I’ve never had a problem that couldn’t be solved by reading a book, so I decided to see if MFK Fisher had any helpful hints for me. Her 1942 classic, How to Cook a Wolf, was written during the Second World War, when even people who could afford food couldn’t necessarily find fresh eggs and meat at the grocery store, even without rationing. Maybe pretending the more expensive food in the supermarket didn’t exist could be an effective savings tactic.
I’d picked up the book years earlier at a used bookstore as part of The Art of Eating, a compilation of five of Fisher’s books. (The title How to Cook a Wolf refers to the wolf at the door and is not a suggestion to make a stew from that critter you just shot from a helicopter.)
All I remembered from my first reading was Fisher’s sludge of last resort, described in the chapter, “How to Keep Alive.” Rather than starve, she recommended dining on a mush of ground beef, cereal and whatever vegetables were cheapest. She claimed that not only would this concoction sustain life, but that the fried leftovers even tasted good. I briefly considered whipping some up just to see the look on my husband’s face when I dished it up. But that would mean having to eat the ridiculous stuff. Besides, unlike wartime housewives, I could fall back on fast food dollar menus, which are more appetizing, if not more nutritious. I decided to pass.
It’s just as well that I decided against it—later on she suggested using the sludge as dog food.
Still, I wanted to save money for all those flights to visit the in-laws without resorting to a daily dose of chicken nuggets, so I began rereading and marking up the book, seeking helpful hints and supercheap recipes. Between her conversational tone and desire for my well-being, I was talking to her in my head by the end of the first chapter. “Good idea, Mary Frances.” “What were you thinking, Mary Frances?” “How adorable that you’re suggesting I save fuel by cooking my food in a crate stuffed with hay, Mary Frances.” (Her own 1951 updates to the book smirk at that one, though I kinda wanna try it now.)
Her recipe for salmon pancake reminded me of the salmon cakes my mom and aunt would whip up on camping trips. I added canned salmon to the shopping list, even though I wasn’t sure my local supermarket had any. Once I looked past the two shelves of canned tuna, I discovered half a dozen brands of canned salmon, plus canned baby shrimps, clams and sardines. “Thanks, Mary Frances,” I thought cheerily as I contemplated the possibilities. Along with the salmon, I got a can of shrimp for shrimp cocktail, made a mental note to find a clam chowder recipe and renewed my conviction never to eat sardines.
On my way home, I checked the receipt. One can of environmentally sustainable, low mercury wild Alaskan salmon, large enough to feed two people, cost less than three dollars. I could buy seven cans for what I usually paid for two filets. I was saving a fortune.
At home, I smugly opened and drained the can and dumped the fish into a bowl. I then realized why I’d always been sent outside when my mom and aunt made salmon cakes. I’d heard to expect skin and short prickly bones, but vertebrae? Really, Mary Frances? I was sensing a secret plot to save my money by turning me into a vegetarian. I practically heard her talk back, “Stop being so prissy.”
This is a woman who included a recipe for calves’ brains because she thought it was silly not to eat the less popular parts of animals. After reading about her culinary adventures, dinner parties, and fascinating friends, I wanted to be the sort of person who she would’ve liked. But my social conditioning about what was edible was more powerful than my desire to pass muster with someone who passed away in 1992.
After a quick consultation with the Internet, I knew that the canning process had cooked and softened the skin and bones. I could mash them into the fish and eat them without even noticing they were there. But I’d know they were there and find myself completely unable to swallow.
I decided I’d rather be a hypocritical sissy carnivore than knowingly eat fish bones. Mary Frances would’ve been so disappointed in me, but I was too busy trying not to gag to care.
After diligently picking out the skin and bones, I added two eggs to the salmon, just like Mary Frances told me to. But as I started mixing, it seemed that there was entirely too much egg in the bowl. Only then did it occur to me that 65 years ago, no one had even dreamed of Jumbo sized eggs and that I should’ve adjusted the recipe by adding only one. I mixed in a ridiculous amount of breadcrumbs (homemade in the food processor from stale bread—Mary Frances would be proud) to keep the mixture from turning into a giant fish omelet while glaring at the book on my kitchen counter.
“I am a good cook, Mary Frances,” I muttered as I stirred. ”Stop trying to trip me up by assuming I’m using oldfangled small eggs.”
The recipe said to make one large pancake instead of smaller cakes, which would be easier to flip. I decided to avert disaster by making four little ones.
“Take that, Mary Frances,” I said triumphantly to her portrait on the book cover.
I served them up with some couscous and homemade tartar sauce and enjoyed every bite.
My husband, whom I’d banished from the kitchen so he wouldn’t see the bones and start refusing to eat seafood, asked me to make it again soon.
I went online the next day to confirm the existence of boneless, skinless canned salmon (available only in the past 10 years or so) and I started looking for it in my local supermarkets. I could’ve ordered a dozen cans online, but I doubted Mary Frances would approve of my paying for shipping and handling.
Later in the week, I attempted her clam chowder. The recipe is simple and straightforward and calls for so much bacon that she should’ve called it bacon chowder. After polishing off the first bowl, I grabbed a pencil and made a note to use two ounces of bacon the next time instead of the whopping half pound she calls for. It made sense that eggs had gotten bigger since 1942, but had bacon gotten more bacony in the intervening years?
Her Parisian Onion Soup was easy to make and stood up to my memories of eating some in a café near a friend’s apartment in the 20th arrondissement.
Intoxicated with success, I decided to try her gazpacho, even though I’ve never eaten gazpacho and had no idea how it was supposed to taste or if I’d like it. After chopping vegetables for an hour, I could only force down half a bowl. I wasn’t sure if I’d used too much cucumber or not enough garlic for my taste, but the flavor was just wrong. I’d never be able to face Mary Frances again if I threw it out and let all that food go to waste. My husband had the idea to boil it down into pasta sauce, and, with the addition of an excessive amount of garlic and oregano, it was palatable, but not the sort of culinary triumph that I knew Mary Frances expected of me.
I consoled myself with the thought that it was still better tasting than the sludge would’ve been.
I needed a few weeks to recover until a repeat of the onion soup restored my faith in my ability. After that, armed with slightly more expensive, bone-free cans of salmon, I only had to check the recipe once to whip up salmon pancakes. Using only one egg this time, I needed a mere two spoonfuls of breadcrumbs and finished cooking without a single moment of panic or trepidation.
I felt so proud. Making fish at home used to require so much planning and precision. It would mean a trip to the fish market on the way home from work and no last minute menu changes, because that meant risking $20 of fish going bad in the refrigerator overnight. But now I could keep cans in the house and make it at the last minute with barely an advance thought.
I couldn’t quite believe it, but a cookbook from the 1940s had given me convenience on top of cost savings. I felt so empowered. I knew Mary Frances would approve.