America on the Brink   /   Fall 2020   /    Notes And Comments

How to Cook a Wolf under Lockdown

How might a pandemic change the way we cook?

Laurel Berger

M.F.K. Fisher shopping in a Paris market in the 1940s.

We are almost out of fresh food. At the supermarket, two weeks ago, L, who is from Moscow, took photos of the empty shelves with his phone. Later, awash in nostalgia for the days of Soviet milk lines and cheap vodka, he e-mailed those snaps to fellow émigrés. From Sydney and Malaga and points east, his friends responded with a link to the same animated video. The story line was easy to follow, even for a non–Russian speaker like me: A mother bug nails planks over the front door of her house. “We’re going into quarantine!” she announces to her husband and two children. Battening down with them is the ghost of Joseph Brodsky (or “the Poet Brodsky,” as he is introduced to the little ones, who are told they must tolerate the stranger’s presence). Cut to Brodsky, the Nobel laureate, the man once charged with state parasitism. In hieratic tones, he recites: “Don’t leave the room, don’t make the mistake…”

Here in Washington, DC, where the air feels close and the atmosphere cramped, L and I are taking Brodsky’s exhortation as diktat. Students huddle together on the pavement in front of bars of an evening; lunatic geezers with a friendly gleam in their eyes circumambulate the neighborhood in terrifying haste, throwing themselves into the direct path of alarmed pedestrians. And so we are mostly apartment-bound. As the crisis wears on, I find myself wondering about the code of hospitality, now and in the future. Hospitable behavior, I mean—not charity. If I see you as a walking death threat, if we cannot share food, break bread together, attend to others—friends, strangers, all the characters in the absurdist comedy of our lives—who will we become?

By any sane measure, what to have for supper seems a low preoccupation. Yet I think about cooking rather a lot (standard behavior, for I am an obsessed cook). When the pandemic has run its course, I tell myself, clinging to old verities, it’ll be the contents of the currently half-empty fridge, freezer, and cupboard that dictate the menu rather than the vagaries of appetite. As I watch yesterday’s carrot parings ravel and furl into this evening’s vegetable tempura-ish thing, my unease about our dwindling food stocks turns to satisfaction. I cannot tell you why. I can only say this: It is weirdly freeing to accept that every organism, whether man or mite, is time’s meat.

The writer and gourmand M.F.K. Fisher had metaphorical teeth marks on her bones. “I can smell my own decay,” she wrote in her journal in May 1940. “It has grown stronger since last September, my own, and other people’s, and I feel it unsuspected in the air about young children and the most thoughtless ninnies, who do not know what is happening to the world, and to themselves.” Brussels had fallen, Germans troops were outside Paris, and air raids over London were imminent. Holed up at her ranch in Southern California, Fisher struggled to capture the tenor of a moment in which “the whole pace of existence has been sped up past reality into a state bordering on nightmare.”

Not two years later, American entry into World War II drove the cauchemar home. Food scarcities, young conscripts going to their deaths like crickets, and her own money troubles prompted Fisher to write the darkly funny yet practical How to Cook a Wolf, a self-help book and kitchen guide for the hard-up. I hadn’t looked at it in a long time, until recent events moved me to read it again.

In her introduction to the 1951 revised edition, Fisher belittled the book as “a kind of period piece”: “In its own way it is as curious, as odd, as any fat old gold-ribbed volume called, a hundred years ago instead of nine or ten, Ladies’ Indispensable Assistant and Companion, One of the Best Systems of Cookery Ever Published for Sister, Mother, and Wife.”

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