Saturday, December 31, 2016

A Perfect Meal in Solitude

MFK Fisher had a deep appreciation for solitude. Poring over An Alphabet for Gourmets, the idea of dining alone came up time and again, from her own experiences to bachelors she knew. Opening with “A is for Dining Alone,” Fisher talks about the sometimes wearying effects of other people’s expectations. Due to her popularity as a food writer, she faced a lot of self-deprecation when friends and acquaintances told her they were reluctant to cook for her because they assumed her standards were impossible to meet. As a result, MFK Fisher often sought simplicity on her own: “I drive home by way of the Thriftimart to pick up another box of Ry Krisp, which with a can of tomato soup and a glass of sherry will make a good nourishing meal for me as I sit on my tuffet in a circle of proofs and pocket detective stories.”

An Alphabet for Gourmets was published in 1949. While Rosie the Riveter had gained iconic status, real women out in the world on their own was still a scandal-inducing concept to some. With razor-sharp wryness, MFK Fisher offers up a series of incidents to illustrate the double standard between men and women in the public sphere. Dining alone as a woman at a restaurant hadn’t gained full acceptance yet, and as she recounts, “I resolved to establish myself as a well-behaved female at one or two good restaurants, where I could dine alone at a pleasant table…rather than be pushed into a corner…they knew I tipped well, they knew I wanted simple but excellent menus, and, above all, they knew I could order and drink, all by myself, an aperitif and a small bottle of wine without turning into a maudlin, potential pick-up for the Gentleman at the Bar.” That she brought books like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer makes the image of her confronting old norms all the more brilliant. 

Her craving for simplicity follows in the recipes she provides throughout the book. Despite the short list of ingredients for each, the flavors promised by the recipes are alluring. Hamburgers are seasoned with red wine and oyster sauce. A tangy trout dish is made in honor of gourmand Brillat-Savarin. Sirloin steak marinates in soy, wine, and olive oil. A fan of “peasant caviar,” Fisher includes three variations of the eggplant-based dip. 

She describes several encounters with bachelors and the meals they served. A lonely widower invited her for dinner, and she prepared herself thusly: “I did something I seldom do when I am to be a guest: I drank a sturdy shot of dry vermouth and gin, which I figured from long experience would give me an appetite immune to almost any gastronomical shocks.” Though what comes next is what she calls ‘the ghastliest meal,” there’s a poignancy to the scene as the story of his deceased wife comes to light, and that MFK Fisher appreciated the fact that he cooked what he knew and was happy with, and it was done unabashedly and with gusto. 

Fisher also shared her favorite items from her collection: old cookbook recommendations, and a sampling of the menus she collected over the years from many, many restaurants. Her interests were far and wide, and fascinating enough for me to copy some of the names to hunt down on my own. 

At the end of the book, she offers up a game called The Perfect Dinner. Six being the perfect number to fill a table, she asks who the guests would be. For her, guests included French novelist Colette and the Prince of Wales. The ideal setting was a wide balcony on top of a house on the Quai Voltaire in Paris, with dinner served on ‘the cool end of a hot August day, while there was still light in the day for the first part, with candles to come later.” A lovely scene, but hours after reading that chapter, I was still wondering who I would invite to be my guests. My husband, of course, and if I wasn’t bound by time, I’d love to spend some time in the company of the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and Abbie Hoffman. What they’d have to say about today’s world would be of keen interest to me. Oh, I know, Yvette Nicole Brown—I really want to get into an in-depth analysis of The Walking Dead. The insights from those notebooks she brings to the post-show discussion would be awesome to discuss. 

On the other hand, maybe I’d keep it more ordinary: family I wish I had more time to spend with, or relatives I never got to meet. Rather than some exotic, far-flung location, it would be on the Maine coast on a new spring day as the lupines just start blossoming. The combinations of guests and scenes are endless. 

Whimsical games about the idea dinner party aside, I can say that for me, nothing is better for restoring my energy than to have my own meals in solitude from time to time. Sometimes it’s an elaborate meal that takes hours to prepare. Other times, it’s as simple as her “Strengthening Prescription for Monastic Supper: a small crusty loaf of sourdough bread, a piece of Gorgonzola, a stick of butter, and a bottle of red wine.” 

