A food writer for these times

July 23, 2008|By Jennifer Day | Jennifer Day,Chicago Tribune

M.F.K. Fisher, who would have turned 100 earlier this month, was one of the first food writers to untangle all that's bound up in eating: the pleasure, the sentiment, the anxiety. Her best-remembered stories describe the magic of tangerines drying on radiators or the fuzz skimmed from her grandmother's strawberry jam.

But those are stories for better times. In How to Cook a Wolf - the book she wrote just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 - the focus was on surviving with "grace and gusto." It was a rally cry, a way to seize control during difficult times and find solace in the daily routine of eating. It suggested ways to indulge in what you have, while dreaming about what you didn't.

Sound familiar?

Admittedly, the war in Iraq isn't World War II, and today's urban gardens are hardly victory gardens. But with the tightening vise of rising food and gas prices, it seems a good time to revisit How to Cook a Wolf. Consider the chapter in which Fisher writes about teaching children to appreciate food for its flavor and its place in life:

"It was a nice piece of toast, with butter on it. You sat in the sun under the pantry window, and the little boy gave you a bite, and for both of you the smell of nasturtiums warming in the April air would be mixed forever with the savor between your teeth of melted butter and toasted bread, and the knowledge that although there might not be any more, you had shared that piece with full consciousness on both sides, instead of a shy awkward pretense of not being hungry."

How to Cook a Wolf evolved from a series of columns Fisher wrote for her father's newspaper in Whittier, Calif., said Joan Reardon, Fisher's biographer and author of the recently published M.F.K. Fisher Among the Pots and Pans: Celebrating Her Kitchens.

Fisher and her second husband, Dillwyn Parrish, lived in Switzerland at the start of World War II. They had experienced the anxiety that came with the threat of invasion. After Pearl Harbor, California panicked, worried that it would be next.

"I think she had a keen sense of what was right for the moment," Reardon said. "She sort of capitalized on that idea that in very difficult situations, there is survival. The paces one goes through every day can contribute to that survival."

Fisher organized Wolf like a traditional cookbook, working from soup to dessert, studding it with recipes and wartime hints. She outlined a practical philosophy for eating: Don't fret about the nutrients in a single meal. Balance what you eat throughout the day. Make meat an accompaniment, not the focal point. Derive pleasure, not guilt, from eating.

Her views flew in the face of nutritionists of the era, Reardon said. They gave food broader context: No longer was it pure sustenance.

Wolf entertains with clever flair - and a touch of fantasy. But don't take the recipes too seriously. About 10 years ago, food writer Jeffrey Steingarten attempted to make "Sludge," a mush that Fisher claimed could keep a person alive at only 50 cents a week. After a grand production that didn't end well, Steingarten was "kind of appalled," he said. "Did she expect anyone to follow it?"

(Reardon said the recipe "undoubtedly was purely makeup.")

Steingarten said he thinks Fisher is treated too reverentially. But he sees why she's appreciated: her writing and her taste. He mentioned a piece she wrote about dining with food writer Richard Olney:

"That was good food writing. That was food writing you'd like to do to make your reader really want to have a half-bottle of wine on the spot."

Jennifer Day wrote this article for the Chicago Tribune.

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