Book Review: How to Cook a Wolf

My slightly battered copy read on the beaches of East Yorkshire, sometimes while eating haddock and chips.

I had never heard of Mary Francis Kennedy Fisher or How to Cook a Wolf until a few weeks ago,

though I have a good collection of cookery books – or food books I suppose (so many are much more than the ‘how to make the thing’ school of cookbook writing). I often find myself, way past dinner time, reading rather than finding the recipe I went to find; Scribbling notes on pages, sticking post-its in, ‘what can I substitute for that?’ (I almost never follow a recipe to the letter!). My love of the history of food and cooking, and of reading food writing, started with “The Magpie History of Food” by Audrey Ellis (Piccolo, 1977) and has carried on through more books, TV shows and the radio (How to Cook a Wolf would make an excellent TV series).

It was the excellent Backlisted Podcast which brought Fisher to my attention (and a number of intriguing posts by Dan Richards on twitter weeks before that). Now I’ve read “How to Cook A Wolf” I’m completely obsessed. Fisher wrote a huge number of books during her long and apparently eventful lifetime. “How to Cook a Wolf” was published in 1942 at the height of ‘War II’ as Fisher refers to it, and then again in a revised, highly annotated by the author edition in 1951, it was republished by Daunt this year.

The book bowls along in an excellent, breathless, manner. Fisher had me in her power from early on, railing against the awfulness of ‘sandwich bread’ (sliced loaf to us) and whipped cream in a can. The chapters are all headed “How To…” i.e. “How to Boil Water”, “How to be Cheerful Though Starving”, but don’t imagine for a moment this is anything like a run of the mill household management manual, or simply about keeping that titular wolf from the door.

It’s punctuated by recipes, some slightly strange sounding – and some, because of the borax, come with a warning to stay clear from them. If you do get the book and try any I can absolutely recommend ‘Eggs in Hell’ (p77) which are delicious (and I originally found in a Nigella Lawson’s ‘Nigellissima’) they are absolutely brilliant for a hangover, which you’ll certainly have if you’ve drunk a few ‘Half and Half’s’ (p227) the night before. The occasional otherness – ingredients and quantities wise – of some of these recipes may require some inventiveness if you do try them, it is a constant reminder this was written in wartime, and in America*.

Even so, ‘How to Cook a Wolf’ reads like a book for now. Fisher is a great advocate of the ‘cook much more than you need and reheat it later’ school of food management. Of knowing what is in your larder and ‘ice box’ and using it. She is pretty scathing of those who’d, joylessly, have us eat certain things, in a certain way, for our own good. Written as this was for people on ration or living on slender means (this second thing being a distressingly modern issue) she is a hater of waste – I’m pretty sure almost nothing is thrown away in Mary’s kitchen and am sure she would shudder at the food waste we produce these days.

The breathlessness and chatty asides are probably down to Fisher being a working journalist, a hack (I’m never sure if that’s an insult or not) paying her bills with her writing. In her annotations she often tells off her earlier self for getting a quantity wrong, or for earlier scepticism about a method or ingredient. I love her way of writing as if you were there with her at the Paris Ritz in the early 1930s, eating scrambled eggs at four a.m. or at the table of foraged dinners with her impoverished acquaintance in the California hills; or in a remote Swiss restaurant with an over attentive waitress. In many ways her writing reminds me of the asides/glances to camera we think are so modern (in Fleabag, or Gentleman Jack) but have been a dramatic device since, well, probably ancient Greece!

This is a superbly enjoyable, occasionally hilarious book. Despite it being a ‘war book’ it brims over with the absolute sensual enjoyment of food and cooking. It celebrates inventiveness and thrift, and also “if you can afford it” a slight extravagance every now and again (because food is so much more than fuel, isn’t it?). From soup to pudding there are things to try, or simply to enjoy (or be slightly disturbed by – Tete de Veau?). I can’t recommend it enough!

*I struggle with American weighing methods which seem mad to me, there’s a whole section on this in Bee Wilson’s “Consider the Fork”, a title I now know refers to Fisher’s “Consider the Oyster” and round and round we go.

You’ll find the brilliant Backlisted Podcast episode on How to Cook A Wolf, with guests Dan Richards and Felicity Cloake, here.

How to Cook a Wolf is published by Daunt Books.

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