All Commentary
Friday, February 8, 2013

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?


M. F. K. Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf, in The Art of Eating (New York: Macmillan, 1990 [1942]). 163 pp.
Some of my favorite books are the ones that set out to overturn the things that we know to be true by going out and taking a look at what is actually happening. Much of Hayek’s work does this, as does Coase’s discussion of lighthouses, Jane Jacobs’s work on city planning, T. S. Eliot’s rediscovery of metaphysical poetry, and Carlo Ginzburg’s revelation of a medieval peasant’s mind. Books that question our assumptions, that point out, as Jane Jacobs did, that orthodox ideas “harm us because we take them for granted,” are books that nearly always reward our attention.
M. F. K. Fisher’s collection of essays on cooking during WWII, How to Cook a Wolf, was precisely this kind of book when it was published in 1942. Fisher’s scorn for the advice of nutrition experts is in full force from the first page of the opening essay, where she declares, “One of the stupidest things in an earnest but stupid school of culinary thought is that each of the three daily meals should be ‘balanced.’” Her contempt grows throughout the book until her impressive and historically compelling essay about cooking and eating in a bomb shelter, “How Not to Be an Earthworm,” attacks the experts’ suggested menu for such occasions. 
The menu—which features tomatoes at all three daily meals—is, as Fisher notes, “a shocking example of gastronomical panic” that requires an astonishingly impractical “number of plates and cups and utensils which would have to be washed to provide for these impractical and nauseating feasts. Have the earnest ladies of the Parent-Teachers Advisory Board forgotten that water may be as much of a problem as fuel if things are so upset that five hundred people are hiding together in the basement of a schoolhouse?”
Instead, Fisher recommends “balancing the day” and describes and provides recipes for a wide range of meals—some painfully dated (there is a recipe for War Cake about which Fisher, updating her book in 1952, says, “I could live happily forever without tasting it again”) and some still very tempting (Edith’s Gingerbread may be on my table this weekend.) Equally, she insists on the superior ability of the cook herself to be better than the experts. “If the people set aside to instruct us cannot help, we must do it ourselves . . . according to what we have learned and also, for a change, according to what we have thought.” Fisher’s argument about meal planning is an argument for the kind of local knowledge and small scale expertise that emerges through practice and intimacy. It’s what lies behind Lenore Skenazy’s defense of “Free-Range Kids.” It’s the argument that Hayek makes in “The Use of Knowledge in Society.”
[T]here is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation. . . . [H]ow valuable an asset in all walks of life is knowledge of people, of local conditions, and of special circumstances.
It is an argument that all of us who value spontaneous order, emergent knowledge, and experience should attend to. And Fisher demonstrates how entwined it is with that most intimate and human of activities—eating.
Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf closes with an essay that has lingered in my mind for years. Called “How to Practice True Economy,” it is Fisher’s wartime fantasy of “half-forgotten luxuries and half-remembered delicate impossible dishes.” The dishes are impossible because they call for unattainable rationed luxuries like butter, eggs, and cream. Reading about them, she says, “should be like waking from a dream of your loved one and finding perfume on your lips.” They are to be read, she suggests, not as torture, but as therapy, on days when wartime restrictions are unbearable. “This therapy, unconscious or deliberate, is known to any prisoner of war or woe, and some of the world’s most delectable cookbooks have been written, at least conversationally and now and then actually, in concentration camps and cell-blocks.” For Fisher, good food comes to us as emergent knowledge and it can give us, even in the worst of times, even if only in our dreams, a taste of freedom.
NB: For the benefit of readers more adventurous than I, Fisher’s recipe for “War Cake” follows. Let me know if you try it.
War Cake
½ C shortening (bacon grease can be used, because of the spices which hide its taste)
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp other spices . . . cloves, mace, ginger, etc.
1 C chopped raisins or other dried fruits . . . prunes, figs, etc.
1 C sugar, brown or white
1 C water
2 C flour, white or whole wheat
¼ tsp soda
2 tsp 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 degree oven.