Thanksgiving blogging, redux: How Not to Cook a Wolf

plimouthplantationdinnerIt’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):

howtocookawolfAll 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?

19 thoughts on “Thanksgiving blogging, redux: How Not to Cook a Wolf

  1. Well, you can at least appreciate that she’s calling it sludge. It may keep even a college professor (a job which apparently has high caloric requirements?) in “good health and equitable spirits,” but it’s still sludge 😀

    That’s going on my list of fairly scary retro recipes that I *might* try someday. Whenever I start doing those again.


  2. I think Fisher’s writing is evocative enough so that we can smell and taste it with our imaginations. . . which is as close to tasting this dish as I’ll ever want to get!

    In a part of the description I excised with elipses, she says that it’s possible to slice it off cold and fry it in butter, scrapple-style. (But then notes that if one has fuel and butter in which to fry it, you probably don’t need to live on sludge.)


  3. Hola. This post bids fair to become as hallowed an annual Thanksiving tradition as listening to “Alice’s Restaurant” on a scratchy one-horse powered turntable while sleighing through the woods to Granma’s house! Plans still in some flux, but I’m homing in on a recipe to contribute, of which see later. Something like that sludgy thing I could make by putting almost anything I cook in the fridge and going away for a week. It does happen occasionally. Thanx for the shout-out on the crunchy pear salad (of which I’m only the purloiner).


  4. I am thankful not to be cooking or hosting. Sadly, I won’t be *eating* either, as I’m far too ill to consume food or drink this year.

    My mother turns into an unpleasant version of Martha Stewart on Thanksgiving (except the food’s fantastic). Everything from scratch, and presented beautifully. My reaction to that is to resist the holiday altogether (even though I love to cook), which is easy enough as my partner is Canadian and doesn’t have any childhood nostalgia about turkey or stuffing.

    Last year, we ordered a big box of local veggies (including freshly baked bread and jam) – it was a amazing, and kept us fueled all weekend. We had to come up with new recipes integrating root vegetables.


  5. Now there’s a way universities can economize! When such a recipe can keep even a college professor in good health and equitable spirits — we’ve got a winner. We’ll feed our faculty cheaply and they’ll positively thrive on the results, no?


  6. I’m honored that my three P soup will make it to your table! I’m thinking of trying some version of Dr. Crazy’s brussels sprouts — it’s kind of fun to read the recipes, all of which promise that even if you don’t usually LIKE brussel sprouts, you’ll like these! When I get to my brother’s I might contribute his pear cranberry relish, which is seriously awesome.


  7. My grandma’s cranberry relish: Make on Tues. or Wed. so the flavors meld. One bag of cranberries, 1 granny smith apple, 1 orange (with peel). Put through the food processor with 1 c. of sugar. (she used a food mill I’m sure). It is great! and on Friday for turkey and mayo sandwiches it can’t be beat!


  8. 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.

    That’s totally fucking hilarious!


  9. Staying home and hosting this year. Doing brined turkey on the grill, mashed white and sweet potatos, Waldorf salad(my fav!), a new cranberry relish dish, a real relish dish, a 4 bean salad, dressing and dessert to be determined by the bearer. Too bad it takes such a short time to demolish the food when it takes so long to prepare. Ah, well!


  10. Ah, ’tis the season for food blogging! At some point this week, we’ll be putting up the recipe for cheesed olives that was pioneered by the grandmother of the Moosians and updated by Moose several years ago. It’s a killer app, you might say, for those who like a little something savory with a surprise kick of jalapeno tucked inside.

    Best of the season to each and all. Over at our place, we’re grateful for Historiann, whose blogalicious friendship makes us feel like the alpha dog of cyberspace. Paws up to you, cowgirl.


  11. Looks like pears or pear-based things are running in a slight lead in the comments above. I have a recipe for “Honey-Glazed Pear Upside Down Cake” that I’d love to make, but I see that in photocopying it I cut it off at the bottom of step three (out of I don’t know how many steps). So I’m defaulting to an easier “Pan-Baked Lemon Almond Tart” that I saw in the NYT a few weeks ago (October 7). You use:

    4 eggs
    1/2 cups sugar, pinch of salt
    1/2 cup ground almonds
    1/2 cup cream
    1/2 cup sliced almonds, more for garnish (?, ambig.)
    1 lemon, zest and juice
    2 tbsp. butter
    Powdered sugar, for garnish. You:

    1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. In a bowl combine eggs, sugar, salt, ground almonds, cream, sliced almonds, lemon zest and juice.

    2. Melt butter in 8-in ovenproof skillet over low heat; when foam has subsided, add almonod mixture to pan, tilting pan to distribute batter evenly. Continue to cook tart on stovetop until edges just begin to set, then put pan in oven and finish cooking, c. 10-15 min.

    3. When tart is done, put it in broiler for about a minute or until just golden on top. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and sliced almonds. Serve.


  12. Don’t forget the Thanksgiving at which you rolled out the whiskey cart at noon . . . with a post-repast lecture by Monocle Man on certain failures of modern feminism . . . an enlightening discussion if I remember correctly . . . which I don’t . . .


  13. Pingback: Cake Week, Tuesday edition: pull up a chair for coffee and War Cake : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  14. Pingback: Cake Week, Tuesday edition: pull up a chair for coffee and War Cake | Historiann

  15. Pingback: Holiday round-up: Happy Cranksgiving! | Historiann

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