How to Cook a Wolf (along with Pigeons, Calf Brains, Kidneys… and Water)

Ann’s bedside reading stockpile

[Note: Andy and I have swapped roles for today’s BigLittleMeals post. Andy is doing the blog and I am taking over Andy’s Corner].

The other day I noticed a book on Ann’s night stand with the curious title How to Cook a Wolf. Out of curiosity, I picked it up and began to randomly thumb through it. It was written by MFK Fisher, about whom I knew little except that she was supposedly a renowned food writer and that she had lived in a house on the property of the Bouverie Preserve not far from our place.

Additionally, I knew that Ann was so intrigued with a photo of MFK Fisher with her cat that she tried to emulate it for a Facebook post. What I didn’t know was that Ann and MFK Fisher had an “unexpected” Louisiana connection, which she reveals in today’s Andy’s Corner.

From Ann’s Facebook post. Ann is on the left with our cat (then a kitten), Choco Latte. MFK Fisher is on the right with her cat, Charlie.

Admittedly, How to Cook a Wolf is not the kind of book I would normally take to the beach for pleasure reading; I prefer obscure sociological thrillers such The Social Construction of Reality or The Division of Labor in Society. However, it didn’t take much thumbing through the book before I was hooked.  Not only is Fisher entertaining and witty, she has a keen eye for the social and philosophical significance of our daily food-based routines. What better sociological thriller could I hope for?

Last House – Fisher’s home in Glen Ellen

How to Cook a Wolf was published the year before I was born, in the midst of WWII. A glance at her chapter titles, such as How to Be Sage Without Hemlock, How to Keep Alive, How to Make a Pigeon Cry, and How to Comfort Sorrow makes it clear that this is not your run-of-the-mill cook book.

WWII Poster: Basic rations per person.

On a practical level, Fisher’s essays and recipes are aimed at helping folks to survive while at the same time eat well during the food rationing and wartime hardships of her day. But she is writing about much more than that. For her, how and what we eat is metaphorical for our basic human needs.

It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it (a quote from her 1992 NY Times’ obituary – which is worth a read in itself).

When reading How to Cook a Wolf it’s hard not to think of the many parallels between the stresses of the war-time 1940s and the current stresses we are experiencing in the pandemic. While these two crises are different in many obvious ways, Fisher’s words are still particularly relevant to our current situation.

Anne Wallentine, in a recent Eater post, claims that Fisher’s book is “essential reading” for right now:

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.

Beyond the metaphorical side of food, Fisher does offer up some solid non-metaphorical recipes. As today’s guest food blog author, I feel obligated to say something about these recipes.

I’ll admit at the outset that a few of her recipes are a bit off-putting to me. I’m not real keen on trying such dishes as Calves Brains, Kidneys in Sherry, Roast Pigeon, or Aunt Gwen’s Cold Shape (quartered calf head).

I realize that my preferences are culturally biased and I feel the sting of Fisher’s admonition (although I actually do like Rocky Mountain Oysters!):

One way to horrify at least eight out of ten Anglo-Saxons is to suggest their eating anything but the red fibrous meat of a beast… when you eat a stuffed baked bull’s heart, or a grilled lamb’s brain or a “mountain oyster,” you need not choke them down with nauseated resolve to be braver or wiser or more potent, but with plain delight.

A good source for some of the more interesting Anglo-Saxon-friendly recipes in the book can be found at Four Pounds of Flour, a blog from about 10 years ago that reproduced and discussed many of the her recipes. It’s worth taking a look at.

In today’s blog we are including one recipe. It is from the chapter entitled “How to Boil Water” which begins with a story about a young woman who “didn’t know how to boil water” until she got married. You have to read it to appreciate her tongue-in-cheek narrative, even if it seems a bit gender insensitive by today’s standards.

Soup prerequisite?

Eventually, the chapter evolves into a discussion of how to make soup, for which boiling water is generally a prerequisite.

