There’s a whining at the threshold,
There’s a scratching at the door,
To work! To Work! In Heaven’s name!
The wolf is at the door!
— C.P.S. Gilman
(From the frontispiece of How to Cook a Wolf)
Too many years ago, while rummaging through Snooper’s Barn, a used bookstore at Fort Smith, the cover of How to Cook a Wolf grabbed my attention and, intrigued by the title, I leafed through a few pages, not thinking it was actually a cookbook. Well, it is, and it is not, but it did not take long for me to be grabbed by the style of Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, better known as M.F.K. Fisher.
Fisher was born July 3, 1908, she died June 22, 1992; in all she wrote about 30 books.
That I so quickly became a fan might be only natural. According to Gastronomic Memoirs, by Lori Gama, “[Fisher’s] first book, Serve it Forth, was so unlike other ‘women’ writers on the subject of cooking that many critics thought it was written by a man.”
Another reason might be in these opening lines of the official M.F.K. Fisher website, “… [Fisher’s] writings revere the art of eating simply but well, of taking pleasure where it is found and of loving life with all of its challenges.”
Fisher, herself, added this note in a later edition of “Wolf,” “This book came to its own conclusion several years ago, and upon rereading it I myself have reached a few more. But both the book and I agree, on one point made much further back than 1942, that since we must eat to live, we might as well do it with both grace and gusto.”
But it is “Wolf,” shaped by the Great Depression and the shortages of WWII that drew my interest into “make-do” cooking. “I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war’s fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy, and ever-increasing enjoyment. And with our gastronomical growth will come, inevitably, knowledge and perception of a hundred other things, but mainly of ourselves. Then Fate, even tangled as it is with cold wars as well as hot, cannot harm us,” Fisher wrote.
Many of Fisher’s books have no recipes, and it would be a mistake to call those that do “cookbooks.” Each chapter features a few recipes that are used to add flavor, or build upon her thoughts. Even her advice on coffee tells of living to the fullest - “Coffee, by the way, is one thing which cannot be made skimpily. If you are going to economize with it, do so by using it less often, but never by trying to make it with less coffee and cooking it longer.”
There are now a number of Fisher’s books on my shelves, but I have misplaced the one, a first edition at that, in which I discovered her writings. Anyone interested in finding out more, or order Fisher’s books, can go online to http://mfkfisher.com/
“TOMATO SOUP CAKE
This is a pleasant cake, which keeps well and puzzles people who ask what kind it is. It can be made in a moderate oven while you are cooking other things, which is always sensible and makes you feel rather noble, in itself a small but valuable pleasure.
3 tablespoons butter or shortening
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon soda
1 can tomato soup
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg, ginger, cloves mixed
1 1/2 cups raisins, nuts, chopped figs, what you will
Cream butter, add the sugar, and blend thoroughly. Add the soda to the soup, stirring well, and add this alternately to the forst mixture with” the flour and spices sifted together. Stir well, and bake in a pan or loaf-tin at 325.”
“TO STUFF PINCUSHIONS
Coffee grounds, well steeped and dried, make an excellent stuffing. They are economical and keep the needles and pins from wasteful rust, and will not pack down.”
“… a remnant of the last war [written in 1940], and although I remember liking it so much that I dreamed about it at night … like all the other children who ate it, I can’t remember that it was ever called anything more appetizing than
1/2 cup shortening (bacon grease can be used, because of the spices which hide its taste)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon other spices – cloves, mace, ginger, etc.
1 cup chopped raisins or other dried fruits – prunes, figs, etc.
1 cup sugar, brown or white 1 cup water
2 cups flour, white or whole wheat
1/4 teaspoon soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
Sift the flour, soda and baking powder. Put all the other ingredients in a pan, and bring to a boil. Cook five minutes. Cool thoroughly. Add the sifted dry ingredients and mix well. Bake 45 minutes or until done in a greased loaf-pan in a 325-350° oven.”
“The recipe for my mother’s gingerbread must be almost identical with the excellent one which comes out of a box. It is cheaper to make, if you have the time and the oven is going anyway. It sends out a fine friendly smell through the house and is so good that it usually disappears while it is still hot, which is too bad because it is so good cold.
1/4 cup shortening
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
cloves and salt
3/4 cup boiling water
1/4 teaspoon soda
1 1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 beaten egg
Cream the shortening and sugar. Sift the spices and flour and bak ing powder together. Beat the 1/2 teaspoon soda into the molasses until it is light and fluffy, and add to the shortening and sugar. Add the 1/4 teaspoon soda to the boiling water, and then add it alternately with the sifted dry ingredients. Fold in the beaten egg when all is well mixed, pour into a greased and floured pan, and bake about 20 minutes, at 325. This mixture will seem much too thin to make a cake, but do not increase the quantity of flour, as many doubting cooks have tried to do.”
“Another hearty dessert, which can be made of sweet potatoes or yams left from day-before-yesterday’s supper is
SWEET POTATO PUDDING
6 sweet potatoes
6 tablespoons butter (or vegetable shortening)
6 tablespoons brown sugar
grated rind and juice from 1 lemon or 1 orange
2 bananas (optional)
Peel the cooked or baked potatoes and mash smooth. Add the melted butter and brown sugar, the lemon rind and juice, and beat thoroughly. Pour into a buttered casserole (lined, if you wish, with sliced bananas) [or any other fruit: pineapple, peaches, apples]. Put more brown sugar and a little butter and cinnamon, if possible, over the top, and bake 1 hour at 325-350°.”
Pray for peace and grace and spiritual food,
For wisdom and guidance, for all these are good,
But don’t forget the potatoes.
- Prayer and Potatoes, J.T. Pettee
“QUICK POTATO SOUP
(Referred to sardonically by my father as Poor Man’s Potage … )
1/4 pound good butter
4 large potatoes
4 large onions
2 quarts whole milk
salt, pepper, minced parsley if agreeable
Melt the butter in large kettle, or in fireproof casserole in which the soup can be served. Grate the clean potatoes into it. (I like to leave them unpeeled, but the soup is not so pretty unless chopped fresh herbs, added at the last, change its natural whiteness enough to hide the bits of brown skin) Grate the peeled onions into it – or slice them very thin. Heat the mixture to bubble-point, stirring well. Then reduce the heat, and cover closely for about ten minutes or until the vegetables are tender but not mushy, shaking the pot now and then to prevent sticking. Add more butter (or chicken-fat) if it seems wise. Heat the milk to boiling point but not beyond, add slowly to the pot, season, and serve. Variations of this recipe are obvious. One of my father’s favorites is the last-minute addition of a cup or so of cooked minced clams. A half-pound of grated fresh mushrooms, added to the vegetables just before pouring in the hot milk, is fine. And so on and so on.]”
As Fisher closed How to Pray for Peace, in How to Cook a Wolf - Pax Vobiscum.
This column is for readers to share their recipes. The recipes need not be fancy or original; just good cooking that you and your family enjoy -a few sentences of history behind a recipe would be great.
Civic organizations, non-profit organizations, churches, school classes, EHC, 4-H, etc. can also take part. Collect six or seven recipes from members, include their names; tell about the purpose of the organization, maybe a little history; include when and where the group meets, and how to join. Keep it to 500 - 600 words.
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