The English-American poet and writer W.H. Auden was a big fan of M.F.K. Fisher, an American culinary icon. He called her called America’s “greatest writer.” In 1963 he also said, provocatively, “I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose.” One of the first to engage food in all its variety as a cultural metaphor, Fisher knew she was the real thing. Further, she believed that writers are born, not created. Once, when asked by a young girl why “so-and-so’s” books were best-sellers while she was barely known, Fisher reportedly replied: “Because he is an author, and I am a writer.” Being a writer, however, didn’t spare her a lifetime of scrambling after book contracts and New Yorker magazine assignments. Everyone has to sing for their supper.
California’s own Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, author of such memorable books as How to Cook a Wolf, The Gastronomical Me, and Serve It Forth, came of age between the two world wars. Because she wrote about the pleasures of the table—or at least started there—she was often dismissed by other writers and critics. Eventually, though, even they caught on.
“It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others,” she said in the foreword to The Gastronomical Me. “So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it . . . and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied . . . and it is all one.”
Just about anything written by M.F.K. Fisher would be wonderful to take along on California trips—especially if you’re the kind of traveler who finds herself stopping at every bakery, creamery, and neighborly cafe you discover between this craft brewery and that family winery. As Fisher declared in Serve It Forth, first published in 1937: “If you have to eat to survive, you might as well enjoy it.”
By 1942, when World War II ration books and sudden shortages of milk, meat, butter, sugar, and eggs created daily challenges for American families, Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf (the wolf being the one at the door, ongoing scarcity) became something of a philosophical and practical treatise for its time. There are intriguing recipes in her wolf-cooking guide, from Cold Buttermilk Soup—with cooked shrimp, chopped cucumbers, mustard, and dill, yum—to crackling bread, roast pigeon, and rabbit casserole. Not to mention War Cake, actually a World War I recipe. Students making that long, always-half-hungry haul to a bachelor’s or master’s degree, study up: you’ll find worthwhile advice here about thrift and sensible living, some points a bit subversive. World war or no, it’s important to know how to make your way in impossible times.
Yet the Wolf offers other ancient wisdom, such as how to live graciously and pleasurably when the odds are absolutely against it. There can be great generosity, after all, even in scarcity. Staving off hunger alone, one is merely meeting one’s bodily needs. But sharing even a sparse meal “with another human or two, or even a respected animal,” makes all the difference. As Fisher said:
“Suddenly it takes on part of the ancient religious solemnity of the Breaking of the Bread, the Sharing of Salt. No matter what your hunger nor how fiercely your fingers itch for the warmness of the food, the fact that you are not alone makes flavors clearer and a certain philosophic slowness possible.”
As Fisher also said: “There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk. And that is my answer, when people ask me: Why do you write about hunger, and not wars or love?”
Serve it forth, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher!