Thursday, April 26, 2007
How to Cook a Wolf
We've been at war for over four years now. I first read MFK Fisher's "How to Cook a Wolf" 10 years ago, when I tore through the one-volume compilation, "The Art of Eating," during a particularly boring summer in suburban New Jersey. A lot of the children's books I read growing up also had World War II in the background, nothing really intrusive or disturbing, but the characters were always talking about buying victory bonds or hoarding sugar ration cards or collecting tin for the army. So Fisher's advice to those who were scrimping and sacrificing didn't seem odd, just very quaint and earnest, and not something that would ever be relevant in my lifetime.
So now we are at war, but you would never know it to look at what we eat and how we eat. Food and foodie culture have come to mean so much more than nourishment, and even more than status and money. Pork and other fatty meats feel like an obsession in New York, and people seem almost proud, rather than just happy, to eat at a place like Momofuku or Fette Sau, where vegetarians and dietary restrictions in general are shunned. In some ways, New York's trendy love of unrestrained food is part of a general movement towards slow food, the kinds of food our grandparents ate, before people got obsessed with calories, sugar, and carbs. But in other ways, especially in a city like New York, the food trend of absolutely no restraints feels weirdly macho, with each eater out to show they can eat more, in quantity and quality, than anybody else. It's silly of me to complain, since I'm not the kind of eater this culture is mocking. I mean, I go around declaring that vegans must be bad in bed. But reading "How to Cook a Wolf," and eating a meal inspired by it, has been making me think about the kind of satisfaction Fisher describes, and whether the culture I live in knows that kind of satisfaction.
At one point, MFK Fisher describes a friend who is very poor but still very fond of giving dinner parties. At Sue's "wolf-dodging" dinners, she would serve "little bowls of chopped fresh and cooked leaves," a "common bowl of rice," giving you a "soup dish full of sliced catcus leaves and lemon-berries and dried crumbled kelp." The food was good, not because "she wandered at night hunting for leaves and berries; it [was] that she cared enough to invite her friends to share them with her, and could serve them, to herself alone or to a dozen guests, with the sureness that she was right." MFK Fisher is the last person to suggest eating is an unimportant activity. But what she does suggest, which would be heresy in our foodie-culture, is that what we eat may not be quite so important.
"How to Cook a Wolf" was our reading for this month's book club dinner. (It's true, I belong to yet another food club, a book club that focuses on books about food and wine.) Maaike, the host, decided to serve a simple meal in keeping with our reading, costing less than $25. She was almost embarrassed to serve it: a hot, heaping bowl of spaghetti with butter, cheese, and fresh sage she couldn't stop herself from adding; some peas and baby onions from a frozen bag; and big wedges of iceberg lettuce.
Obviously, I am not one to advocate deprivation for deprivation's sake. Just because our president doesn't call on us to sacrifice in any way for a war only he believes in doesn't mean I'm going to self-ration my sugar to feel morally superior. But Maaike's "Wolf"-inspired dinner was as satisfying as MFK Fisher promises. There was red wine and good conversation and lots of laughter. The food was good; it didn't need to be anything more.