October 2009

Charlotte Freeman


When the Wolf is at the Door, One Turns to the Experts...

So the recession hit home here at Cookbook Slut in late July when I was relieved of the corporate job I’ve held for the past ten years. While it wasn’t a job I loved, it was a job that came with a very sturdy paycheck, and when the last severance check arrived this month, I went into something of a panic. There it was. All the Money I Am Ever Going To Have.

And so I did what I always do when confronted with financial instability. I bought staples. My brother used to tease me that when the Barilla barometer went up, and the pantry filled with blue boxes, he knew I expected imminent disaster. As an impoverished editorial assistant in New York during my twenties I think I lived almost entirely on pasta with garlic and oil. Zucchini sometimes, if I could get nice ones. There are a lot of blue boxes in my pantry right now, as well as bags of beans, jars of home-canned tomato sauce, and enough too-sweet peach chutney to keep an army alive, should one need to survive on peach chutney. My sweetheart and I also took advantage of a deal that one of the local meat packers ran after the county fair -- a whole 4H pig, cut and wrapped, hams and bacon smoked for just under three hundred bucks. The onset of hunting season means gifts of meat in exchange for hunting rights up behind the sweetheart’s cabin, and perhaps a Christmas gift of beef from one of his friends who raises a steer or two every year. And then there’s the seven hens in the backyard, so there will be eggs. We won’t starve, no matter how frightening I find that Final Paycheck.

But none of my rationalizing, or planning, or hoarding was really assuaging my fears, and so I went back to the three writers to whom I always turn when I’m feeling freaked out, Patience Gray, M.F.K. Fisher, and Elizabeth David. There’s something so comforting about the tone all three writers have, that matter-of-fact attitude that whatever the circumstances, it is one’s duty to keep the household flame alive. That it can be done. That it must be done. And they knew what they were talking about. Both Gray and Fisher were single mothers in the 30s and 40s when that was difficult and rare, and all three wrote about fine cooking in those years right around World War II when much of England and the US were still reeling from years of rationing. My other passion for these writers stems from their dedication to ordinary home kitchens. There’s no reliance on fancy gadgets or “professional” stainless steel stoves or any of the rest of that nonsense that we’ve all come to believe matters during these recent bubble years. So much stainless steel, so much granite countertop, and so many pristine kitchens in which no food has ever been cooked.

I turned first to Patience Gray. I always turn to Patience Gray when I’m trying to figure out how to live well on a lower rung of the economic scale. Honey from a Weed came out in 1986, and describes Gray’s decades living in small towns around the Mediterranean with her partner, Norman Mommens. Mommens was a sculptor, so they followed the marble, living in Catalonia, Naxos, and finally settling in Apulia, in the “boot” of Italy. Gray had been a writer and editor in London, but her book describes decades of living very simply in order that both she and Mommens could pursue their arts. What they found was great freedom in “a way of life diametrically opposed to the wishful thinking that a consumer society inspires.” They ate what was seasonal, not out of fashion, but because they lived in remote areas surrounded by people who had eked out livings there for centuries. Much of the time Gray didn’t have a real kitchen, cooking in an outdoor oven over twigs, and on Naxos they lived in a converted shed where she didn’t even have a sink. But this isn’t a stunt book about cooking in situations of privation. Gray and Mommens ate well, if simply by following the lead of the locals. Her recipe for beans cooked in earthenware is not only the most delicious bean recipe I know, but inspirational in that she notes the slow cooking frees a woman up to go back into her studio for the afternoon and get some work done.

Although I cook her bean recipe all the time, and use her method for vegetables, Patience Gray isn’t a writer I turn to for recipes, as much as a writer I turn to for life advice. How to live well on little. How to follow your heart. How to keep your eye on your art. How to learn from your surroundings. In times like these, she gives me courage, and really, what more can you ask from a writer?

M.F.K. Fisher is, of course, M.F.K. Fisher -- single mother, prose stylist extraordinaire, and the doyenne of American food writing. How to Cook A Wolf was published in 1942, when wartime rationing and the lingering effects of the Great Depression had nearly everyone feeling that the wolf was indeed at the door. Writing in a time of privation after a great boom, she seems prescient now. “There are very few men or women,” she notes in the introduction, “who cooked and marketed their way through the past war without losing forever some of the nonchalant extravagance of the Twenties. They will feel … a kind of culinary caution … And that is good, for there can be no more shameful carelessness than with the food we eat for life itself.”

