.
Almost all vegetables are good, although there is some doubt still about parsnips.
Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken.
Some of her ideas I’m not quite prepared to try, I admit; she has recipes for making your own mouthwash or toothpaste, and a rather dubious-sounding soup that involves shrimp and buttermilk (although, even she admits that this particular recipe sounds weird). She also has a recipe for the truly desperate which she calls “sludge”, which is a sort of DIY version of the Nutraloaf thing they serve in prisons; it’d be cheap and would keep you alive, but she does admit that this is for desperate times only and that it’s boring as hell. However, I’ve read a review from the New York Times from its first release – the reviewer scoffed at the idea that someone could be satisfied by a simple soup and salad, and no big dessert. “Mrs. Fisher is not accustomed to cooking for lumberjacks, cowboys or even men who have played three sets of tennis or eighteen holes of golf,” they said.
But that’s her point – that the lumberjacks and cowboys could be satisfied with just a soup and a salad, if that soup or salad is made with care. Pick really good vegetables, get in the habit of making vegetable stock every once in a blue moon and using that, cook everything with a light hand – and you’ll end up making a soup that is not only healthful but delicious; delicious enough to be just as satisfying as a steak you’ve made from a half-assed cut of meat you had to settle for because you couldn’t afford the porterhouse.
She advocates taking time to enjoy food, because it deserves it. it’s not just fuel to keep us alive and it’s not just vitamins we eat with forks – it’s something to be enjoyed, and the enjoyable things can be found at every economic level.