Sounds like nirvana to me. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Feast for Cephrael’s Hand

I’ve always loved epic fantasy. The genre has been a staple of my reading lists ever since I can remember. The old favorites line the bookshelves, and the new discoveries fill space on the apps on my phone. There’s nothing better for a commute on Boston’s crumbling public transit system than a story that pulls you in so deeply you nearly forget your stop. In the era of indie publishing, my go-to authors for epic fantasy have been Terry Simpson and Melissa McPhail.

I first read McPhail’s work when Cephrael’s Hand was new. Through a post on a Facebook group, I volunteered to help with a blog tour, and aspired to do a review. My timing was off. My then-boyfriend-now-husband was just moving in, and digging into a 600+ page novel wasn’t going to happen. Fortunately, the blog tour organizers had premade materials to post in lieu of a review. But for the 150 or so pages I read at the time, the story made an impression.

Fast forward to this year, when my commute became longer after a move, and I had been looking forward to delving into this series anew. What I love about the Pattern of Shadow & Light series is its complexity. Much like George R.R. Martin’s work, you’re introduced to dozens of characters, each with detailed motivations and quests. The worldbuilding is beautifully described, from its geography to the magic the characters wield. With the fourth novel just released, I look forward to continuing with the series.

Early on in Cephrael’s Hand, we meet Trell of the Tides, a man who lives as a guest in an adopted kingdom. His past is unknown to him, and he is encouraged to seek out the truth. In a long journey, he meets a group of sisters who beg to travel with him, and they come to a city called Sakkalah. They stay at the elegant Inn of the Four Faces, and are presented with the following meal: “Roast green peppers were stuffed with beef and pork mixed with spices, raisins, and almonds and smothered in walnut-pomegranate sauce; lamb with potatoes and carrots was served with golden tomatoes, and a baked dish of roasted eggplant with vegetables, dates, and digs amazed them with its rich complexity. They picked from a host of side dishes, and were offered a never-ending supply of warm, toasted flatbread and excellent wine.”

I highlighted the passage and made a note. This is exactly the kind of cooking that sends my imagination flying. One of the aspects of worldbuilding I take the most delight in when writing my own novels is figuring out if I can get the reader to feel as though they’re at the table with the characters. In this case, I was instantly drawn in and not only following the conversation with Trell and his companions, but enjoying the smells coming from the kitchen, and marveling at the platters placed on the table. The culture I was being introduced to was all the more relatable. A list of ingredients formed in my mind.

Taking a bit of creative license with the original passage, I came up with the following—hopefully it will inspire you to seek out the series and join Trell at the Inn of the Four Faces as well!

Stuffed Peppers and Roasted Eggplant with Date Syrup and Spiced Yogurt Topping

Stuffed Peppers
3 green peppers
1 lb. beef and pork mixture
1 red onion
1 15 oz. can kidney beans
1 15 oz. can fire-roasted tomatoes
Penzey’s Turkish seasoning and Aleppo pepper to taste
3 tbl. olive oil
~1 cup broth (vegetarian or beef)
½ to 1 cup pomegranate seeds

Add olive oil and heat skillet. Dice onion and fry until it turns brown. Add beef and pork mixture, stir until brown. Add fire-roasted tomatoes, kidney beans, and seasoning. Meanwhile, cut green peppers in half, remove seeds, but leave steps so the peppers hold their shape in the oven.

Spread pepper halves in large casserole pan. Pour broth no more than half-inch deep into pan as a bath for the peppers. Spoon beef mixture into pepper halves, and cook at 350F for about 30 minutes, or until peppers have softened. When plating, top with fresh pomegranate seeds.

Roast Vegetables
1 large eggplant
1 head cauliflower (I used orange cauliflower for color)
1 large sweet potato
Olive oil to drizzle on vegetables
Salt and pepper to taste
Date syrup
Topping for vegetables
2 tbl. tahini
¼ boiling water
1 clove of garlic, or 1 tbl. crushed garlic scapes
½ cup Greek yogurt
1 tbl. pomegranate molasses
¼ cup olive oil
Pinch of Aleppo pepper

Mix tahini and water, add garlic (or scapes), yogurt, pomegranate molasses, olive oil, and salt and pepper. Stir until thoroughly mixed. Set aside.

