M.F.K. Fisher – A book report.

It’s been a few years since my last book report.  Probably it was 7th grade or so?  Maybe Tom Sawyer or To Kill a Mockingbird?  But I can remember the instructions on how to compose a good literary analysis.  Compare/contrast, use applicable quotations, cite external sources, consider the author’s style and always, ALWAYS have good intro and concluding paragraphs.

The joy of writing a book report that doesn’t have to be turned in to a demanding 7th grade English teacher is that I can bend the rules, use emoticons, refer to the author by her first name (or initials), and write more about my own life than actually analyze the book 🙂  But I will cite my sources just to be properly thorough about the whole thing.  So here goes: Becky Warner on M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf.

I honestly don’t find time for a whole lot of reading these days.  But when your dad sends you a 750-page volume in the mail, he probably paid enough in postage that it would behoove you to actually read it 🙂  Just kidding, but actually, I was so pleased that my dad took the time to send me the copy of M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating that I received for my high school graduation.  I definitely don’t remember getting this book as a gift — 17 year old Becky probably thought “what the crap would anyone think I wanted this book for?  I want money and a hot pot for my dorm room!”  But my dad’s friend Mark had remarkable foresight, or maybe he is just a foodie, but either way 28 year old Becky finds M.F.K’s writing to be delightful, thought-provoking, and spot-on to my current revelations about food.

Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, according to Wikipedia[1], wrote about food “from many aspects: preparation, natural history, culture, and philosophy.”  The Art of Eating is a compendium of five of her works.  So far I have read How to Cook a Wolf, and found it to be so exciting that I can’t wait to get on to the next four.  So many times during my reading I found myself saying “yes!” or “M.F.K., you’re so right!”

How to Cook a Wolf was written in 1942, and delivers the author’s thoughts on how to cook and eat simply and without wasting during a time when “the wolf was at the door.”  What’s amazing to me is that much of what she talks about I would have considered “quaint” until recently, but now her recommendations match up quite well with the cooking and eating habits I’ve been forming.  Just goes to show that there’s nothing new under the sun; all the things that I thought were cool and new are just the pendulum swinging, thankfully, away from shitty 1970’s-1990’s food bastardization and back into sensible, wholesome “wartime” eating practices.

For example, there is the Stock Bag.  I had previously assumed that stock was a difficult and touchy thing to make, based on recipes I’d seen listing many ingredients and steps.  Martha Stewart, for example[2], tells me to go out and buy *a chicken* and some celery and carrots and leeks which I will boil to make chicken stock.  She also tells me to buy two 48-oz cans of chicken broth for the liquid.  Why, if I may ask, am I using chicken broth to make chicken broth?  Canned broth is only going to make this stuff taste bad, and if I have good organic pastured chicken bones and plenty of vegetable matter, I don’t need to boil and then discard the chicken meat to make stock.

I learned about the stock bag from Noe, my roomate in Wallingford over the winter, from whom I have also learned rabbit butchering, how to start an urban farming co-op, and other handy homesteady type skills.  The stock bag is a plastic bag you keep in your freezer.  Every time you cook and you think of it, you add scraps to the bag instead of composting them: onion and carrot peels, lettuce leaves, herb stems, mushroom butt ends, anything you want except no brassicas.  If you’re a meat eater you also throw in bones from any lamb chops or chicken wings or ham hocks you happen to consume. Then when you want to make stock, you already have all the ingredients accumulated over time.  Thus you don’t have to go out to the grocery store and spend time and money buying ingredients to make stock.  They are just there waiting for you in the freezer.  You dump the stock bag’s contents into a steamer basket or top of a double boiler, add a bunch of water, and simmer it on the stove for a couple hours or all day.  Voila — stock.  Portion it out into jars or plastic containers and date them and freeze them.  I’ve been using stock instead of water for making rice and quinoa, beans, soup, stuffing, etc. and I’ve been loving the richer flavor it gives to all these things.

I thought Noe was pretty cool with the stock bag trick.  But it turns out, people were doing this in 1942.  M.F.K., perhaps not having a freezer, instructs housewives to “keep an old gin bottle in the icebox,” and add to it liquids from steaming vegetables, canned vegetable juices, and the like.  “Never throw away any vegetable or its leaves or juices unless they are bad; else count yourself a fool.  At the end you have a fine heady broth that will do wonders with any dish that calls for stock or even plain water.  If you keep your old gin bottle cold and reasonably on the move it need never spoil nor be anything but a present help in time of trouble, and a veritable treasure trove of vitamins and minerals that otherwise would have gone down the drain.” [3]  Ummm, Yup.  What she said.

