One of my favorite writers is M.F.K. Fisher. Her no-nonsense, straightforward approach to writing about food is a refreshing change from the overblown metaphors of many food writers. I recently came across a reference to How to Cook a Wolf, which she wrote during World War II. While my food budget is not at WWII emergency levels, I am operating on less than I did a year ago, and we all know that prices have risen significantly over the past year. So, I thought it wold be interesting to see what she had to say about budget cooking, and I promptly requested the book through our great inter-library loan service.
“Balance the Day, Not Each Meal in the Day”
Fisher’s central advice is quite simple: rather than balancing the “food groups” at each and every meal, try to incorporate them throughout the day. After writing disdainfully of typical “budget-stretching” advice like watering down scrambled eggs, she critiques the popular media for their influence on how people plan meals:
“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.”
I’ll leave aside the gender assumptions here, but I did find it fascinating that she especially critiques women’s magazines. It’s refreshing to realize that long before Gourmet and Martha Stewart Living, glossy magazines were churning out unrealistic portrayals of what’s for dinner. I know that any time I look at a new diet in a fitness magazine, I always wonder how on earth I’ll afford shopping for the menu plan!
After a humorous look at one mother’s attempt to balance every meal for her son, Mortimer, Fisher describes how to stretch your budget by planning one meal of starches, one meal of vegetables or fruit, and one of meat:
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. . .
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 rare steak and a beautiful platter of sliced, herb-besprinkled ripe tomatoes.”
I have to admit that Fisher can make simple toast sound so exciting that I was eager to put her plan into action. I realized that I do usually have a starch or yogurt for breakfast, salad or soup for lunch, and a protein and vegetable for dinner. Now, I plan to do so a bit more consciously and always make sure that my salad portions are ample. As I continue reading, I’m looking forward to more of Fisher’s sensible tips on “how to cook a wolf.”