Reading MFK Fisher’s ‘How to Cook a Wolf’ During Coronavirus – Eater

How to cook a wolf recipes

In his wartime publication How to Cook a Wolf, MFK Fisher rejected typical cookbook categories in favor of chapters such as “How to Greet Spring.” His suggestion? Cooking fish. In the midst of the war, his audience could still revel in “the first succulent taste of bonito in the spring.”

How do we greet spring now, amid the fear and anxiety of a global crisis? The pandemic was declared in early March, but the season has continued to arrive with all the clich├ęs of the continuity of nature. As our man-made systems tear apart, Fisher’s advice on attitude, thrift, and how to nurture oneself and others in a crisis is again relevant. Right now, the future is unknowable, the present uncertain. But the past is always available, and Fisher’s exquisite prose offers it for both understanding and escape.

How to Cook a Wolf was published in 1942 at the height of the World War II scarcity. It was a guide, Fisher wrote, “to exist as gracefully as possible without many of the things we have always accepted as our own: light, fresh air, fresh food, prepared according to our tastes.” She recognizes that in times of global restrictions, we look for recipes to live and cook. We also look for those things in normal times; But in crisis, the heightened awareness of what we have lost, are losing, and can lose, makes us cling to the even stronger orientation. I know I appreciate the “wolf” more now that I’ve felt his bite.

Fisher wrote for every level of need, from the basics of feeding in poverty (“How to Stay Alive”) to the joys of nurturing the spirit and body. As the coronavirus continues to affect groups disproportionately, the importance of this spectrum of responses is clear: sometimes we can afford fantasy, but first we have to address the essentials to stay alive. Consequently, Fisher’s chapters begin with ration-conscious recipes and direct guidance (“How to Boil Water”), before moving on to the poetic “How Not to Be an Earthworm” and “How to Pray for Peace,” a chapter that sanctifies carbohydrates.

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How to cook a wolf is not a guide to the

particular needs of our age, nor is history intended to be a manual for the present. What it can provide is comfort: reading a voice through the years and realizing that some things, like spirit, arise in any crisis. In “How to Rise Up Like New Bread”, Fisher described the “almost mystical pride and sense of self-pleasure” of seeing freshly baked breads; A familiar feeling for anyone who has dabbled in the growing trend of sourdough during quarantine. “You will know, from smelling them and remembering the strange cold solidity of the dough that swells around your wrist when you hit it, what people have known for centuries about the sanctity of bread.” In circumstances beyond our control, creative and repetitive movement provides us with focus and comfort, as well as a tangible result.

Of cheese, Fisher writes, “in a moment of danger and unspoken fear it is an anesthetic.” Another constant: alcohol. “How to Drink to the Wolf” includes a recipe for homemade vodka, as hard liquor was hard to come by. Alcohol sales have skyrocketed during quarantine as people stock up instead of going to bars, but, if Fisher is any guide, brewing may follow sourdough as the next stay-at-home trend. (I’ve already studied distilling my own gin.)

In any crisis, we are inundated with advice on how to stay safe and how to stay calm. What at first seems strange becomes second nature, from social distancing protocols to making and wearing masks. Fisher’s reaction 80 years ago was no different: Wartime suggestions, he found, “seem played with a kind of sordid fantasy until you test them. So they really work and make you feel noble and brave at the same time.” If this is true for the recipe “to heal the bruised cross” (sores on the saddle), which consists of tying wet grass to yourself overnight, I am not brave or capricious enough to learn. However, I have felt better for putting my creativity to work in a thrifty and meaningful way.

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For Fisher, cooking or beating the “wolf” is not about following a recipe, but about stimulating open-arms attitudes towards food and life. “How to Rejoice Through Hunger” tells the story of a woman who managed to nurture others despite her poor circumstances. While generosity is not a panacea, history is a good reminder that we, too, can find ways to be joyful through isolation. We can learn, through difficulty, “how to exist better.”

The hardships we are learning about today are very different from those of the Fisher era. Wartime production accelerated the American economy in the 1940s, but the pandemic has devastated the foodservice industry and revealed the intense fragility of our labor and social support systems. Fisher emphasized cooking at home, “practicing economics” in response to rationing needs. Our current practice of economics is much more complex. Now, we are faced with the moral tango of trying to support local businesses by ordering delivery, considering our own tight belts and the fact that people in these essential but tenuous roles are at much greater risk. The “front lines” look different when we are fighting a nebulous virus rather than other humans. But just as we adapt to a better existence as individuals, we can also push for the systemic changes that are needed to keep people healthy, employed, nurtured and safe.

In Fisher’s day, people could huddle in bomb shelters. Now, if we’re lucky, we’re huddled in our separate homes, constantly communicating as we wait for the crisis to pass. This diet of words matters too: we process stressful information in our bodies, feeding on news and nutrition. The decisions we make now about ingesting all this information are just as important as the decisions we make about food and service consumption, something Fisher didn’t deal with on the same scale. A modern How to Cook a Wolf would require a chapter on “How to Ingest Media,” and how not to do it.

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“I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to affirm and then reaffirm our dignity in the face of poverty and the fears and pains of war, is to nurture ourselves with all the skill, delicacy, and ever-increasing enjoyment,” Fisher wrote. Although there is much beyond our control as individuals, we have the power to nourish ourselves during this turmoil through our diet of food and communication. In the end, Fisher admitted, “No book on earth can help you, but only your innate sense of caution, balance, and protection.” Books and recipes can’t save us, but maybe our shared wisdom can.

Anne Wallentine is an arts and culture writer based in Los Angeles.

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