This Cookbook from 1942 Is a Textbook for Making a Better World

Revisiting "How to Cook a Wolf" in the era of climate change

illustration of woman in 1950s kitchen

My stove and I have been at odds for some time now. Beautiful and wasteful, it is the kind that is ubiquitous in Los Angeles kitchens of a certain vintage and which has chrome fins like a muscle car. And like those muscle cars, it is a gas guzzler. Aside from the standard four burners, there is a griddle as big as an atlas, and a multi-tiered “broyl-oven” (also branded, in mid century ad-speak, as a Grillevator). And most of all, a whopping five pilot lights to keep it all going. When I wipe down the stovetop, my sponge sizzles. It emits heat like a radiator through the winter season, and after a first sweltering summer in the apartment, I learned to cut the gas on the hottest days.

But as the news comes in more and more about the warming planet and the runaway waste that is fueling it, I’ve tried to put myself in the mindset of a 1942 manual for cooking during wartime, gorgeously written by M.F.K Fisher in an era of strict rationing. Though Fisher is better known for sumptuous reflections on food like Serve it Forth and Consider the Oyster, it is her book on austerity that has set me on a path towards winning that battle against the oven. So in spite of the awkward shuffling of burner covers and matches it takes to re-light the stove, in between meals I tighten the valve and let those five busy pilot lights go out.

Fisher, an elegant, witty writer, was as aware as anyone that thrift is always in dire need of rebranding.

Fisher, a Californian by birth, probably cooked on just such a behemoth on her return from time spent abroad during the Second World War. But it is not the type of appliance that makes an appearance in How to Cook a Wolf, a book where nothing is done with abandon, especially not burning fuel. Actually, the fuel economies that she suggests in this book are elaborate: she treats the oven as though roasts and casseroles and baked goods must be taught how to carpool. She suggests always, whenever the oven is used for anything, to throw something else in on the bottom rack, like a tray of apples (dessert for the week!), or a baking sheet of stale bread (melba toast!). She describes the haybox, a way to slow-cook through insulation rather than by fire: one takes a heated pot off the flame and packs it tightly in straw until it cooks in its own residual heat. Not only does she suggest cooking the week’s market vegetables all at once to save fuel as they are rolled out for individual meals, but she also recommends saving their blanching water in an empty gin bottle, to be drunk later with lemon juice as a pick-me-up when nutrients are scarce.

So cutting the gas and conserving the cooking water (I use mine to water herbs) are things I add to my to do list: avoiding and reusing plastics, filling the vermicompost bin, freezing that stale bread for something, sometime… But Fisher, an elegant, witty writer, was as aware as anyone that thrift is always in dire need of rebranding. If I feel awkward and small scraping my restaurant leftovers into an old yogurt container, or planning a meal with tofu when the meat looks so good, that is no new phenomenon. The folks we think of as bleeding heart, crunchy granola types now were once the thrifty church ladies who populate Fisher’s book. And she mocks them gently; her grandmother was one. But as she reminds us on page after page, the tips she writes about in this book, some extreme, others practical, are mostly gleaned from the pages of cookbooks put out by just such dowdy church groups or ladies’ circles. Even when they are ridiculous, they are creative and admirable for it. On removing kitchen smells from the house when everyone is holed with windows blacked out for an air raid, Fisher writes humorously of all the different registers in which one might perform this mundane task:

You can do it, according to the Stark Realism school, by lighting a crumpled piece of newspaper and dashing through the rooms with it. You can, much more effectively […and tidily…] pour a drop or two of oil or eucalyptus or pine on a hot shovel and wave it around. If you want to feel like a character from one of the James brother’s looser romantic moments you can float a few drops of oil of lavender in a silver bowl filled with hot water.

One of the most wonderful things about this volume is that, though it was published in 1941 at the height of war rationing and scarcity, it was “revised” in 1952, when food was abundant once again, and gas guzzling stoves came on the scene. The revisions are embedded in the text but visible, appearing in brackets throughout. We get to be privy to her evolution. So what we at first assume will be an exercise in pointing out the way bounty has made so many of her tips and tricks obsolete, instead is a conversation she has with her past self.

