M.F.K. Fisher on How to Eat

Saturday, February 21, 2009

In 1990 or 1991, when I was working for a pittance for Princeton University Press, I took a work trip to San Francisco. While I was there I went to City Lights bookstore (in my past life I was a bookstore junkie; I’m mostly cured) and while I was there, I came across a copy of How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher. I bought it and read it on the plane on the way home and l loved it every word of it when I read it then, and I’ve read and re-read it so many times I’ve lost count. Every time I read it I love it more.

As the jacket copy describes it

First published in 1942 when wartime shortages were at their worst, How to Cook a Wolf confronts the problem of cooking within a tight budget…. Besides being a practical guide for keeping the wolf at bay, How to Cook a Wolf is a loving and thoughtful doctrine praising he virtues of discipline and living by self-design… How to Cook a Wolf offers a pattern for cooking, eating, and living pleasurably under any circumstances, with no more effort than it takes to live drearily.

It was just what I needed at the time to make me feel better about my (freely chosen) life of poverty, and it continues to inspire me whenever I look at it.

(As a side note, apparently M.F.K. Fisher is now hip. Last month, my friend Ann put a copy of Ready Made magazine in front of me, open to an article with a large black and white photo of an older woman’s face. I took one look and said, “M.F.K. Fisher! What is she doing in Ready Made?” There was a big article about how she speaks to the current times, and a new generation is discovering her, blah blah. I hate it when things I like get trendy.)

I hope to write more about the book later, but for starters I wanted to offer this excerpt from the first chapter, “How to Be Sage Without Hemlock,” about “balanced meals,” since some readers have expressed concern over how I’m eating and how healthy my current diet is.

One of the stupidest things in an earnest but stupid school of culinary thought is that each of the three daily meals should be “balanced.”

In the first place, not all people need or want three meals each day. Many of them feel better with two, or one and one-half, or five.

Next, and most important perhaps, “balance” is something that depends entirely on the individual. One man, because of his chemical setup, may need many proteins. Another, more nervous perhaps, may find meats and eggs and cheeses an active poison, and have to live with what grace he can on salads and cooked squash.

One of the saving graces of the less-monied people of the world has always been, theoretically, that they were forced to eat more unadulterated, less dishonest food than the rich. It begins to look as if that were a lie. In our furious efforts to prove that all men are created equal we encourage our radios, our movies, above all our weekly and monthly magazines, to set up a fantastic ideal in the minds of family cooks, so that everywhere earnest eager women are whipping themselves and their budgets to the bone to provide three “balanced” meals a day for their men and children.

This bugbear of meal-balancing is hard not only on the wills and wishes of the great American family, but is pure hell on the pocketbook. There are countless efficient-looking pages in “home magazines” each month, marked into twenty-eight or so squares with a suggested menu for each meal of the week, and then one supposedly tempting dish to prepare every day. The lead usually cries, “Let’s economize, Mothers! Here is how you can do it for only [$4.00] per person! Try it, and help Uncle Sam!”

And then you start reading the familiar old routine: BREAKFAST, fruit juice, hot or cold cereal, scrambled eggs with bacon, buttered toast, coffee or tea or milk; NOONDAY MEAL, tomato soup, beef patties, mashed potatoes, lima beans, Waldorf sal… but why go on? It is familiar enough.

It is disheartening, too. Now, of all times in our history, we should be using our minds as well as our hearts in order to survive … to live gracefully if we live at all. And people who fought to know better keep telling us to go on as our mothers did, when it should be obvious to the zaniest of us that something was wrong with that plan, gastronomically if not otherwise.

No. We must change. If the people set aside to instruct us cannot help, we must do it ourselves. We must do our own balancing, according to what we have learned and also, for a change, according to what we have thought.

[I]nstead of combining a lot of dull and sometimes actively hostile foods into one routine meal after another, three times a day and every day, year after year, in the earnest hope that you are being a good provider, try this simple plan: Balance the day, not each meal in the day.

Try it. It is easy, and simple, and fun, and—perhaps most important—people like it.

At first older ones who have been conditioned through many unthinking years will wonder where the four or five dull sections of each dinner have gone to, and will raise their heads like well-trained monkeys after the meat course, asking automatically but without much real enthusiasm what kind of pudding there will be tonight.

The best answer to that is to have such good food, and such generous casseroles and bowls and platters of it, that there cannot be even a conditioned appetite for more, after the real sensuous human one is satisfied.

Breakfast, then, can be toast. It can be piles of toast, generously buttered, and a bowl of honey or jam, and milk for Mortimer and coffee for you. You can be lavish because the meal is so inexpensive. You can have fun, because there is no trotting around with fried eggs and mussy dishes and grease in the pan and a lingeringly unpleasant smell in the air.

Or, on cold mornings you can have all you want of hot cereal … not a pale pabulum made of emasculated wheat, but some brown nutty savorous porridge. Try it with maple syrup and melted butter instead of milk and sugar, once in a while. Or put some raisins or chopped dates in it. It is a sturdy dish, and better than any conventional melange of tomato juice and toast and this and that and the other, both outside and within you.

For lunch, make an enormous salad, in the summer, or a casserole of vegetables, or a heartening and ample soup. That is all you need, if there is enough of it.

And for dinner if you want to stick solemnly to your “balanced day,” have a cheese souffle and a light salad, or, if you are in funds, a broiled steak and a beautiful platter of sliced herb-besprinkled ripe tomatoes.

That, with some red wine or ale if you like it and good coffee afterwards, is a meal that may startle your company at first with its simplicity but will satisfy their hunger and their sense of fitness and of balance, all at once.

And later, when they begin to think of the automatic extravagance of most of our menus, and above all of the ghastly stupid monotony of them, they too will cast off many of their habits, and begin like you to eat the way they want to, instead of the way their parents and grandparents taught them. They will be richer, and healthier, and perhaps, best of all, their palates will awaken to new pleasures, or remember old ones. All those things are devoutly to be wished for, now especially.

4 Responses to “M.F.K. Fisher on How to Eat”

  1. Rabbit Says:

    The fox is one of my favorite songs. My dad used to sing it to me too. :D

  2. Suzanne Says:

    I’m just getting to reading your blog for awhile. I just loved this whole entry Becky. Of course I love MFK Fisher and as a fellow “cured” bookstore junkie toted many of her ruminations home with me when I scoured every Harvard Sq. bookstore. But I love the new vitality you bring to her writings; your unique but post-modern perspective of just being your damn self and eating what it is YOU need, not what is defined by others. I am also so happy to see some color has made its way into your diet; those citrus fruits and tomatoes have to be mentally satisfying as well as fulfilling your purely physical hunger.

  3. Valerie Says:

    I know this is an old post, but I’ve been re-reading and re-appreciating your dollar a day month that you shared here. And I wanted to thank you especially for this intro, for me at least, of M.F.K. Fisher’s writing. I’ve gifted my daughters and some friends with this particular book of hers, and I now have a pretty complete library of her work on my shelf. Such great writing, and her communication of her love for many things, including food, comes through so beautifully. A real inspiration.

  4. lessisenough Says:

    Thanks for the comment.

    Yes, I think M.F.K. Fisher is wonderful, and she definitely was an inspiration to me in starting this blog. I’m glad I was able to introduce her to new readers, and that you in turn were able to introduce her to even more new readers.

    I feel like she helps people see that good food is so important, but that it doesn’t have to be complicated. And her writing feels so fresh, like it could have been wrtten last week, not sixty or seventy years ago.


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