I would say that M.F.K.’s main point in this book is that cooking simply and economically does not have to equate to eating boring or plain or monotonous meals.  She also is big on pointing out that “modern rounded meal-plans” and “adulterated foods” give the eater no pleasure when compared to the delight of eating fresh, whole, “honest” food.  The same point as Michael Pollan makes in his books, several decades later.  The same point that I have discovered on my own as I am lucky enough to live on farms with plenty of honest food rolling in. Fisher writes about foods and flavors in glowing prose that makes me hungry: “I want a salad of a dozen tiny vegetables: rosy potatoes in their tender skins, asparagus tips, pod-peas, beans two inches long and slender as thick hairs… I want them cooked, each alone to fresh perfection. I want them dressed, all together, in a discreet veil of oil and condiments.” [3] I couldn’t help but make such a salad after reading this description. Mine had zucchini sliced lengthwise and roasted caulifower florets, but the spirit was the same. Only on the farm (or in your own garden, or from your truly local non-touristy farmers market) can you get the ingredients to prepare this dish in the way that M.F.K. Fisher envisioned it. In 1942 people had victory gardens from which they could harvest tiny beans. What an entirely different experience from buying a bag of frozen green beans or even eating an iceberg salad made from bagged lettuce and “baby” “carrots” 🙂

Fisher’s writing is conversational and fun to read.  She pokes fun at stuck-up gastronomes and invites her readers to stop worrying and enjoy food and cooking.  She writes about using what you have on hand and creating your own inventions and combinations instead of following an overly-prescriptive recipe.  “Once the cupboard is stocked with things you like and a few you are not sure about, start combining.  Put this and that together in a pan, stir them, heat them, and serve them as they are.”[3]   She includes a recipe for frittata, for example, remarkably similar to the one I wrote about last year although much simpler.  The recipe includes a few ingredients and a multitude of suggestions for substitutions.  You need eggs but then basically, just use whatever vegetables you have, maybe some herbs, maybe some cheese.  “And with a glass of wine and some honest-to-God bread it is a meal.  At the end of it you know that Fate cannot harm you, for you have Dined.”[3]   My favorite line in the book, for sure.  🙂

All her recipes are like this: more suggestions for methods of cooking and what types of flavors go well together than hard-and-fast instructions.  It gives the reader inspiration and then allows us to go out and experiment on our own.  It pleased me how many of her recipes are similar to things I’ve already been making with farm food.  I couldn’t believe it but she describes basically the exact same “weird farm breakfast” I wrote about with eggs cracked into boiling tomato soup and served over a bread slice.  She tops hers with a cup of beer, though, which I found intriguing especially for breakfast!  I tried her recipe for gingerbread (the old-fashioned kind that’s like a cake, not cookies) and it was delicious and very similar to the one I’d already had on my list of staple recipes.  She makes a rum sauce for hers, though, that I’m excited to try next time.  Rum sauce, beer over tomato soup?  Maybe old M.F.K. was a lush, is what we’re finding?

She has several recipes for rabbit, which is awesome as our bunnies’ date is approaching soon.  “Rabbit in Casserole” describes dredging the meat in flour and browning it, and then cooking for an hour in stock, wine, and herbs.  This is almost exactly the way I cooked our first rabbit, which I based a bit on Joy of Cooking and mostly on my own feel and taste.  Her second rabbit recipe is “with Sauerkraut and Bacon,” which you can rest assured I will be trying next.

In conclusion, (so you get the sense that I will be wrapping up with some pithy statements here),  I really enjoyed the book.  (Nope, too general.)  The book was found by all to be really enjoyable.  (Nope, nope, passive voice.)  M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf is a valuable read for anyone interested in food and eating well.  (Ahh, there we go.  M.F.K. also uses a lot of parenthetical statements, which may be why I’m writing like this.)  It emphasizes a return to simple, vibrant ingredients and recipes which families were already slipping away from at the time of writing, and which is even more critical for us to read about now.  It definitely goes on my list of recommended readings for anyone who loves to eat, and to think about, food.

– B.W.

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Bibliographicallizzle:

[1]  M. F. K. Fisher. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved August 3, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M._F._K._Fisher

[2]  Homemade Chicken Stock. (October 1999). In Martha Stewart Living. Retrieved August 3, 2011 from http://www.marthastewart.com/343921/homemade-chicken-stock

[3] Fisher, M. F.K.  (1942). How to Cook a Wolf.  New York: The Macmillan Company.

