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.”

If the invocation of antique household manuals summons cozy images of tea and cakes, the modern reader is doubly comforted by Fisher’s reassurance that in less than a decade the march of history had rendered both her book and the ration cards that inspired it obsolete. Secure in the knowledge that the moment of war had passed, the enemy was vanquished, and the author had survived, perhaps by dint of her talent for wolf cookery, we are duly coaxed into a trusting stupor. Of course, the Second World War was of a different order than the rough beast that ecological malfeasance and globalization have wrought, yet when Fisher wrote, “Now we bend our minds, with the surprised intensity of any nonplussed creatures, to existing as gracefully as possible without many of the things we have always accepted as our due: light, free air, fresh foods, prepared according to our tastes,” we feel a pang of recognition all the same.

As I consider this, the propellants of restlessness and worry bear me across the Atlantic. The woman who taught me how to cook has had a minor stroke in her Madrid flat, where she lives alone. She’s ninety-two. Her son, in Boston, is frantic. Checking her into a hospital while the city is in tatters would kill her, he says. In the 1940s, when Mari was a girl, she lived in rural Extremadura. Tuberculosis was rampant in the Spanish capital, where her four brothers were in military service.

Ismael, the third son, was the first to get sick. A big, strong, fastidious youth, he might have been spared but for a sadistic officer who forced him to eat from the bowl of a dribbler in the mess hall. It was family lore that Ismael infected Victor el Guapo (the village heartthrob), who infected Segundo, who infected the youngest, whose name I’ve forgotten. All four returned home. To pay for their medical treatment and procure the food they were too ill to eat, their father sold off his land piecemeal until nothing was left. The boys died in rapid succession. And once the last was buried, the father succumbed, too, not to tuberculosis but to heartbreak and grief.

Written by night in a month, How to Cook A Wolf was addressed to the American woman who might have more blood plasma than leafy greens in her icebox. Tasked with keeping the members of her household warm and fed, she also contributed to the war effort and saw to the well-being of those in her community. She did not regard her neighbors as walking carriers of death and disaster. Hospitality was extended rather than retracted. Thus, we learn that “in a time of peril and unspoken fear,” cheese is an “anaesthetic that will make guests, your own self, feel slightly stimulated…and more than a little reassured that it still exists.” Fisher prescribes canned beef gravy for the person who feels “faint and weak unless he smells synthetic meat at least once a day.” And here she is on panic shopping, a social phenomenon, it helps to remember, that did not originate with COVID-19: “It is often a delicate point, now, to decide when common sense ends and hoarding begins.”

Cooks are a bossy lot. They pretend to give you the illusion of choice, when really, they’ve already decided what you are going to eat. Fisher was no exception. She speaks in the pleasant yet commanding voice of a stranger who charms her way into your kitchen, finds the icebox and the blackout pantry wanting, installs a wall-mounted can opener next to the sink (“the kind that works like an old-fashioned side winder Victrola, since any other…is a potential source of bad temper, a dirty floor, and finally blood poisoning”), and confiscates your chipped enamel stock pot. She has no patience with the wartime dietary advice purveyed by food manufacturers, ladies’ magazines, and state-deployed home economists, and neither should you. Do as I say, she promises, and together we will keep the snuffling wolf on the right side of your door. The imperatives and issued orders continue apace; and then, just as you muster the courage to cry “Basta!” she hands you back your wooden spoons, a sign that it is you who’ve been in charge all along. Cooking, she avers, “is all a question of weeding out what you yourself like best to do so that you can live most agreeably in a world full of an increasing number of disagreeable surprises.”

Formulations like this one, interleaved among the subsistence recipes and slightly daft pronouncements (i.e., her dismissal of homemade stock as “foolish and outmoded”) remain unassailable. Repeatedly, she argues that “if we must eat to live, we might as well do it with both grace and gusto,” a belief she acquired in extremis. Like the speaker in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art,” Fisher had mastered the art of losing and came to see that it wasn’t a disaster. Between 1939 and 1941, she lost a house in Switzerland, a village, a continent, her husband’s leg, and then her ailing husband, who shot and killed himself while she slept. Just months after his death, she tackled How to Cook a Wolf. She was thirty-three. Although she does not speak outright of her recent trials—for an account of that calamitous, grace-filled period, see her remarkable 1943 essay “The Flaw”—a feeling of grief rises from its pages at odd moments. It’s in chapter titles such as “How to Be Sage without Hemlock,” “How to Pray for Peace,” and “How to Be Cheerful while Starving”; in the references to potatoes, which, “like most other vegetables and animals, soon die when their skins are removed”; and in the dark jollity of the narrator’s voice: the cadence so controlled that unless you listen carefully, you might not discern the deepening pitch, the progression of descending notes that end in a blacked-out room filled with canned food.

