Saturday, March 28, 2020

How to Cook a Wolf

Our current cultural pool of metaphor is dominated by references to war and apocalypse, so I should probably note up front that this post is not about actually cooking threatened species. The wolf in question is the proverbial one, who shows up at one's door symbolizing poverty, starvation, or other calamity. I've shamelessly stolen the title of the post from M. F. K. Fisher, whose book of this name was published in 1942, and of which I acquired a worn, stained copy in 1972, most likely at the used bookstore where I was a volunteer in Philadelphia. I didn't get paid, but workers got books of their choosing for 3/4 off the published price (everyone else got half off), unless the book was marked otherwise, so I must have actually paid about 50 cents, even though it was marked 75.

But I was transfixed by Fisher's prose, and she's influenced my attitude toward food and life in general for the last nearly fifty years. I keep recommending this particular book on Quora to those who ask how to get by on small rations (metaphorically speaking; although rationing is not too much of a far-fetched idea these days). And as we've descended into a morass of uncertainty about the COVID-19 virus and our own futures, I find myself going back to her chapters: "How to be a Sage Without Hemlock," "How to Greet the Spring," "How to Rise Up Like New Bread," and "How to Have a Sleek Pelt" (about keeping pets in dire times).

As I began to reread this book for the umpteenth time, I found a certain prescience in her opening words:
In spite of all the talk and study about our next years, and all the silent ponderings about what lies within them for our sons, it seems plain to us that many things are wrong in the present ones which can be, must be changed. Our texture of belief has great holes in it. Our pattern lacks pieces. (3)
This is, of course, a reflection on wartime, but it does make one stop and ponder our own possible futures. What she's really talking about in this chapter, though, is the equivalent of fad diets and the then-current nutritional guidelines and the notion of "balanced meals," quarreling with the idea that every meal must contain all the necessary nutrients. Her advice is indeed sage: make sure that as much as possible you get a decent balance over the course of the day. Instead of providing everything needed for survival in each meal, just make sure that you hit most of them overall.

It's actually rather amusing to look back at her accounts of the substitutions that food-manufacturers came up with for eggs and custard sauce in hopes of providing desserts and puddings for the evening meal. In her chapter, "How to Comfort Sorrow," Fisher suggests that the best "dessert" is nothing at all.
If the food has been simple, plentiful, and well prepared; if there has been time to eat it quietly, with a friend or two; if the wine or beer or water has been good: then, more often than not, most people will choose to leave it so, with perhaps a little cup of coffee for their souls' sake. (191)
She goes on to recommend "another fine thing for the soul . . . . is one of those herbal teas which French people used to call tisanes."
They are simply hot water poured over a few dried leaves of mint or verbena or lime flowers or camomile. They can be drunk with or without sugar, and a twist of lemon can be added. They smooth out wrinkles in your mind miraculously, and make you sleep, with sweet dreams, too. (191)
Having only recently undergone a cardiac procedure (a stent, after which I went home the same day), and being under the mistaken impression that I would have to abstain from alcohol for the next year while I was on an anti-platelet drug, I had started concocting my own tisanes out of various fruit- and herb-based teas I keep on hand. They're quite refreshing and good substitutes for a glass of wine in the evening, and I'll be drinking them regularly even though my cardiologist has given me permission for a glass of wine with dinner if I so desire. After only a couple of weeks off the sauce, I've discovered that I actually can live without it, and there are other ways to forget who is running the country at the moment.

It's actually a bit ironical that "social distancing" is depriving us of our most traditional means of providing comfort: going out for a drink, taking meals together, celebrating holidays and anniversaries, marking important cultural moments. Only a couple of hours ago I sent my daughter an article from today's New York Times about distance-celebrating the upcoming holidays, only to find out that her father's family (in Minneapolis, where she usually goes for Passover) is already planning a Zoom Seder.

I'm somewhat reluctant to note too enthusiastically the possible bright side of the current situation, because so very many people are suffering so terribly. The clearing of the air and water, the re-connection of families as they're quarantined in their homes, the slight lowering of decibel levels as traffic on the nearby highways. Our exceptionally rainy March has meant that the ground may not dry out as quickly as usual, and the "lakes" may be higher; if folks can't go out and stinkpot or jetski, they may be cleaner as well. There should be scads of wildflowers, but it's harder to get to see them.