But Fisher never dismisses the crucial skills of survival, and in fact the book is full of stories about what to do when the wolf is truly at your door, including this blunt advice: “The first thing to do, if you have absolutely no money, is to borrow some.” She then proceeds to direct the reader as to how to make a nutritious sort of loaf from ground meat, whole grain cereal and whatever vegetables are cheap. “Sludge” is what she calls it, and although even at my most broke I’ve never had to resort to it, I have used the concept in dire times when looking at the last blue boxes in the pantry, some tired veggies in the drawer, and the last eggs. Think casserole. Think soup. Think of those infinitely expandable meals you can nurse along for those last few days until the check comes in the mail, or payday finally arrives. It’s been a while for me, but most of my youth was spent in jobs that don’t pay: editorial assistant, ski bum, bookstore clerk, graduate student and it was M.F.K. Fisher who helped teach me how to get through one of those stretches when there just wasn’t any money to be had.

But she’s not interested in mere survival. She’ll tell you how to survive the worst bits, but she’s also full of advice for how to stretch a dollar through those more common times when you’ve got some money, just not quite as much as you’d like. Her advice on booze is particularly good -- she was an early advocate of finding a wine you like that comes in bulk. Despite being haunted by my father’s penchant for Carlo Rossi, knowing that M.F.K. Fisher resorted to descanting cheap wine into old bottles to make it keep longer inclines me to think she’d entirely approve of that ten-bucks-a-box French plonk I’ve been drinking all summer. She’s also a big fan of the case discount, which is a nice idea if you have periods when you’re flush, but if not, she’s got a recipe for homemade “vodka” in the book (although I don’t think cheap grain alcohol is as readily available as it was in her day).

And while most of the book is made up of tricks for turning out delicious and sensible food that won’t break your bank either in groceries or in fuel costs to cook it (her instructions for making a haybox in which to cook beans or stews is quite ahead of its time), even she acknowledges that “You can cope with economy for only so long. When you think you can stand no more of the wolf’s snuffling under the door and keening softly on cold nights, throw discretion into the laundry bag, put candles on the table … [and] permit your disciplined inner self to relax, and think of caviar, and thick cream, and fat little pullets trotting through an oak grove rich with truffles.” This is why I turn to M.F.K. Fisher when faced with the Final Paycheck. She’s got that attitude that women of my grandmother’s generation did, the confidence [or bravado, nearly as good] that something will come along, that we’ll all make do somehow, and that an empty pocketbook is no reason to skip a nice cloth napkin, and a decent plate; nor to skip to sharing the table with someone you love.

Elizabeth David’s A Book of Mediterranean Food  is not focused on economical cooking like the other two are, but I love that she originally published it in England in 1950, when the nation was still in the iron grip of rationing. Like Fisher, she sets great store by the imagination, and her introduction notes that “even if people could not very often make the dishes here described, it was stimulating to think about them; to escape from the deadly boredom of queueing and the frustration of buying the weekly rations; to read about real food cooked with wine and olive oil, eggs and butter and cream, and dishes richly flavoured with onions, garlic, herbs, and brightly colored Southern vegetables.” This is not the aspirational “wishful thinking” of which Gray complains, not the sort of consumerism that has one putting things on a credit card when you’re not sure how you’ll pay for them, this is that old-fashioned approach to scarcity. Learn something new. Distract yourself, if possible, from the direness of your circumstances, and then buck up, look around, and see what you can make from what you have.

Modern supermarkets of course belie the very idea that whole categories of ingredients might be unavailable, so modern readers will probably not have to resort to the “use of devious means” David claims was necessary in London of the early 1950s, but nonetheless, there are a lot of delicious and economical dishes in this book. The soups chapter alone could keep the wolf at bay -- Soupe au Pistou, Soupe Basque, and Avogelemono are the first three listed, none of them requiring more than a couple of dollars worth of ingredients. When the wolf has his paw wedged in the door, soup can keep you going for a long time, or help you stretch leftovers into something delicious while breaking the monotony of eating the same thing over and over again. Soup and bread is a dinner that can keep even my meat-eating sweetheart happy on a cool fall evening. The chapter on Eggs and Luncheon Dishes also contains a wealth of good ideas for “omelettes” and tarts, although I’ll probably skip the ox tongue and frogs legs this time around. Here in landlocked Montana, the fish and shellfish chapters are primarily food for the imagination -- while air freight makes good fish pretty available, it’s expensive, and all those air miles make me anxious, so I usually wait for a trip to Seattle or LA to get my fish fix, but the meat chapters contain recipes for daubes and chops that look like they’d be terrific applied to elk or antelope, as well as the goat and lamb of the Mediterranean.

While this isn’t a book specifically about thrift, it is a book about a thrifty cuisine, traditionally cooked by people who have little, but who know how to make the most of it. And when the wolf is at the door, eyeing one’s Final Paycheck, these are the trucs that one wants to know about. How to feed yourself and your loved ones so that you keep alight the flame of hope that even though times are hard, and even though jobs are scarce, once can still, with imagination and ingenuity, manage to live well.