Sometimes her notes are about the way culture has changed—beneath a recipe for minestrone she reflects on the ways the anti-Italian sentiment that made people revolt against the bean soup a mere decade later, in cold war times, is transferred over to a suspicion of borscht (not shared by her). Sometimes, she exclaims over a split infinitive or a poor word choice of which her older, wiser self now disapproves. She compliments herself, too: at the end of a chapter about feeding pets through times of famine, she proclaims “for one of the few times in the past thirty-odd years I am pleased with something I have written. I think it is a good chapter.”

Beneath a recipe for minestrone she reflects on the ways the anti-Italian sentiment was transferred over to a suspicion of borscht.

There is gravity when she acknowledges her own changed perspective, one war, ten years, and two children later (it is also three close deaths and one divorce later, though she doesn’t mention these things). Her aged self, she says, is stricken by the wolf (“by now almost a member of the family”) with hunger pangs at 4am these days rather than the midnight as it used to be. And there is levity, too, in the juxtaposition of her 1941 and 1952 selves:

It is all a question of weeding out what you yourself like best to do, so that you can live most agreeably in a world full of an increasing number of disagreeable surprises. [Some of them are merely funny, like the carefully sealed cans full of milk-solids, nitrous-oxide gas, and suchlike, which spit out a ‘dessert topping’ vaguely reminiscent of whipped cream when held correctly downwards, and a fine social catastrophe when sprayed, heedlessly upright, about the room.]

But serious or silly, her approach to food and life is ever evolving. Like with the “whipped cream,” she warns now and again throughout the book, one can’t really economize through consumerism — an idea that certainly still holds water with some of the “greenwashed” foods and goods we see today. But she emphasizes framing luxuries and concessions alike with a sense of humor and distance.

Almost as constant in this book as the voice of Fisher’s near future self, is the image of the wolf. Though the book takes its title from the idea of fending off hunger or “the wolf at the door,” the wolf is whimsical and comic enough that we know it to be written by someone privileged enough to have avoided true hunger. But it serves a purpose here, a nemesis keeping the writer (and the chef) on her toes. It is just as much about the threat of scarcity as it is about the internal drive of appetite. Fisher reminds us to see appetite as more than just a problem to be solved: this wolf is a timeless one, a fairytale one who can always be foiled by smarts and by “keeping one canny eye on the cooking time.”

The wolf is just as much about the threat of scarcity as it is about the internal drive of appetite.

And re-reading the book and writing this essay, I’ve found myself consumed by thinking through what  the wolf of our own global crisis might be today, what mascot might throw our morals and our appetites into balance, when in this time of plenty our consumption must be self-policing. All my ideas fall flat—how to chill a whale, anyone? It seems like a crass exercise. And in scrounging for a joke that somehow updates, I could find no animals. The penguin is toddling northward, the bees are dying off—no time to wait around at the door. It’s a flood, really that is pounding for attention—not the disastrous one ready to take out Manhattan or Miami, not that yet—but the one of ready abundances. The one that targets us and calls out to us and is at us to consume more, consume thoughtlessly. So what to do in this day and age when scarcity does not give us an assist in being our better selves? When the waves are lapping at the door? Pull hard on the shut-off valve, and take some time to regroup, to evaluate, to strategize. Fisher writes:

As long as the gas or electric current supply you, your stove will function and your kitchen will be warm and savory. 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.

The last part in this formula is the constant that, according to Fisher, does not change with the times. At the end of the book, she adds a chapter containing a number of the richest, most opulent recipes she can think of, noting at every turn that these “half-remembered delicate impossible dishes” are most likely out of reach. At first it seems like a taunt to her reader, to herself, until it becomes clear that what she promotes here is not actually fresh fruit soaked in champagne or shrimp pâté or beef moreno, but the simplest of sensory delights—the ones to be found in memory and in words. Her way to conquer the appetites: lend writerly attention to food and cooking and the practices of life. Dignity will follow, crisis times or not.

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