I was a junior at Penn when I first read M.F.K. Fisher. My advanced nonfiction writing professor assigned us a story from the post-humously published Stay Me, Oh Comfort Me, and I recall falling for Fisher’s wit and smooth prose. I soon discovered that Fisher was one of the most acclaimed culinary writers of the 20th century, and that her brand of food writing was not confined to restaurant reviews or research about the health and environmental issues surrounding food—the sorts of writing about food that I was used to reading. Rather, Fisher’s genre was that which I will call the food essay or culinary story—a nourishing, warm prose that recalls memories (and love) of food.
But Fisher was not just an autobiographical writer; she was a student of gastronomical culture, the author of such books as Serve It Forth, a meditation on the anthropological history of different foodstuffs, which she published in 1937, a strange time indeed to be talking about cuisine. Actually, all of Fisher’s writings on food were published at a bad time for American food—during the Depression and WWII and then the dawn of convenience foods. But Fisher, as Joan Reardon has written, “brought to the nutrition-oriented and commercial-centered culinary landscape a fresh vision.” It is this vision that I had been hungry for, without having even been aware of my hunger. This was a marriage of my own writing interests, the personal, the culinary, and the journalistic. And it was presented without an elitist or fetishist tone.
I’ve read all of Fisher’s gastronomical books, which I own in a collected tome called The Art of Eating. I agree with Alice Water’s back-cover blurb on that collection that “this comprehensive volume should be required reading for every cook. It defines in a sensual and beautiful way the vital relationship between food and culture.” From Fisher I have learned much about oysters and Elizabethan food culture, about boiling water and Brillat-Savarin (the gastronome). The book of hers I’ve most loved is How to Cook a Wolf. Fisher published this in 1942, at the height of World War II rationing; its pages hold advice for thrifty cooking, like, “…cut the consumption of sugar in half when you are making jams and preserves by mixing one cup of sugar with every two cups of fruit and the correct amount of water, and then adding one-half teaspoonful of bicarbonate of soda.” How to Cook a Wolf is not a cookbook, though it contains recipes. Rather, it heartens home cooks to develop a new mindset when it comes to putting dinner on the table, encouraging them not to worry about balancing each meal nutritionally (a difficult task in ration times) but to balance what you eat over the course of the day; reminding them that food need not be a worry but a love. It is, at its heart, a book about hunger and keeping up courage, about keeping the wolf’s appetite sated. To me, it is a delightful historical document, a reminder that American food culture was very different when my grandparents were my age. Sure, there is much knowledge and pleasure that I, as a citizen of the 21st century, can glean from How to Cook a Wolf. I think often about my favorite line from the book: “Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken.” But much of what Fisher writes about, whether it be the most economical use of one’s icebox or a suggestion to replace butter with cooled bacon fat in a cake, is out of touch to me. As it should be, it is sixty years old!
I was thrilled to encounter a modern-day M.F.K. Fisher this year in Tamar Adler and her book An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace. Adler is a brilliant cook (she’s worked at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse), teacher (at the Edible Schoolyard in California), advocate (at Slow Food Berkeley), and writer. In short, she is a gastronome, one who muses about food. Her book maps her wisdom about what it means to be a cook and eater in today’s times onto the conceit of Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf. Each chapter is titled as a “How to,” just as in Fisher’s book, but she doles out advice and inspiration to home cooks through a modern lens. As Alice Waters writes in the book’s forward (telling that Waters backs both books, no?), “The book is beautifully intimate, approaching cooking as a narrative that begins not with a list of ingredients or a tutorial on cutting an onion but with a way of thinking. How rare and wonderful it is to have a book grounded in instinct, prompting the reader to examine the wold around him- or herself differently, allowing cooking to become a continuous, integrative process that flows from meal to meal.”
Indeed, though we needn’t worry about rationing any longer, Adler advises home cooks to make the most out of their leftovers. Her approach is to save the bits and pieces of a dinner (the bones of a roasted chicken, for example) and turn them into tomorrow’s meals. The woman worships soups, and she supplies inventive ideas for appetizing ones: ribollitas and minestrones made with the stock that results from cooking dried beans; caramelized onions splashed with cognac and broth for a lighter version of French onion soup. Adler’s recipes are seamlessly woven into her narrative of how to nourish oneself. They are all simple, and as Waters says, instinctive. How much sense it makes to toast stale bread for croutons to garnish soups or salads. How glad I am that Adler has reminded me not to waste the stems of my leafy greens, but to pulse them together with oil, garlic, and cheese to make a pesto.
In essence, what Adler promotes in her book is mindful eating and cooking. She does not harp on this, nor hawk her recipes and opinions about food. She merely shows us that feeding oneself need not be an anxious or harried endeavor, and that very little planning indeed is necessary to start one’s everlasting meal.
These two women—one twenty years my grandmother’s elder, one who could be a decade-older sister to me—have already achieved my goal as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Gastronomic Sciences. I am immensely proud of these women whom I have never met for forging a food writing that is nourishing, and grateful that I have been mentored by their books. I will carry their words in my luggage and in my mind as I settle in Italy.