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How to Cook a Wolf

Krissy Clark

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Not wolf stew, but rather homemade gaspacho.
(Krissy Clark)
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How much money are you going to spend feeding yourself this weekend? The average American spends about seven dollars a day on food. But as the economy slows, and food prices rise, that budget grows harder to maintain. The cost of food for a basic nutritious diet has gone up more than seven percent in the last year.

More families are turning to food stamps and food banks to get by. Americans are eating out less, and cutting coupons more.

It's enough to make the whole eating thing an anxiety-ridden affair, and that's not good news for digestion, or general well-being. What to do? Solace might be found in an old book.

The book is called "How to Cook a Wolf," but there were no real wolves harmed in its making. The wolf in question is the figurative kind, that comes sniffing at the door when times are tough, and food is hard to come by.

Author MFK Fisher wrote "How to Cook a Wolf" in 1942, in the midst of World War II, just as food rationing programs were kicking into gear in the United States. Strict limits were put on basics like sugar, butter, meat, and coffee, and war-time slogans encouraged American households to "make do, or do without."

"American women are learning how to prepare foods with greatest economy, with least waste of vitamin content," trumpeted one War Department propaganda film. It was advertising a new curriculum of public nutrition classes that the government set up in churches, schools and factories across the country--classes that MFK Fisher looked at with some horror. Afraid that well-meaning nutritionists would turn cooking and eating in to little more than a balance sheet of calcium and riboflavin, Fisher wrote "How to Cook a Wolf." It was a reminder of the pleasure--the rapture--you could still find in food, even under a tight budget or war-time rationing.

Fisher often found herself defending her preoccupation with food while war raged around her. Didn't she have more important things to consider? But for Fisher, well-savored food was a salve for any human drama. "We eat. We all eat," she said in an interview a few months before she died in 1992, at age 83.

"I early on thought, as long as we have to eat to live, we may as well have fun doing it. There should be some enjoyment of food, as we do with making love, or keeping warm. It's one of the three basic needs of our lives," she said.

"How to Cook a Wolf" reads like an issue of Lady's Home Journal, if the editorial staff were taken over by a philosopher with an empty stomach, a slightly tipsy poet and your mischievous, foxy godmother who once kept many lovers.

Some of my favorite lines: "Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg, until it is broken."

On cooking during a war-time black-out: "Use as many fresh things as you can, always, and then trust to luck and your blackout cupboard and what you have decided, inside yourself, about the dignity of man."

And this advice, from the chapter called "How to Lure the Wolf": "One way to look your prettiest in the kitchen, and make the wolf think that even if his hot breath whuffs through the keyhole and ruffles your very curls you are nigh adamant, is to put up a little mirror."

"How to Cook a Wolf" is part cookbook, part essay collection. Fisher shares practical recipes that can be made cheaply: how to make your own toothpaste; a recipe for fried calves' brains, since that cut of meat was cheaper and more readily available under rationing programs; instructions for a good, low-cost sherry cocktail.

She also tells stories--one of an old woman named Sue, who lived on $50 a year, but liked to throw dinner parties anyway, with strange meals of sea-spinach and crumbled kelp that she had foraged on the beach.

"I doubt very much if anybody but Sue could make it good," Fisher writes, in the chapter "How to Be Cheerful Though Starving." She went on: "But anyone in the world with intelligence and spirit and the knowledge that it must be done, can live with her inspired oblivion to the ugliness of poverty. It is not that she wandered at night hunting for leaves and berries; it is that she cared enough to invite her friends to share them with her."

In 1942, Fisher was also horrified with the state of bread in America. Store-bought "enriched white-bread" was the trend, and slices of it should be found in every patriotic sandwich, "to keep up health and morale for Americans working longer, harder hours," explained one government nutritionist. So in the chapter "How to Rise Up Like New Bread," Fisher flatly dismissed such advice. Rather than buy vitamin-enriched bread, she thought we should make bread that enriched. She writes:

"Perhaps this war will make it simpler for us to go back to some of the old ways we knew before we came over to this land and made the Big Money. Perhaps, even, we will remember how to make good bread again ... For probably 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."

Yoga--in 1942! She was indeed a woman before her time. Of course, to see how Fisher's advice might really work in today's world, I had to try out one of the recipes. So I met up with Jeanneatte Ferrary, a food writer who became good friends with MFK Fisher. (Or Mary Frances, as she was known socially.) Ferrary and I flipped through "How to Cook a Wolf" in the kitchen, and had a hard time deciding what to make.

We passed over the aptly named "sludge," a mixture of ground meat and vegetables and grain that Fisher recommended for really tight times. There was something called war cake, made with bacon grease instead of butter, and lots of spices to hide the bacon flavor. We considered, then reconsidered, making an odd sounding dessert called "Tomato Soup Cake" that really involved a can of tomato soup.

We decided finally on Gaspacho Soup--something we might actually eat. Ferrary read aloud a little of what Fisher wrote so lovingly about the soup:

"I always see to it that I have made too much gaspacho. It ripens well when kept chilled, and it is a soul satisfying thing to drink, chilled, midway in a torrid morning. It is also one of the world's best breakfasts for unfortunates who are badly hung over."

We made up our shopping list: garlic, a sweet pepper, two tomatoes, a cucumber, a handful of herbs, a lemon, an onion. All in all, we bought $12.30 worth of vegetables, and a little bread, that we did not bake ourselves (sorry Mary Frances!), which we turned in to bread crumbs in the food processor. We hesitated before we used the machine.

Fisher thought short cuts like Cuisinarts and microwaves missed the whole point of cooking, which was a process to be enjoyed. But in the end, we used the food processor anyway, deciding it was OK because Fisher was not so much a stickler about rules, as she was about having a good time in the kitchen. And we were. But, our minor dilemma in appliances raised a question: Given our country's propensity these days to food processors and frozen dinners and fast food joints that often sell food for far less than it would cost to make it, how much of "How to Cook a Wolf" is really applicable today?

A lot, Ferrary assured me. Fisher's real message was about living well in tight times, no matter the decade. "Even though we are living in a time where we have to conserve everything, ... it doesn't mean that we can't enjoy eating," Ferrary explained. "Basically, she's trying to approach how we can enjoy the frugality that has been forced upon us. We have to think of food as the simple pleasure that it can be. "

And so Ferrary and I sat down to a simple lunch of delicious soup (which could have easily served six, at 2 dollars a head), and to the pleasure of each others' company, which, Fisher reminded us, was the most important part of all.

MFK Fisher's Recipe for Gaspacho Soup*:

1 generous mixed handful of chives, chervil, parsley, basil, marjoram...any or all, but fresh
1 garlic clove
1 sweet pepper, pimiento or Bell
2 peeled and seeded tomatoes
1 small glass olive oil (or really flavorful nut oil or substitute)
juice of 1 lemon
1 mild onion, sliced paper thin
1 cup diced cucumber
salt and pepper
1/2 cup bread crumbs

Chop the herbs and mash thoroughly with the garlic, pimiento, and tomatoes, adding the oil very slowly, and the lemon juice. Add about 3 glasses of cold water or as much as you wish. Put in the onion and the cucumber, season, sprinkle with bread-crumbs, and ice for at least four hours before serving.

*Fisher prefaced her recipe with a warning:

"Within the past few years I have found myself involved in a discussion, esoteric as well as practical, about the correct way to make a Gaspacho. I still stay loyal to this recipe, while accentuating the fact that it, like rules for all good native soups, can vary with each man who makes it."

  • Music Bridge:
    Artist: Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra
    CD: Miles of Styles (Ubiquity)


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By krissy clark

    From San Francisco, CA, 09/19/2008

    You all have persuaded me-- this weekend I'm making the Tomato Soup cake. I'll update you soon with a verdict.
    Mischievously yours, Krissy

    By Barbara Haubrich

    From Palmyra, PA, 09/17/2008

    I totally enjoyed your "How to Cook a Wolf" feature but was amazed at the cost of your Gazpacho. Most people during WWII had Victory Gardens, so theirs would've been considerably less. I've made Gazpacho several times this summer using tomatoes, cukes, onions, peppers, basil from my garden; V-8 (instead of water) was my only cost - no olive oil - lots of cumin & garlic, tho.

    By Suzanne Abbott

    From West Chicago, IL, 09/16/2008

    Krissy, your story caused me to be curious enough to go on-line to get the Gaspacho soup recipe. After doing that I enjoyed reading the comments. Especially the comments about Tomato Soup Cake. I normally don't buy tomato soup in a can, but I am interested to know how to make Tomato Soup Cake.

    By Jeff Taylor

    From Independence, OR, 09/13/2008

    As this is one of my favorite books for life, I was delighted to hear this wonderful time-trip into the past. Would love to know if Krissy Clark has read "The Grub Bag," an old Seventies cookbook of essays cum recipes.

    Kudos, Ms. Clark. You're a fantastic writer. It was wonderful to turn on NPR at the very beginning of your story, on a Saturday when I'm bogged down by deadlines. It floated me away...

    By David McDonald

    From St. Louis, MO, 09/13/2008

    I am 70 years old and I remember my mother making Tomato Soup Cake, when I was a child. It was a spice cake with walnuts or pecans. It was absolutely delicious.

    By Alan Levitan

    From Cambridge, MA, 09/13/2008

    A charming story, Krissy Clark, but please, please don't pronounce "michievous" ("your mischievous, foxy grandmother") as "misCHEEVious." The accent is on the first syllable, and there's no "i" after the "v." Thanks.

    By Alexander Thompson

    From Gloucester, MA, 09/13/2008

    My late grandmother made Tomato Soup Cake for me for every every one of my birthdays since I was 9 years old. It is a rich clove and cinnamon spiced cake with raisins and white frosting. It is crazy good with vanilla ice cream, and costs next to nothing to make, the most costly ingredients being sugar and raisins. The spice flavor is user controllable: If you just wolf it down it's pretty mild. But if you savor it and press the cake between your tongue and the roof of your mouth it is pretty intense. How do I know? I've eaten at least fifteen of them.
    I haven't brought myself to make one since my Grandmother died the day after New Years Day 2006. But since you laughed out loud at the noble Tomato Soup Cake, I'm going to make it to prove the point. And you should make one in penance! All in good fun-

    By Shlomit Auciello

    From Rockland, ME, 07/19/2008

    In 1996, during Newt Gingrich's Republican Winter, our house was on a very tight budget. In addition to the bread I'd always baked, I began to make pasta, and to write a cookbook. "Eye of Newt: a conjuror's cookbook for the working poor" focused on making good food for the family without going broke. With a comparison budget for CSA farm purchases, I thought I was ahead of my time. MFK Fisher puts me to shame. Thank you for your story.

    By John Niederhauser

    From Birch Run, MI, 07/19/2008

    I read with interest about the Gaspacho recipe version, which I am always willing to experiment with. In the summer I always have a pitcher of it chilling in the frig. However, you might post a slightly spicier version by adding 2 chopped and seeded jalapenos, change out both the mild onion for red and lime for lemon, and add a healthy tblspn of cumin. Also blending half of it makes it both a soup and a crunchy textured delight. Lastly I swap out the 3 cups of water for either low sald or spicy V8 juice. The best thing about gaspacho is that it can accomodate almost any modification and be wonderful.

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