There are times when helpful hints about turning off the gas when not in use are foolish, because the gas has been turned off permanently, or until you can pay the bill. And you don’t care about knowing the trick of keeping bread fresh by putting a cut apple in the box because you don’t have any bread and certainly not an apple, cut or uncut. And there is no point in planning to save the juice from canned vegetables because they, and therefore their juices, do not exist.
In other words, the wolf has one paw wedged firmly into what looks like a widening crack at the door. (How to Cook a Wolf, page 66)
No other book has been as inspirational or as significant in both my cooking and my desire to write about food as MFK Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf. It’s a book about cooking (and remaining happy) in the absolute bleakest of times – during war, under ration, or when one is limited by finances, shortages, or long, cold seasons. It was written in 1942, then revised in 1954, and it remains timeless in its advice and good sense. It’s also beautifully written.
It’s not very long – you could probably read it in a weekend. And it’s just so sensible. Gas and electricity are expensive – why not spend one evening making enough soup to last a week? Meat and eggs aren’t always affordable – why not make a meal of corn grits and vegetables? What we’d now call vegan cooking is, in this book, just what you do when you don’t have much else. There are also good tips for working with cheap cuts of meat and offal, recipes for dinners in which eggs are the main course, and instructions for making mouthwash and soap.
Even if you don’t make the recipes, they are a great jumping-off point. Many of the recipes call for things like rabbit and pigeon, which are expensive proteins now and not likely to be in your fridge or freezer anyway. But you can adapt, and stew a tough bit of beef, or cook up chicken thighs or make a meatball or turn your leftovers into something else entirely with a long cook in a bright sauce and a low oven.
It’s also about redefining dinner – dinner does not have to be meat, potatoes, and some boiled vegetable. I don’t know how many times our dinner has been some manner of grain porridge topped with steamed spinach or asparagus and a poached egg; it’s something we eat all the time, not just when we’re broke (but also when I’m lazy, when it’s raining too much to walk to the store, when I just feel like a poached egg and something green …). It’s a good book, and a short book, and not preachy. Where some of Fisher’s other writing is more indulgent, How to Cook a Wolf is a reflection of the time it was written and quite sensible.
I’ve actually made her War Cake a few times, while not at war but certainly without eggs or milk or butter. It’s a nice thing to have when you are 22 and your parents are coming to your damp basement apartment for tea and you want to look like a grown-up but can only afford half the illusion.
If you already have a bit of fat and buy just what you need for this recipe out of the bulk bins, it will cost you just a few dollars to make and you’ll end up with a loaf you can slice and toast or muffins you can freeze. It’s very adaptable as well, so feel free to make substitutions based on what you have in your cupboards already.
- 2 cups flour, white or whole wheat
- 1/4 tsp. baking soda
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- 1/2 cup shortening, oil or bacon fat (always save your bacon fat)
- 1 cup sugar, brown or white
- 1 cup water
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
- 1 tsp. other spices, such as ginger, cloves, mace, etc.
- 1 cup chopped dried fruit, such as raisins or prunes
Lightly grease a 9″x5″ loaf pan. Set aside.
Sift together your flour, baking soda, and baking powder. Set aside.
In a pan over medium-high heat, combine the rest of your ingredients, and bring them to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer for five minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and cool its contents completely.
Add the dry ingredients to your cooled wet ingredients, stir to combine, and pour into your prepared loaf pan. Bake at 325°F for about 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the centre of the loaf comes out clean.
You can also make this recipe as muffins; reduce your cooking time to 20-25 minutes.