As a steady diet, plain (boiled) water is inclined to make thin fare, and even saints, of which there are an unexpected number these days, will gladly agree that a few herbs and perhaps a carrot or two and maybe a bit of meager bone on feast-days can mightily improve the somewhat monotonous flavor of the hot liquid.

One of Fisher’s “mightily improved” boiled water recipes, which we include below, is for A Basic Minestrone. According to Fisher,

Probably the most satisfying soup in the world for people who are hungry, as well as for those who are tired or worried or cross or in debt or in a moderate amount of pain or in love or in robust health or in kind of business huggermuggery, is minestrone. (Just so you know – “hugger mugger” used as an adjective can be defined as secret or clandestine. Minestrone sounds perfect for December 2020!)

Ann made a pot of this soup a couple of weeks ago to serve for lunch with our good friend Lynne. As we sat on our deck on that chilly day – separated by six feet of social distance – and savoring the hot soup and each other’s company, I couldn’t help but think of MFK Fisher’s suggestion that food, security and love are entwined, maybe even more so during trying times like these.

So, enjoy the soup and find security and love during this season of uncertainty.

MFK Fisher’s Minestrone – made with fire-roasted tomatoes

MFK Fisher's Minestrone

Adapted from How to Cook a Wolf – with help from The New Basics Cookbook.   For a vegetarian version, omit the bacon and use vegetable broth – or even just water.   If you anticipate freezing part of it, hold the pasta back and freeze the soup without it. Then when you reheat the frozen soup, boil fresh pasta to add before serving

  • 3 strips of thick cut bacon, diced
  • 2 T butter
  • 1 medium onion chopped
  • 1 stalk chopped celery
  • 1 handful chopped parsley
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp dried basil
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 2 c tomatoes, diced – or 1 14 oz can of diced tomatoes
  • 3 c beef broth (or use all chicken broth – a total of 6 c)
  • 3 c chicken broth

Cook the bacon in a large pot over medium heat, until the fat has rendered. Add butter, onion, celery, parsley and herbs, and stir for 5-10 minutes. Add the tomato and stir.  Add the broth. Add a little mace if you like it. 

Add the following, picking and choosing from what you’ve got on hand:

  • 1 large Yukon Gold or red potato, diced (peeling not necessary but okay)
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/2 small cabbage, finely shredded – about 2 c
  • 3 carrots, diced
  • 4-6 stalks celery, diced
  • some spinach…say a big handful (optional)
  • some cut-up green beans,  (optional)
  • 1/2 c pasta (such as ditalini or elbow macaroni) – (note from Ann: some folks cook the pasta in the soup but I prefer to cook it separately and add it just before serving)
  • 1 c canned, drained, and rinsed kidney or cannellini beans
  • grated dry cheese – such as parmesan – for serving

Bring the whole thing slowly to a boil, and then let simmer until the vegetables are tender.  If using pasta, add it shortly before serving.

Serve as a soup or over thin toasted bread, but always with a bowl of grated dry cheese to sprinkle upon each serving.

Recipe brought to you by BigLittleMeals.com and Andy and Ann.

5 Comments

    • theRaggedys says:

      I am not sure if “sassy clever” is an accurate description of her writing, but she does have an edge of humor and sarcasm; that’s what drew me in. I am looking forward to reading some of her other books.

      Like

  1. theRaggedys says:

    [Our good friend Aggie emailed this comment to us and gave us permission to post it]

    You might be interested to know that when WWII was over in Budapest and the Russian troops had entered the city, there was no food to be had. My father would go out and catch pigeons for us to eat. All I remember is that there were an awful lot of bones, for very little meat!

    Like

  2. Chuck down under says:

    I happen to like brains, but what really makes my tongue wag – i kid my knee not – is being a long liver. I know, that’ a lot of tripe, but then, some literary indulgences must be well-cooked before they are consumed as appreciatively as your current reverse roles efforts.

    Like

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