It’s Thanksgiving week, so I thought I would reprise my Thanksgiving foods posts from last year. Just in case you haven’t finalized your menu, here’s a retrospective of Thanksgivings past (and in the far distant past):
- “Thanksgiving blogging, part I: ‘this depends intirely on the goodness of your fire,’” how to cook the bird, with tips for both the modern and colonial cooks.
- “Thanksgiving blogging, part II: ‘beat all smartly together,’” a retrospective on various pumpkin and other winter squash pies and puddings
- And finally, for the thoroughly modern palate, “Thanksgiving blogging, part III: recipe open thread,” which includes my favorite stuffing/dressing recipe. I think I’m going to give Indyanna’s Crunchy Pear and Celery Salad” and Susan’s “Three-P” (pumpkin, sweet potato, and peanut) soup a try this year. For vegetarians, don’t miss Notorious Ph.D.’s “Butternut Squash Lasagne“–I’ve got to try that next month once we’ve eaten through the turkey leftovers.
All this semester, I’ve been meaning to do some food blogging based on my re-reading of M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf (1942), as a response to our current Great Depression, but frankly, I’ve been a little flummoxed. (How to Cook a Wolf was written as a guide to surviving rationing and fuel shortages in the U.S. during World War II, but I thought it might contain some useful tips for economizing more generally.) I must report reluctantly that it’s just not that smart or interesting compared to her other books. Wolf reads like it was rushed into print shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed, which is strange since she wrote so evocatively of watching Europe fall apart when she lived in France and Switzerland in the late 1930s in The Gastronomical Me (1943), so the war surely didn’t come as that much of a surprise to Fisher. (Perhaps she wisely focused her attentions on The Gastronomical Me, which is probably her best book–a memoir of food, eating, and love at significant turning points in her life.)
Sadly, Wolf is disorganized, repetitive, in need of serious editing, suggestive of odd priorities, and full of untested advice. (Making your own mouthwash out of borax, something called “tincture of myrrh,” and camphor? Really? Who the hell needs mouthwash that badly?) The strongest parts are the recipes she includes in which she throws her imaginary ration coupons to the wind and calls for 8 eggs, 12 egg yolks, multiple pints of cream, or even raw meat for boeuf tartare. All in all, if I were my grandmother, a young wife and mother trying to make it on war rations in the 1940s, I would have been really disappointed by this book, which appears to have been written by someone who didn’t have to practice the same “true economy,” as Fisher calls it.
The oddest and most memorable exercise in Wolf is a chapter Fisher calls “How to Keep Alive,” in which she describes how to make a nutritious and cheap cold grain and vegetable sludge to feed a family for a week “without meat, or about four days with meat,” for fifty cents:
Buy about ten cents’ worth of ground whole-grain cereal. Almost any large grocery carries it in bulk. It is brownish in color, coarsely mealy in texture, and has a pleasant smell of nuts and starch.
Spend the rest of your money on vegetables. Buy them if you can at a big market which most probably has a counter of slightly wilted or withered things a day old maybe. Otherwise buy the big coarse ugly ones in any store. . . .
Get one bunch of carrots, two onions, some celery, and either a small head of cabbage or the coarse outer leaves from some heads that should be trimmed a bit anyway. It does not matter if they be slightly battered: you will wash them and grind them [with a food mill] into an odorous but unrecognizable sludge. . . .
Assemble what vegetables you have. Grind them all into the pot. Break up the meat into the pot. Cover the thing with what seems too much water. Bring to a boil, let simmer about an hour, and stir in the ground grain-cereal. Mix thoroughly, and cook very slowly another two hours, or longer if possible. Let cool, and keep in a cold place (the cellar in summer if you have no icebox handy or borrowable).
You can eat it cold and not suffer much. . . . It is obvious to even the most optimistic that this sludge, which should be like stiff cold mush, and a rather unpleasant murky brown-gray in color, is strictly for hunger. . . . It is functional, really: a streamlined answer to the pressing problem of how to exist the best possible way for the least amount of money. I know, from some experience, that it can be done on this formula, which holds enough vitamins and minerals and so on and so forth to keep a professional strong-man or a dancer or even a college professor in good health and equitable spirits.
I understand the strategy behind the sludge–she’s looking to save on fuel as well as to use the inexpensive if somewhat coarse vegetables from the bottom of the bin, hence the grinding and cooking of it all in one pot. Still: with three hours of cooking time going into that one pot, I should think that a family could cook a soup made of the meat and vegetables (one hour) for suppers, and a separate pot of cereal (20 minutes?) for breakfasts, and have an hour and 40 minutes of fuel left over with which to re-heat the cooked food. The only thing you’d need beyond what she prescribes is an extra pot–but presumably, most home cooks would have had two cooking pots in 1942.
If you’re fortunate enough that this sludge will not be on your Thanksgiving table, then that’s reason enough to give thanks, whatever it is that you can afford this year. Are you cooking and hosting this week? What are your plans?
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