With hoarding evident from empty shelves, and fears of food insecurity in the news, people are naturally thinking of previous, widespread shortages, as in the Depression and during WWII.
One recent Internet meme says, “Ya’ll are about to learn why your grandma hoarded frozen butter and washed her aluminum foil.”
A video made in earnest but passed around as a joke explains how to field-dress a squirrel. (Step 1: “Lay the squirrel on a flat work surface belly down.” Step 2: “Lift the tail.” Step 3: “Find the anus….”)
“Britain’s National Loaf,” a dense, nutritious bread introduced in 1942, is back, for a new time of calamity and austerity-to-come.
All this might be called “how to cook a wolf” material, named for MFK Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf, a collection of small essays with recipes for hard times, first published in 1942. Fisher’s wolf at the door is privation, though in a later book she says she writes about hunger in the bigger sense, including the need for love and warmth. Individual chapters are profiles, anecdotes, or anatomies, with titles such as, “How to Keep Alive” (about making a basic fuel for the body), “How to Catch the Wolf” (being as sensible and frugal as one’s forebears) and “How to Rise Up Like New Bread” (which mentions the advent of the National Loaf amid a description of class snobbery, tasteless bread, and incomplete nutrition).
How to Cook is not Fisher’s best or even tenth-best book, but it is timely, and a reader can see her getting hold, page by page, of what she will do so beautifully in later work. Over 60 years she published more than 30 books in all genres, wrote for The New Yorker, and translated Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste. Auden once called her “America’s greatest writer.”
Fisher’s work is filled with interesting prose structures, concrete sensory images, and startling lines, such as this one in How to Cook: “Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken.”
On this reading I notice more how Fisher is grieving those who are gone, and their relationships to food. Their knowledge is already, at Fisher’s writing, being lost due to corporatism, mass production, and destruction of local foodways. While some of us now are lucky to have elders that teach traditions, or at least a clutch of family recipes that have been passed down, most of us are even more dependent on the modern food system, which is being tried in the pandemic.
“It is good,” Fisher says, when a “trillion grim surprises haunt all our minds, to talk with other older humans about what they have done in their days to fool the wolf,” and to try to “live most agreeably in a world full of an increasing number of disagreeable surprises.”
In “How to Rise Up,” Fisher ends with a recipe for Addie’s Quick Bucket-Bread. With this basic knowledge, she says, “You can forget the soggy sterile slices that pop up dourly in three million automatic toasters every morning…and instead cut for yourself, if you will, a slice of bread that you have seen mysteriously rise and redouble and fall and fold under your hands. It will smell better, and taste better, than you remembered anything could possibly taste or smell, and it will make you feel, for a time at least, newborn into a better world than this one often seems.”