Tuesday, August 24, 2010

MFK Fisher Revisited...Or...Pass the Wolf, Please..

The news is a constant source of sorrow. There's seldom a bright spot - it's all about job losses and housing prices falling, and people unable to afford health care, and criminal politicians. And all of that against a backdrop of global warming and unending wars.

So it seemed like a good time to re-read MFK Fisher's "How To Cook A Wolf". First published in 1942 against a backdrop of wartime food shortages, the book was written as a meditation on how to live with grace under the cruelest circumstances. With the wolf sniffing at the door, the most practical response is to learn how to cook the wolf. She speaks of the men and women who cooked and marketed their way though the war who "will feel, until their final days on earth, a kind of culinary caution: butter, no matter how unlimited, is a precious substance not lightly to be wasted; meats, too, and eggs, and all the far-brought spices of the world, take on a new significance having once been so rare. And that is good, for there can be no more shameful carelessness than with the food we eat for life itself. When we exist without thought or thanksgiving we are not men, but beasts."

I consider myself among the lucky... I have a job. Well, I'm self employed, so of course I have a job, and even though business is slower than it's been, I still have work. I've seen the wolf in the canyon below my house. My neighbors have reported it in their back yards. But so far, he has not come to my door.

How to Catch the Wolf

A creative economy is the fuel of magnificence.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

While I'm not always sure about the magnificence, I know that everyone around me seems to be more interested in the notion that food comes from the earth. Small pots of herbs seem to be springing up in everyone's kitchens or tiny side yards. More people are joining community gardens. When I put my lunch in the fridge at work yesterday, I noticed one of those black plastic, one gallon pots from a nursery, sitting next to the sink with tiny yellow and red grape tomatoes in it. Someone's overflow.

Leftovers have become popular again. I've known people who, for many years, wouldn't consider saving leftovers. At the end of each dinner, they'd toss whatever was left over into the garbage. I always stood there in mute horror as I watched perfectly good food being thrown away. Now these same people, while not always creative with their leftovers, are dumping them back into a container and stashing them in the fridge for tomorrow's lunch.

When I lived in New Mexico, I learned about leftovers. Bob would always cook huge meals, even though there was usually just the two of us. But that gave us plenty of leftovers - some eaten "straight up" (just the way they were cooked originally), and some turned into another kind of a dish - a soup, a stew, a curry. One of Bob's go-to solutions for leftovers was pasta or rice. By sauteing an onion and some garlic, he primed us for a meal. If anyone walked in at that point, there was the inevitable "Boy, that smells good! What are you making?"
These are two variations of my standard leftover fare. There's a rice version with some leftover veggies, and a pasta version (about to be popped into the oven) with some chopped up chicken breast (left over from a barbecue) and the remains of some mozzarella cubed over the top. Both could be considered as being made by someone "living on a war budget", but the addition of herbs (fresh from my garden), and/or chili and some rich cheese, yields - perhaps not magnificence - but surprisingly satisfying meals.


Penny said...

MFK Fisher is a brilliant writer. Coincidentally I am reading her Two Towns In Provence right now. Your post was brilliantly written too. Enjoyed the sentiment.

Toni said...

I don't know why I'm turning to her again. I suspect that it has to do with the quality of her writing as much as anything else.

Susan said...

Fisher is a great antidote to American cavalier attitudes towards excesses. As bad as the economy is, I don't believe we're rock bottom yet. I've recently seen many boarded-up retailers, and the start of real deflation in markets outside housing. Scary.

Thanks for reminding me of "How to Cook a Wolf." Think I'll rummage my bookcase for my old but revered copy.

Hope you are well, Toni, and enjoying your summer.

Toni said...

I'm afraid you're probably right, Susan. And unfortunately, when economies get bad and people tend to behave out of fear, it can get ugly.

Yes, Fisher is a reminder of a time when people were facing some very real problems, but often with a certain grace.

coco cooks said...

I have yet to really sit down and read this great writer.

Toni said...

Oh Courtney - You are in for one, big treat!

Sylvia said...

Your reflections are spot on. Thanks for pointing me to an inspirational book. I'm always looking for one.

Katie Zeller said...

I just received a copy of that - have to read it....
I always have cooked big and saved the leftovers... Much more efficient

Toni said...

I always said that my husband cooked for the Turkish army. We lived on leftovers, and they just kept getting better!