Cut eggplant and sprinkle with salt. Let rest for about 20 minutes to remove bitterness, rinse and chop, place on roasting pan with chopped cauliflower and sweet potato. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt, pepper, and Aleppo pepper. Roast at 425F for about 30 minutes or until soft, turning over midway through or as needed.

When plating, top with a generous spoonful of yogurt dressing, and drizzle date syrup. 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Cinnamon and Gunpowder: A Pirate’s Feast

This is one of those novels that I knew would sweep me away into a beautifully described world when I saw it on the shelf. A kidnapped cook is taken aboard the Flying Rose, led by the fearsome-yet-captivating Captain Mabbot, and cooks wondrous meals for her one a week. What follows is a delightful tale—the language full of culinary references (“The pinnace dumped me out like a dumpling from a spoon”) and vivid characterizations (Mr. Apples might have been drawn by a particularly violent child. His torso is massive, but his head is tiny and covered by a woolen hat with earflaps.”).

The descriptions of the food served makes you wish you were taken by Captain Mabbot and her crew as well. On the night of the kidnapping, Owen is bringing out a platter of roast duck with cherry sauce to follow up an opening course of basil beef broth when the terrifying figures interrupt the feast. The dish stuck with me, and shortly after finishing the book, I traveled to Maine to stay with mom and stepdad. Finding duck breast and fresh Rainer cherries by happenstance, I improvised by own version of the dish, adding in my all-time favorite, Meyer lemon, and a generous splash of wine to the pan as the sauce reduced and formed a glaze on the duck breast. A side of leeks and broccoli rabe sautéed in butter rounded it all out. I wish I had written down the recipe after cooking it, but alas, some meals are like that. They’re all the more memorable for being a unique experience.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder remains one of my favorite books of the year. While the situation Chef Owen finds himself in doesn’t seem realistic in the sense that he has access to so many fresh and varied ingredients on their long journey to seek out Mabbot’s rival, the Brass Fox, I was willing to suspend my disbelief for the sake of adventure and romance. The characterization and story were strong, and any artistic liberties taken with historical elements add a flair of fantasy that is right at home in this novel.

In the edition I have, there is a recipe for Vanilla-Rose Amaretti, a cookie of sorts that is both gluten-free and vegan. Consisting of coconut, almond flour, maple syrup, rose water, and sea salt, it was incredibly tasty, and I usually have poor experiences with gluten-free treats, as they tend to suck all the moisture out of my skull. This was a very pleasant surprise, though I believe something went a bit awry with the recipe. Rather than looking like amaretti—a nice round puff—what I wound up with was a lace cookie. Nothing to complain about, as I’ve always loved lace cookies, and I’m not even into sweets that much, but I do wonder where in the process things changed from what the recipe directed me to do. The world of baking has never been much of a thing for me. I’d much rather open a CSA box and marvel at a colorful array of garlic scapes, swiss chard, and beets.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder is a culinary novel—and as such, occupies a special shelf in my collection to draw inspiration from. If you’re looking for pirates, adventure, and a lush feast, this tale’s a fantastic voyage. 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Culinary World of Tombstone, Arizona

Whiskey and Rue was an unusual novel for me to write for many reasons. I hadn’t been inspired by westerns previously, and most of the women in history I’ve written about have been difficult to research, because little is known about the ones I had grown most attached to. That changed in 2008, when I traveled to Tucson to explore the idea of moving there. One of my favorite places to visit was the Arizona Historical Society, and it was there a simple handwritten form captured my imagination. An affidavit described a woman, May Woodman, who shot her lover, and was sent to Yuma as the only female prisoner at the time. During her time in Yuma Prison, she helped run a contraband cigar operation. It was as though her ghost sensed I’d write about her story. I took a few notes about the affidavit and went on my way.