What did you have for lunch today? I ask Mari when at last I get her on the phone. A puréed vegetable soup and a bit of cured ham, she says. Riquísima! Delicious! She’s made that soup for me before. It’s not my favorite, but it is honest and plain, in a good way, and it raises the spirits. At its simplest, you put a soup pot on the stove, and simmer onions, carrots, celery, garlic, leeks, and half a peeled potato or a small head of celery root or some pumpkin in enough water to cover. When the vegetables are soft, season the contents of the pot with sea salt and lots of white pepper, and purée the soup in a blender. Eat it with bread, or if your bread is stale, with fresh-made croutons or just a thread of olive oil drizzled over the top.

Early this morning, in light rain, I ventured out for a breath of air. The street was empty. At the far end of the block, on a triangular island with a scatter of benches, a small man in a fishing hat sat clutching a large bundle. As the rain picked up, he remained motionless. What struck me about him was how forlorn he looked, and how composed. The distance from which I viewed him reinforced this impression; I was too far away to read his face. If we are indeed entering an age of global pandemics, we shall have to cultivate new ways of seeing and perceiving.

Walking on, I saw discarded surgical gloves, a frayed skein of twine, and a pair of squashed ballet slippers in the street. There were joggers and dog walkers, and children with bandannas covering mouth and nose—and, in the gloom, sheltering under the eaves of shuttered storefronts, people with the gathered-in air of the newly adrift. A woman slept in the arms of her wide-awake lover; further along, a man watched the rain with serene attention.

Lines from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, memorized half a lifetime ago, knocked about in my head: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart-beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”

Feeling wadded with stupidity, on Calvert Street, before the bridge, I picked a fight with M.F.K. Fisher. It had to do with a recipe in the book’s fifth chapter for antistarvation stodge—a dire concoction of meat, cooked grains, and any old vegetables, ground to “an odorous but unrecognizable sludge” and boiled for a worryingly long time. (Just reviewing the instructions can put you off your feed, so, in a narrow sense, the recipe delivers.) It bothers me to no end that Fisher reduced all the elements of the dish to sludge instead of allowing them to keep their shape and be eaten at room temperature. One speculates that she was sustaining herself with gallows humor, a private joke—having a laugh on the page. Yes, there are other interpretations, but this one would account for a recipe that seems less like a meal than a grim effusion. It would also explain the jaunty resurrection theme in the chapter that follows: “How to Rise Up like New Bread.”

The quarrel with Fisher is part of a larger quarrel I’ve been having with myself ever since we all went to ground in March. But now I looked at the question from a more intimate perspective, namely, how does an ordinary person with weak lungs, a primordial fear of death, and an instinct that who and what we are comes down to chance—contingency—keep her own self-styled social contract in the long shadow of a pandemic? How are we to feed others when, to quote Fisher, “the wolf is camped with apparent permanency on your doorstep”? A short while later, without an answer, I reversed course and lit out with terrifying haste for the spot where I’d seen the man on the triangular island.

As I approached the curb, I hailed him and the two other men with him. One of them stepped forward, and there followed a decorous, disembodied exchange whereby one of us called out a question and the other called out a response. We might have been viewing each other through a looking glass or a computer screen. I was sorry I didn’t have my binoculars. They were Spanish-speaking migrants, it turned out, like my friend Mari, who in the early 1960s quit Franco’s Spain for Switzerland in search of a job and something to eat. Somewhere a man was singing, “Ay querida, yo te quiero más que la vida.” Somewhere Fisher, in a preachy voice, was saying, “All men are hungry. They always have been,” and Joseph Brodsky, onetime enemy of the people, lived again in Putin’s Russia as a folk hero, inoculated against (to freely paraphrase the last line of his untitled poem) the illusion of an ordered universe, calendar time, eros, tribalisms, and viral pathogens.

When I asked the man if he and his companions needed anything, he responded with upturned hands and shrugged shoulders. In the space between us, an idea formed. Promising to return, I trotted back to the apartment and washed and dried my hands, etc. And then I set an iron pan on the gas range and peered into the maw of the fridge and took stock of what was left.