I’ll admit up front: I’m not a person who enjoys perusing cookbooks or reading through the steamy conflicts contained in kitchen confidentials. Even before my digestive world was hit by the onslaught of absurdist sensitivities, my love of good food itself didn’t extend to fantasizing about how to make it, or to the lives and theories of those who felt called to commit themselves to all things culinary.
And so, I was surprised that I was even interested in MFK Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf, the food critic’s World-War-Two-era treatise on how to face up to shortages and more or less incurable hunger with dignity and grace and good humor. What I was hoping to find was a picture of how people used to situations of plenty managed to cope in a world suddenly vacated of its staples and conveniences– more of a disguised anthropological or historical study than a recipe book.
I did manage to get a glimpse now and then of mid-twentieth century life, at least of the white upper-class wife’s variety– and what I most appreciated about the project were Fisher’s wry digs at the illogical ways in which advertising was shaping habit and desire, and at how the official nutrition science of the day was often just silly.* And while the author did feature a whole chapter on how to keep up your appearance while slaving over a hot stove (??), she also managed to get in a few good jabs against gender expectations of the time, including in an observation about magazine recommendations running contrary to human nature the assertion that “even gynecologists admit that most human bodies choose their own satisfactions.”**
At first, Fisher’s Stevie-Smith style was charming, and it was a rare relief to find a popular woman writer of the time refusing to buy into much of what she was being told was proper and natural to her very being. Had she been on film (and, let’s face it, not been at all competent in the kitchen), I imagine our critic easily twinning the awesome, heavy-drinking Nora Charles of The Thin Man. But here’s the difference: both Smith and Charles (or the latter’s writers) knew when to reign in their wit. Fisher’s lightheartedness gets old after a while, in the way that holding a smile at a long networking event leaves your face hurting for hours after you’ve gotten back to the privacy of your own world. And if you’re reading the revised edition of 1954, as I was, Fisher’s added commentary on her original text, included as bracketed interpolations, makes her already long sentences difficult and/or frustrating to follow. Coincidentally, Joan Acocella’s New Yorker article from this past week on Esperantists describes my thoughts perfectly when the author states, “it’s quite witty, until, after a few pages, it isn’t.”***
All in all, How to Cook a Wolf really wasn’t a bad read; it just didn’t deal with a subject that interests me all that much. The book features a lot of recipes that will probably result in great things for dedicated cooks– but, given the fact that I don’t fall into that category, I’m handing the thing off to someone who does. Maybe that more qualified other will have something more meaningful to offer about the volume’s contents– but while she figures out how she feels about them, I’ll head back to my more familiar world of Nabokov.
* Sadly enough, many of her assertions from 1942 still need saying, such as her observation that “we still condone the stupid [factory] bread in this country.” MFK Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf (New York: North Point Press, 1954), 72.
** ibid., 4.
** Joan Acocella, “A Language to Unite Humankind,” in The New Yorker, 31 October 2016, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/31/a-language-to-unite-humankind.