Back in Boston, the story lingered, and I contacted the historical society to ask if they had more information about May Woodman. Indeed they did. For a small fee, they offered to copy the entire transcript of the trial. A novel began to unfold. Doing research on Tombstone at the time of the shoot-out at OK Corral was easy compared to say…finding reliable details about Prince Vlad Dracula’sfirst wife, or consort, as it may be. Good books were easy to come by. I found a high resolution image of fire insurance map drawn in the 1880s online that gave me a meticulously detailed street map of the town. Several rounds of National Novel Writing Month and professional editing helped me round out the story, and I published it in 2014. The Arizona Historical Society gave me permission to use a copy of the note the foreman of the jury wrote to declare May Woodman guilty. It’s the front piece in the novel. It was one of my favorite aspects of designing the book. Whiskey and Rue seems the story that has caught on the best with readers, and it’s been wonderful to see it gain a following.

Of all the research I did, the book I enjoyed the most was A Taste of Tombstone: A Hearty Helping of History, by Sherry Monihan. In this richly detailed history of the town too tough to die, there are menus from its most famous restaurants and really good recipes. I featured the ham with champagne sauce in a scene where May and her lover Billy Kinsman are trying to smooth over their rocky relationship. I served it with buttermilk mashed potatoes and a side of green beans. While it was an elegant moment of respite for the two main characters, the tension grew between them, aided by her infatuation with Johnny Ringo, and the burgeoning war between the Earps and Clanton–McLaury factions.

Of course, A Taste of Tombstone covers Tombstone’s most infamous incident, but I greatly appreciated all the things the book taught me. The thirty-second shoot-out that is still debated today plays only a minor role here. The food restaurants served was much more sophisticated than I imagined, with French cuisine being popular and the diversity of the population bringing German and Chinese cuisine to the table, among many other cultures that arrived in Tombstone’s heyday. There was more seafood available than I would have guessed, given the time it must have taken to be delivered, but ice production was also more advanced than one may assume. They even had an ice cream parlor! While it’s hard for me to imagine Wyatt Earp delighting in a scoop of ice cream (would you like sprinkles with that, sir?), it began to paint a very different picture of the West than the old simplistic Hollywood films had portrayed.

The population boomed in a short time, but frequent lay-offs due to overproduction at the mines made for a choppy economy. Two fires swept through Tombstone’s heart in a short span of only two years, but determined proprietors rebuilt their hotels and chop houses, and hungry miners sought them out night after night.

Monihan provides a charming portrait of the town, complete with photos and other interesting images that help bring the essence of that era alive. While the novel is out there, I still revisit this book, to recreate some of the dishes that May Woodman and Tombstone’s other residents enjoyed. I still think about May’s story, and am glad I had a chance to share it. 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

MFK Fisher: The Art of Eating and Serve It Forth

As a kid, I was a tomboy. I wore scuffed dungarees and Converse sneakers, and was happier watching dirtbike races than playing with dolls. I spent little time in the kitchen. Passing though, usually, on the way to my next adventure. But there was a special collection of books on the shelf that caught my eye even then. Especially one in the series: How to Cook a Wolf. How intriguing! Just like the Dungeons and Dragons stories my brother and I created, it inspired imaginative worlds. Only when I was older did I realize it was about living frugally in times of war.

Over the years, I’ve read portions of M.F.K. Fisher’s books. It’s a fascinating body of work. As I re-read the series, it was clearly a perfect fit for the “How Do They Feast?” series I originally started to talk about how food is portrayed in historical fiction. The series has grown to take on a lot more, and I’m looking forward to exploring M.F.K. Fisher’s books as a subseries to “How Do They Feat?” Thanks to Mom for letting me take them off the shelf and “adopt” them for a time.

The Art of Eating is a compilation of her earlier work. Far from the glamorous celebrity chef culture, the introduction of The Art of Eating almost apologizes for its own existence. Our puritanical roots are suspected in the lack of indulgence in the literature of gastronomy on the part of Americans. European greats such as Brillat-Savarin are mentioned as the experts on writing about food. Many lived under Brillat-Savarin’s shadow for a long time. M.F.K. Fisher, like Julia Child, pioneered a new path for American foodies.

