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Food in a time of war
M.F.K. Fisher's writing still wields power

By Bill Daley. Special to the Tribune
Published January 30, 2002

In 1942, a young widow roused herself from grief to write a handbook for survival. Her name was M.F.K. Fisher. The book was "How to Cook a Wolf."

Contemporary critics and readers zeroed in on the sly practicality of the work, coming as it did amid food rationing and the disappearance of many material goods. Fisher offered a recipe for sludge, guaranteed to feed a whole family for four days for just 50 cents. There's the frank admission that a good, stiff drink just may be what an America-at-war needed. In chapters titled "How to Be Cheerful Though Starving" and "How to Make a Great Show," she told readers how to ingest almost anything, from vegetable water to vanilla wafers to vodka cooked up on the home stove.

Enduring themes

Yet, unlike other how-to's of the time, "How to Cook a Wolf" has endured. Perhaps it is because, while Fisher tells readers how best to stock a "blackout shelf," she also gives them the means to replenish their spiritual larders. Moreover, she is one of the great, if often overlooked, writers of the 20th Century. Excerpts such as these support both points:

"In spite of all the talk and study about our next years, and all the silent ponderings about what lies within them for our sons, it seems plain to us that many things are wrong in the present ones which can be, must be, changed," Fisher wrote. "Our texture of belief has great holes in it. Our pattern lacks pieces. One of the most obvious fallacies is that of what we should eat. Wise men forever have known that a nation lives on what its body assimilates, as well as on what its mind acquires as knowledge. Now, when the hideous necessity of the war machine takes steel and cotton and humanity, our own private personal secret mechanism must be stronger, for selfish comfort as well as for the good of the ideals we believe in."

The terrors of Sept. 11 have given these 59-year-old words new urgency.

"Her approach is all about soul and spirit -- that, with dignity, we could nourish ourselves. She sort of realized that instead of leading pinched lives with stiff upper lips we could live well," says Barbara Haber, curator of books at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, Mass.

There's a wistful awareness running like an undercurrent through "How to Cook a Wolf." Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher had just lost the love of her life. She called him Timmy, but his real name was Dillwyn Parrish. The two met in the mid-1930s in Southern California, where Fisher and her first husband had settled after a long sojourn in France.

Fisher's first marriage, already stressed by long periods apart, couldn't withstand her attraction to Parrish, who had also shed his wife.

The pair headed for Europe, creating a near-idyllic life until illness and war sent them back to California. Parrish suffered Buerger's disease, a debilitating illness that led to the amputation of his leg. The unceasing pain, and no chance of a cure, led him to commit suicide in August 1941.

Literary therapy

For Fisher, grappling with what she described as a "howling, hideous, frightful grief," her work became the way out. "How To Cook a Wolf" was born.

"I did it in a few days, it seems to me now, as I walked up and down in Timmy's studio and dictated it to my sister Norah, who took it onto the typewriter," Fisher later recalled. "She was astonished by the smooth way it came out. I was still in strong grief and was beyond any feeling of surprise."

The unusual title for the work stemmed from lines written by poet C.P.S. Gilman: "There's a whining at the threshold, There's a scratching at the floor, To work! To work! In Heaven's name! The wolf is at the door."

For Fisher, the wolf was not scratching at the door; it was in her foyer, panting hot and fast.

"This was probably the first time I was aware of writing to pay my way," she wrote afterward. "And it may have helped in keeping everything so clear and fast."

Some of the passages are simply sublime:"One of the best endings to supper is nothing at all. If the food has been simple, plentiful and well prepared, if there has been time to eat it quietly, with a friend or two, then more often than not, most people will choose to leave it so, with perhaps only a little cup of coffee for their souls' sake."

But no measure of beautiful prose can blanket the horror of a hungry child.

"If, with the wolf at the door, there is not very much to eat, the child should know it, but not oppressively," Fisher wrote. "Rather, he should be encouraged to savor every possible bite with one eye on its agreeable nourishment and the other on its fleeting but valuable esthetic meaning, so that 20 years later, maybe, he can think with comfortable delight of the little brown toasted piece of bread he ate with you once in 1942, just before that apartment was closed and you went away to camp."

Enduring theme

Fisher wisely, and no doubt sadly, realized "How To Cook a Wolf" had meaning beyond the immediate here and now of World War II. In 1951, she wrote an introduction to a revised and enlarged edition of the work.

"War is a beastly business, it is true, but one proof that we are human is our ability to learn, even from it, how better to exist," she wrote. "If this book, written in one wartime, still goes on helping to solve that unavoidable problem, it is worth reading again, I think, no matter what its quaint superficiality, its sometimes unintentionally grim humor."

In her 1943 memoir, "The Gastronomical Me," Fisher, in vivid vignettes of a vanished life and love recalled, not only filled in the emotional landscape sketched in "How to Cook a Wolf" but also explained what she had been doing and why.

"People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don't you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do?" Fisher wrote in her introduction. "They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft."

The need for food, security and love are so entangled you can't write about one without the others, she says. So, in writing about eating bread on a hillside or drinking red wine "in a room now blown to bits," Fisher says she is writing about the people with her and their "other deeper needs for love and happiness."

"There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine is drunk," she concludes. "And that is my answer, when people ask me: Why do you write about hunger, and not wars and love?"

Copyright [emoji]169[/emoji] 2002, Chicago Tribune
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