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22 July 2020

What MFK Fisher can teach us about how to eat with grace and gusto in a crisis

From eating less meat to baking bread to combat “bad thoughts”.

By Felicity Cloake

It’s not often I’m scared by a cake. I’ve enjoyed crispy fried silkworms in Hanoi and slippery blood pudding in Cork; during lockdown I even tackled a whole ox tongue. But the loaf that sits in front of me is truly an unknown quantity. Even the recipe’s author, MFK Fisher, a woman famously labelled America’s “poet of the appetites” by John Updike, describes it with uncharacteristic blandness, as “a pleasant cake, which keeps well and puzzles people who ask what kind it is”.

Frankly I was also puzzled by a cake which replaces eggs with condensed tomato soup – but sufficiently intrigued, when I happened upon it in How to Cook a Wolf, to scribble “now this I HAVE to try” in the margin. To my slight disappointment it’s actually rather nice, despite its lurid red colour – if only I’d known about it back in the dismal eggless days of March.

Though Fisher’s book was originally published in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, this guide to “existing as gracefully as possible without many of the things we have always accepted as our due” is a timely reissue by Daunt Books. Food shortages aren’t the only parallel with today: she ponders “when common sense ends and hoarding begins” and writes that “no yoga exercise, no hour of meditation… will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than [the] homely ceremony of making bread”.

True, the advice on blackout shelters will hopefully remain of merely historical interest, but there’s still a lot to be learned. I’ve always read her for her prose, rather than her recipes. But though the Times Literary Supplement’s caustic comment on her first book, Serve It Forth, that “one comes to suspect that her scholarship and experience are perhaps not as thorough as she would like us to imagine” also rings true here (was the 34-year-old Fisher really an authority on canine nutrition, or soap making? Did she ever actually boil spaghetti for 20 minutes?), this seems the most practically useful of her works.

Cutting back on meat, for example, still tends to be good for the bank balance as well as the world, and it must have taken some guts in 1942 to admit that life would be simpler if we’d accept “a tender sizzling rare grilled tenderloin” is a “luxury instead of a necessity”. We’d all do well to fill the oven every time we use it – and she’s right that keeping a stockpot on the go for bones is “foolish and outmoded, and will make fuel bills rise and apartments smell”.

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Though much of this is familiar stuff, few modern writers on thrift have Fisher’s lightness of touch – her insistence that “since we must eat to live we might as well do it with both grace and gusto”. She sees the fun in playing around with leftovers, and makes working one’s way through a store cupboard of “things you like and a few you are not sure about” sound like an adventure, not a chore.

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But her greatest skill is to imbue even the simplest of dishes – some roasted walnuts, or fried eggs on toast – with a glamour that makes them irresistible, even in times of plenty. How to Cook a Wolf may be a manual for when things are tough, but as Fisher observes, lessons learned then shouldn’t be forgotten when normal service is resumed; it doesn’t hurt to celebrate your good fortune as you casually crack an egg or open a packet of pasta. “When we exist without thought or thanksgiving we are not men, but beasts,” she wrote in a 1951 foreword – wisdom for life, not just for lockdown.