Alas, there were those who thought it wasn’t possible that Fisher’s books were really her own. It was believed a man wrote them for her. The essays were too well-crafted—so much history and culture—clearly a polymath of the Ivy League, they speculated. Well, the glass…errr…skillet was at least broken in that realm, and we celebrate many women who achieve great success as chefs and writers alike. It does make me wonder, though, what M.F.K. Fisher would have thought if she could see the abundance of cooking shows today. She strikes me as a lady who would appreciate the travels and observations of Anthony Bourdain, rather than the bluster and superficiality of Guy Fieri.

I begin the series where she began, with Serve It Forth. Published in 1937, the book delves into interesting historical bits, such as the curious-but-kind-of-gross garum of Roman times, a sauce made of fermented fish guts that was a delicacy. (Which has now leapt off the pages of history, and has evidently become a thing—I may muster the courage to give it a try soon!) From the eating habits of medieval royalty to French fads during colonial times and during the French Revolution, Fisher provides an amazing array of detail. If you’re an author looking to add some authenticity to the cuisine of your worlds, her books are a delightful resource.

Frederick the Great made coffee with champagne instead of water, and flavored it with mustard. (Take that, trendy bulletproof coffee!) When American colonists began consuming turkey, many a French social-seeker ruined their finances serving turkey with truffles—an exorbitant expense which practically depleted the truffle business. Even in modern times, historical associations have given certain types of food a social status. Turnips and cabbage have a particularly bad reputation for being “the food of the poor,” but leeks and artichokes also make the list. M.F.K. Fisher relates some striking quotes in an effort to dispel snobbery here, such as saying “Mrs. So-and-So is the type of person who serves artichokes!” as a means to slam someone’s social standing. It’s kind of funny, until you realize how real it is.

What I found particularly striking were Fisher’s concerns about the American diet. Even in the early 20th century, she noted about how much people ate, and observed a trend in weight gain among older adults. She worried about the future of this trend, which has sadly become a devastating reality, with half of Americans dealing with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, according to a newly published study by the Journal of the American Medical Association. In her essay of the tendency to overeat, she says, “To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.”

M.F.K. Fisher introduces Serve it Forth by listing cookbooks as one of the three items that proves man’s ingenuity in transforming necessity into art. Indeed, her way of cataloging how we’ve viewed cuisine over the centuries shows this is the case. From the most extravagant to the most frugal, her work offers meticulous insight into our relationship with food.
A “meat and potatoes” style of cooking is mentioned with some frequency, so in honor of the mid-20th century way, I’m sharing a recipe that may have made it into the ‘50s-style kitchen. It combines happy hour and dinner, with steak tips marinated in a giant Old Fashioned. Toward the end of the book, Fisher tells us an endocrinologist told her that after a hearty meal of rare beef and wine, the earlobes turn red, and that’s the time to ask for favors or tell bad news. I’ll leave it to you to decide how to play on that. :)

Old Fashioned Marinated Sirloin Tips with Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes

Sirloin Tips Marinated in an Old Fashioned
½ cup bourbon
½ cup orange juice
½ cup cherry juice
2 lbs. sirloin tips
1 onion
Olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Cut steak into 2-inch chunks. Marinate in bourbon, orange juice, and cherry juice for at least 4 hours, or overnight.
Begin by pouring enough olive oil to lightly cover the bottom of a large skillet. Add sirloin tips, reserving the marinade on the side, and cook in batches if necessary, until sear—keep it very rare at this stage! Remove beef and set aside. Add chopped onion and cook until browned. Return beef to the skillet and add the sauce. Cook down until sauce thickens and makes a nice glaze on the sirloin tips (you can add some flour or cornstarch to the sauce to speed up the thickening process.)

Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes
2 lbs. potatoes (about 6 medium)
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup buttermilk
Salt and pepper to taste
Chives, chopped (optional)
Add potatoes to large pot. Fill with water and season with salt. Boil for approximately 15-20 minutes, or until very tender. Drain. Mash in pot with butter, buttermilk, and season with salt, pepper, and chives as desired.

Serve sirloin tips over potato. Make an old fashioned for after dinner! 

Dijon Gingerbread for M.F.K. Fisher

In 1943, M.F.K. Fisher introduced her book with a question that was posed to her frequently: Why do you write about food, eating, and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do?

