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How to Cook a Wolf in 2002

Serving up an offhand assortment of quirky tidbits about food

M.F.K. Fisher published How to Cook a Wolf in 1942. World War II was at full stinking throttle and food shortages and rationing were at their worst.

I’ve seen the book in more than one home, not necessarily because the owners are fat foodies. More that they are genuine or wannabe artists or writers or other creative sorts. How to Cook a Wolf has become, or maybe it always was, emblematic of a kind of bohemianism, often one sprung fully formed from a visit to the Left Bank or the self-conscious scene of New York’s Tribeca district, or a summer art course or two in Aix-en-Provence (where M.F. – Mary Frances – once lived).

The owners usually mumble something equal parts dismissal and pride when I remark upon the book. But I don’t think many of them have ever read it. I’m also pretty sure they mistake it for something uniquely continental, as in a very old, quaint French cookbook describing how to cook a renard (fox) or make an orange and honey cake from a 14th century recipe. But How to Cook a Wolf has nothing to do with cooking wolves.

M.F.K. Fisher wrote it, or rather dictated it, in three days to her sister who typed it, shortly after Dillwyn, the love of her life, died (nothing to do with the war). She later admitted that at the time she was strangled by grief and a strange depression, and couldn’t believe she pulled it off. (Though she wrote 20-plus books, she was never a "popular" writer. Still, How to Cook a Wolf was one of her finest, and helped cement her reputation as a wonderfully literary food writer – gastronomical writer, her agents would say).

The wolf Mary Frances cooks is the wolf at your door, pressing to get in. He can take any number of forms: hunger, emotional starvation, the chronic anxiety that makes blue veins pop out on your neck in the mirror but the source of which you can’t pin down.

With food rationing and hungry children and husbands to feed, most war-time housewives felt the wolf’s breath in their faces. Not only were they duty-bound as keepers of their family’s moral and nutritional well-being, this was also an era when it was proper to serve complicated meals that were ridiculously tedious to prepare and clean up:


(this I recall from my own home economics class):

Half a grapefruit

Hot or cold cereal

Poached eggs and sausage or bacon

Buttered toast with jam

Coffee, tea or milk and fruit juice


(as my grandad expected; heartier than supper, from the days when men worked the fields):

Tomato soup

Home-made bread and butter

Waldorf salad

Meat loaf, mashed potatoes and green beans

Angel food cake with home-canned peaches

And so on. Men complained (some still do) unless there was a big chunk of meat on their plates. No one felt satisfied unless there were five, six, seven components to the meal; they would eat all these then ask what was for dessert. Facing off wolfie meant disguising bacon fat as butter in cookies, using the pot water from noodles as a soup base, or figuring out how to stretch a cup of rationed this or that beyond the cook’s shadowy misgivings to satisfy everyone’s expectations.

M.F.K. Fisher’s recipe for catching the wolf was pretty subversive, at least in waspish circles in England and North America, since it challenged accepted puritanical conventions. It was also simple: find the pleasure in preparing a few things simply but well; enjoy them the same way.

She extolled balancing the day, not the meal, and would serve dinner guests a huge salad, good honest bread, as she called it, and maybe a cheese soufflé. Or a decent cut of meat perfectly cooked along with a big platter of sliced ripe tomatoes drizzled with good olive oil. Wine was a given. If you have the money, she suggested, serve a good stinky cheese to finish off the wine and the bread and the good conversation. Very bohemian.

She was in love with fresh herbs and whatever was in season, and made sure that one, not five of them, was the star of a meal. She admired Japanese cuisine, which can honour aesthetics, religion, tradition, history and your place of origin in a single meal, and the cooking of a California neighbour, who assembled unforgettable dinner parties around stews and salads of foraged ice plant and other wild succulents and herbs. The fundamentals were thoughtfulness, gracefulness and ease.

I say this having just wandered past another baker’s rack of "artisanal" breads, promising me pine nuts, black olives, rosemary, asiago cheese and more – in a single loaf. I get kind of antsy when I read a menu description for a single appetizer that sounds like a month-long shopping list. I wonder what kind of wolves are snapping at our doors as bar managers feel obliged to stock every sticky liqueur from the most remote corners of the world, and dinner hosts do backflips to cook bigger, better, higher meals. Never mind the wolves lurking in the endless rows of socks at the Bay, in the houses with six bathrooms for two people. Fifty years after she wrote How to Cook a Wolf, maybe it’s telling enough that people buy her book and don’t bother to read it. Dare we ask ourselves, what are we really starved for here?

For Mary Frances, the war and the rationing eventually ended and some of the wolves disappeared. However, she never replaced her Dillwyn. She died in 1992 in her modest, beautiful home in a California vineyard, battling Parkinson’s disease, stupid social conventions and pretentiousness, and writing her take on the world, as honest as a loaf of good bread, to the end.