I'm also somewhat heartened by the number of "getting through this together" articles focus on cooking, and on involving children in meal preparation. Granted, lots of these  seem to prioritize cookies and other sweets (like this chocolate layer cake from WaPo, from an article on "7 layer cake recipes to help you bake your way through whatever life piles on"), which may not be the best thing for confined folks to be eating, unless they're also following exercise classes on YouTube. But at least there's a concentration on this most important aspect of human survival. We can make it without clothing or shelter (except in extreme circumstances), but we can't make it without food.

So here's something to try. Fisher says that she remembers liking it so much that she dreamed about it at night, and it does sound both simple and good, as long as your supermarket hasn't run out of whole wheat flour. This is my slightly modified (and commented upon) version.
War Cake

1/2 cup shortening (you can use avocado or coconut oil, but butter is really nice)
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp other spices (cloves, mace, ginger, etc.)
1 cup chopped raisins or other dried fruits (prunes, figs, etc.)
1 cup sugar, brown or white (I suspect that you could get by with 3/4 c without consequence)
1 cup water
2 cups whole wheat flour
1/4 tsp soda
2 tsp baking powder

Sift flour, soda, and baking powder.
Put all other ingredients in a pan and bring to a boil. Cook for 5 minutes, then cool thoroughly.
Add the sifted dry ingredients and mix well.
Bake 45 minutes (test for doneness) in a greased or parchmented loaf pan at 325-350F
Fisher calls this "an honest cake" and "one loved by hungry children"--although she didn't miss it after the war and when she was all grown up. (194)  It's reminiscent of my grandmother's applesauce cake, which was probably pretty fundamental at first, but got richer--and chocolaty-er as the economy improved.  And if you want to form memories with your children during this fraught moment in our history, getting them to help you make an "honest cake" (as opposed to a pretty, rich, and frivolous cake like the one I linked earlier) might offer you one such opportunity.

I've spent a great deal of time over the last couple of months transcribing the letters my maternal grandfather wrote to his young wife while he was stationed in France at the end of the Great War. And I'm about to start doing the same thing with letters my father sent to my grandmother while he was serving in the South Pacific during WWII. Reading their words and understanding their hardships makes it fairly simple to be grateful for my own current sheltered existence. The larder is full, the freezer(s) are well-packed, and we only have to go out every couple of weeks for a top-up of fresh fruit, veg, and milk. Folks at the turn of the twentieth century, and in the 1940s experienced as little certainty as we do now, and still faced it with ingenuity and resourcefulness. There are flashes of those same qualities in some of the stories I'm reading in the papers and that come over the interwebs. I just hope that we don't get so scared or--even worse--so complacent that the virus gets the best of us.

As the caption on the political cartoon I opened this post with says, "One of you pesky critters comes around here about every twenty years; but this is the gun that gits you!" This time, the gun will have to be a syringe with a vaccine in it, or some sort of effective treatment for those already infected. But I'm not so much of a curmudgeon or a pessimist that I can't hope that, as a species, we'll prevail once again.

Meanwhile, it's time for a tisane, and perhaps to bake a loaf of War Cake. Be safe, People, and take care.

Image credit: The chromolithograph, Uncle Sam (to the Wolf at the Door)  is from Puck, v. 35, no. 892 (April 11, 1894). The image was obtained, initially through Wikimedia Commons, from the Library of Congress collections. The original copyright was held by Keppler & Schwarzmann, 1894, but the LoC is aware of no publishing restrictions, so I felt free to use it. The linked page includes this information: Print shows a wolf wearing a red cape labeled "Hard Times 1893", standing on a rock outside a gate labeled "U.S." with Uncle Sam standing inside the gate and pointing a rifle labeled "Business Revival" at the wolf; hanging on the wall of a building in the background are hides labeled "Hard Times 1819, Hard Times 1837, Hard Times 1857, [and] Hard Times 1873". Columbia, carrying a rifle labeled "Prosperity", is rushing to aid Uncle Sam.


    Spare Parts and Pics said...

    I can remember my grandmothers applesauce cake. Wow, I had totally forgotten it until I read this post. Thanks for bringing back an important childhood memory!

    jabblog said...

    Things were stringent in UK during WWII and for a long time afterwards. Sugar and butter were strictly rationed and spices and dried fruit scarce or unobtainable. My mother used to make a fatless cake which she continued to make after the war. By the time I started to appreciate it butter was readily available and liberally spread on said cake.

    Jim said...

    Great shots.