It’s a quandary many writers can relate to. There’s an inherent judgment that rears its head when people meet writers. We’re asked to account for other authors, such as when a fan asked Neil Gaiman whether George R.R. Martin “had a responsibility” to finish the Song of Ice and Fire series in a timely manner, lest he make his audience upset. The now-famous “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch” meme has become a joke at comic cons and blogs everywhere. When you’re an author, people are eager to share their ideas for books you should write, regardless of whether they’re in your oeuvre or if you are even remotely interested in the topic. And they’ll follow up on it at the next barbeque you attend, too. Most of it is perfectly benign and well-meaning. But for M.F.K. Fisher, she was starting a whole movement of food writing that paved the way for the likes of Ruth Reichl, Anthony Bourdain, and many others who are celebrities for it.

Fisher fought a battle on two fronts: being a woman pursuing the lifestyle she wanted, and as she often comments in her work, writing about food in a culture with Puritanical overtones that still can be rather uptight about sensual descriptions.

Why write about food? Food, security, and love are entwined. “I tell about myself and how I ate bread on a lasting hillside, or drank red wine in a room now blown to bits, and it happens without my telling it that I am telling too about the people with me then…and their deeper needs for love and happiness. There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.”

The Gastronomical Me breaks from her usual format by writing about food without describing it. She tells stories about the people she meets in her travels. In Burgundy, she visits an old mill converted into a famous restaurant by a Parisian chef. The food server is eager to provide a rich feast, but it’s more about the experience of eating rather than details about the recipes.

There’s a dearth of recipes overall, but we learn a tamale casserole caused a flood of tears and that Fisher liked to shake people from their routines by “conquering the printed recipe” by being inventive. Eccentric approaches are more memorable, she argues, and guests should be delighted by innovative meals.

Not that she doesn’t have her old favorites. Time and again in her books, she mentions Dijon gingerbread, a French classic.

I’m at a stage of writing my fourth novel where the urge to finish it soon rises above all else. I’m well past the mid-point, and the latter half is cruising along at a good pace. April’s round of NaNoWriMo should bring it to its conclusion. An intensive editing process will follow before it goes out to beta readers. Happily, I anticipate a fall release. While each word of a blog post feels like a slight against the novel, I miss keeping up with the blog—and working on this series about how food is portrayed in literature. My shiny new Surface Book has given me the chance to write *and* cook for the blog, now that my home office is too far away to keep an eye on a skillet that may get too hot. I’ve been researching Dijon gingerbread for some time, and was delighted to have the time to finally make it this weekend.

Recipes for Dijon gingerbread varied, so it led me to experiment. Honestly, my first impression was that the combination of ingredients would result in a super dense brick. What I got was an amazingly fragrant and rich loaf of bread perfect for tea or breakfast. My search also led me to find a chicken recipe where the gingerbread is used as a breadcrumb coating. The hubs and I each enjoyed one solitary, sweet slice of the bread and now it’s about to be pulverized for the sake of the chicken recipe. But I will be making this Dijon gingerbread again soon.

Dijon Gingerbread

1/2 cup brown sugar
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon finely chopped candied orange peel (*recipe below)
1/2 teaspoon ground aniseed
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 egg
3/4 cup milk (almond milk works well, too)
3/4 cup honey
Butter for the loaf pan
Preheat oven to 325 Fahrenheit. Mix dry ingredients first, then the milk and egg. The batter is thick! Spread evenly in greased bread pan. Bake for 35 minutes, or until you can insert a skewer into the middle of the loaf and have it come out clean. (For me, the cook time was closer to 45 minutes.)

Candied Orange Peel

2-3 oranges
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
Using a vegetable peeler, remove zest from oranges in 1 1/2- to 2-inch-long pieces. Cut the pieces into very thin strips, about 1/8 inch wide. Cook in a small saucepan of boiling water for 5 minutes. Drain. Bring more water to a boil and cook the orange peel for another 5 minutes. Drain.
Bring sugar and 1/4 cup water to a simmer in a small saucepan, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add the orange peel, cover and simmer for 3 minutes. Transfer the syrup and peel to a bowl. Cover and chill overnight.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the orange peel to paper towels to drain before using.

