In her wartime publication How to Cook a Wolf, MFK Fisher spurned the typical cookbook categories in favor of chapters like “How to Greet the Spring.” Her suggestion? By cooking fish. In the midst of war, her audience could still revel in “the first succulent taste of bonito in the spring.”
How do we greet the spring now, in the midst of the fear and anxiety of a global crisis? Pandemic was declared in early March, but the season has continued to arrive with all the cliches of nature’s continuity. As our human-made systems are wrenched apart, Fisher’s advice on attitude, thrift, and how to nourish yourself and others in a crisis is newly relevant. Right now, the future is unknowable, the present uncertain. But the past is always available, and Fisher’s exquisite prose offers it up for both insight and escape.
How to Cook a Wolf was published in 1942 at the height of World War II shortages. It was a guide, Fisher wrote, “to existing as gracefully as possible without many of the things we have always accepted as our due: light, free air, fresh foods, prepared according to our tastes.” She acknowledges that in times of global restrictions, we seek recipes for living as well as cooking. We seek those things in normal times, too; but in crisis, the heightened awareness of what we have lost, are losing, and may lose, makes us cling to guidance even harder. I know I appreciate “the wolf” more now that I have felt its bite.
Fisher wrote for every level of need — from the basics of feeding yourself in poverty (“How to Keep Alive”) to the joys of nourishing spirit as well as body. As coronavirus continues to affect groups disproportionately, the importance of this spectrum of responses is clear: sometimes we can afford fantasy, but first we have to address the essentials of staying alive. Fisher’s chapters accordingly start with ration-conscious recipes and straightforward guidance (“How to Boil Water”), before shifting into the poetic “How Not to Be an Earthworm” and “How to Pray for Peace,” a chapter that sanctifies carbohydrates.
How to Cook a Wolf is not a guide to the particular needs of our era, nor is history ever intended as a manual for the present. What it can provide is comfort: to read a voice across the years and realize that some things, like spirit, rise up in any crisis. In “How to Rise Up Like New Bread,” Fisher described the “almost mystical pride and feeling of self-pleasure” of seeing fresh-made loaves; a feeling familiar to anyone who has dabbled in the surging sourdough trend during quarantine. “You will know, as you smell them and remember the strange cool solidity of the dough puffing up around your wrist when you hit it, what people have known for centuries about the sanctity of bread.” In circumstances beyond our control, creative and repetitive motion provides us with focus and comfort — as well as a tangible result.
Of cheese, Fisher writes, “in a time of peril and unspoken fear it is an anesthetic.” Another constant: alcohol. “How to Drink to the Wolf” includes a recipe for homemade vodka, as hard liquor was then hard to come by. Alcohol sales have spiked during quarantine as people stock up in lieu of hitting the bars, but, if Fisher is any guide, brewing may follow sourdough as the next stay-at-home trend. (I have already looked into distilling my own gin.)
In any crisis, we are inundated with advice on how to stay safe and how to keep calm. What at first seems alien becomes second nature, from social-distancing protocols to making and wearing masks. Fisher’s reaction 80 years ago was no different: the wartime suggestions, she found, “seem touched with a kind of sordid whimsy until you try them. Then they really work, and make you feel noble and brave at the same time.” Whether this is true of the recipe “to cure bruised withers” (saddle sores), which involves strapping damp sod to yourself overnight, I am neither brave nor whimsical enough to learn. I have, however, felt better for putting my creativity to work in thrifty and meaningful ways.
For Fisher, cooking or outfoxing the “wolf” is not about following a recipe, but spurring open-armed attitudes towards food and life. “How to Be Cheerful Through Starving” relates the story of a woman who managed to nourish others despite her poor circumstances. Though generosity is not a panacea, the story is a good reminder that we, too, can find ways to be cheerful through isolating. We can learn, through difficulty, “how better to exist.”
The difficulties we are learning from today are vastly different from those of Fisher’s era. Wartime production revved the American economy in the 1940s, but the pandemic has devastated the food service industry and revealed the intense fragility of our labor and social support systems. Fisher emphasized cooking at home, “practicing economy” in response to the needs of rationing. Our current practice of economy is much more complex. Now, we face the moral tango of trying to support local businesses by ordering delivery, while mindful of our own tightened belts and the fact that people in these essential yet tenuous roles bear much greater risk. The “front lines” look different when we’re combating a nebulous virus instead of fellow humans. But just as we adapt to better exist as individuals, we can also lobby for the systemic changes that are needed to keep people healthy, employed, nourished, and safe.
In Fisher’s day, people could huddle together in bomb shelters. Now, if we’re lucky, we are hunkered in our separate homes, communicating constantly as we wait out the crisis. This diet of words matters, too: we process stressful information in our bodies, feeding ourselves on news as well as nutrition. The choices we make now about ingesting all of this information are as important as those we make about consuming foods and services, something Fisher didn’t contend with on the same scale. A modern How to Cook a Wolf would require a chapter on “How to Ingest Media” — and how not to.
“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,” Fisher wrote. Though so much is beyond our control as individuals, we have the power to nourish ourselves during this upheaval through our diet of food and of communication. In the end, Fisher admitted, “No book on earth can help you, but only your inborn sense of caution and balance and protection.” Books and recipes cannot save us, but perhaps our shared wisdom can.
Anne Wallentine is an arts and culture writer based in Los Angeles.