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Food preservation: Reviving a lost art (Part 1 of 2)

The following magazine clipping hung on the door of our kitchen cabinet at the apprentice house all season.

The caption reads, “In 1939, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal administration assigned photographer Dorothea Lange to travel around Oregon documenting agricultural communities at the height of the Great Depression.   Here we see Mrs. Botner of Nyssa Heights in Eastern Oregon tidying her storage cellar, where she had placed 800 quarts of home-canned food to sustain her family through the winter.”

Mrs. Botner looks like a sturdy farm wife, but I enjoy her outfit: she’s wearing some stylish leather heels with her plain summer housedress.  She’s been working in the field and in the kitchen all day, but that doesn’t mean she can’t be lookin’ good while putting by some provisions in her root cellar!

Last January, I had the pleasure of taking a class on food preservation at a farmer conference in Stanwood, WA.  The instructor of the class, Mrs. Vivian Smallwood, was of the right age to have been this Mrs. Botner’s daughter.   White-haired and in her 70’s, Vivian came into class using a walker to teach us the canning methods and recipes she had learned from her female relatives of this bygone era.   Vivian is a “certified master food preserver” with the WSU extension agency.  She explained that she is the only one left with this title; there used to be others but they have retired and for a long time young people were never interested in achieving the certification.  Just recently, though, she pointed out, there is a resurgence of interest in her area of expertise.  In the past few years, the demand for her classes has increased to where she can’t keep up with it.   She told us that she’s pleased to know that people are coming back to an interest in preserving their own food, and she’s eager to share her knowledge.   “Feel free to call me on the phone,” she offered sweetly, giving out her home number in case we had any questions come up while we were doing our own canning.

I think this is such a telling example of the cultural shifts that have happened around food over the last century in America.  In 1939, people were still preserving their own food because they needed to do so to survive.  They raised their own meats, grains, fruits and vegetables and ate them fresh when they could; then they used preservation techniques so they could continue eating the rest of the year.  Packaged foods,  freezing, and even refrigeration were either unavailable  or too expensive to depend on.   Over the next several decades, the entire food system changed dramatically.  For my grandparents and parents, packaged and shipped foods became the norm, and why wouldn’t they?  Who would want to spend time harvesting and processing their own food when so much variety was cheaply available at the grocery store?

There have always been those that did canning at home.  Growing up, I remember seeing the jars of peaches and pears entered into competition for a blue ribbon in the community fair.   My mom made the YUMMIEST freezer jams and tried making cucumber pickles once.  But overall the practice of, and knowledge about, food preservation has been decreasing steadily over the generations.  Until, perhaps, now.

Based on Vivian’s experience and my own observations of happenings around Seattle, people are getting back into canning in a big way.  It makes sense for this to go hand in hand with the current upsurge of interest in local & sustainable food.  An increased number of people are growing their own gardens; similarly, home canning is gaining popularity.  Even more people have switched to buying  produce at a farmers’ market over a grocery store.  These folks are also discovering that delicious, small-batch, artisan products like jam, honey, pickles, and sauerkraut can be had at many farmers’ markets.  These are a much higher quality, more “real” product than the Smuckers, etc, from the supermarket.  It seems to me that we can have the luxury of all that grocery-store surplus and still crave a more authentic taste and the feeling of satisfaction that comes from knowing the origin of our food.  We’ve hit a point where we are starting to realize that the extra effort that goes into making your own can be worth it.

I tried my own first forays into canning last fall with a jam project and some green bean pickles.  They turned out well enough to give me confidence to try a bunch more this year with farm produce.  Unfortunately, the time of year when all the extra produce is available for canning is the same time of year when you have zero time to do any canning because you’re so busy harvesting and selling all that produce.  But I managed to get some stuff into cans:

Pickled green beans, pickled cucumbers, pickled carrots, mixed-vegetable pickles. Raspberry jam, peach jam, plum jam. Tomato sauce, sauerkraut, and one can of chanterelle mushrooms.

 

I planned to write this post about my actual experience with canning, what I learned, and some recipes.  But I got a little wrapped up in some historical analysis and now I’ve written enough for one day!  So in part 2, I will share some canning basics so that we can all help carry on Mrs. Botner’s tradition and see our families through the winter with home-canned goodies.  In the meantime, here are some essential items for your canning Christmas wishlist.  Stay tuned!