MFK Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf

The destiny of nations depends upon what and how well they eat.” —Brillat-Savarin

Years ago, the title of M.F.K. Fisher’s book evoked fantastical images. I read a lot of Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, and others that would lead me to believe that a book about cooking wolves had to be intriguing. Alas, as a child, I was disappointed, as there were no monsters of mysterious elf rangers. Just practical advice about making ends meet. Having spent years with my great-grandmother, I’d already seen the economy she practiced: slapping the toast onto the cast iron skillet to cook it in bacon fat. The things we preserved and stored in the cellar.

Decades passed, and as I search for the best in food writing, I was drawn to her books again. How to Cook a Wolf has probably been my favorite so far. Like The Ravenous Muse, the theme of the book is anthropomorphized into a recurring character. The wolf stalks M.F.K. Fisher throughout: “The wolf has one paw wedged firmly in what looks like a widening crack of the door. Let us take it for granted that the situation, while uncomfortable, is definitely impermanent, and can be coped with.”

Wartime shortages are the central theme. Coping with limited utilities, making the best of canned goods (and saving the liquid for soup stocks later on), and stretching ingredients are economical bits of wisdom that go far beyond the wars of the mid-twentieth century. While in America the kinds of sacrifices made by everyday people is no longer what it was in the past, people are turning away from industrial agriculture and the effects of climate change are making many people rethink how they sustain themselves. Urban gardening is a sign of a smart city, and while many of the kitchen tools she refers to are no longer a wonderment (she goes on quite a bit about the “modern” pressure cooker), the practical advice in this book would do a lot of good in reducing waste and saving energy.

One of the most interesting aspects of How to Cook a Wolf is her view on food production and trendy diets. She places the blame on fad diets squarely on the growing magazine industry. The balanced diet of three square meals a day is perpetuated by advertisers, she argues, and the needs of the individual should take precedence. Much like patient-driven healthcare is changing traditional medicine today, our attitude toward food needs to change. No one “miracle diet” will work for everyone.

In the chapter titled “How to be Sage without Hemlock,” M.F.K. Fisher lamented the mass production of bread. The refined flours rendered bread tasteless and nutritionally worthless, and imposed a false sense of snobbery. Darker breads were poor, foreign. You were moving up in the world by buying chemically treated foods. Coupled with America’s Puritan reluctance to really enjoy food, she muses, will put us on a bad path leading to large-scale health problems. Indeed it has. If she’d only been around to be vindicated in an era where chefs rediscover “artisanal” cooking, and present us with the kind of bread people knew from the Old Country.

Fisher offers up a number of recipes that are worth a try—her roast is fabulous, and the French technique of drizzling the beef juice on a salad is a revelation. According to Fisher, rubbing chicken in lemon is a good way to tenderize it. And as always, beautiful, stately quotes make every page of her work a pleasure to read: ““Polenta is one of those ageless culinary lords, like bread. It has sprung from the hunger of mankind, and without apparent effort has always carried a feeling of strength and dignity and well-being.”

In addition, she advises the housewife on making mouthwash and soap from myrrh, and how to make a pin cushion by sewing fabric around old coffee grounds. Evidently, the coffee grounds prevent the needles from rusting. If I were a habitual sewing-type, I may have tried it, but sewing is one of those things I do only if I absolutely must.
Of all the recipes, the onion soup is the one I had to go with for this series. It’s been one of my favorites forever. And while I typically rely on Julia Child’s recipe, this one is great too…though I’d switch out the Parmesan for a super thick slice of Jarlsberg Swiss, and add sherry when deglazing the pan.

Parisian Onion Soup

4 sweet onions, very thinly sliced
4 tablespoons butter or good oil
2 heaping tablespoons flour
1/2 cup white wine
1 quart beef consommé
Grated snappy cheese (Parmesan cheese)
Rye bread, sliced thin and toasted

Brown the onions in the fat, sprinkle with flour and stir while it simmers for 10 minutes. Deglaze with white wine. Meanwhile heat the consommé. Add it to the onions and let boil slowly until the onions are tender. Spread the cheese thickly on the toast and melt under a quick broiler. Pour the soup into a hot soup tureen, cover with the toast and serve at once.