A WOLF at the DOOR

by: Sarah Blake

T he end of 1942 should be remembered as the most uncertain and perhaps darkest time of the war, when the balance did not seem to be tipping clearly in either direction. It was in this environment—of shortages, scrap drives, and ration cards—that the food writer M. F. K. Fisher published How to Cook a Wolf. In 21 short essays with recipes, Fisher reminds us that life ------ bread, wine, friends at a table—need not disappear during war. Keeping the wolf from the door, she wrote, is a way to prevail in times when “men take up arms.

Put the words patriotism and food together these days, and you’ll probably arrive at “freedom fries.” But during World War II, you did your part with how and what you ate. After Pearl Harbor, the Office of War Information published posters explicitly linking home-front cuisine to the war effort.. “Do with less, so they’ll have enough!” one poster exhorts, picturing a soldier raising a big tin cup to his lips with a smile; “Rationing Safeguards Your Share” another proclaims as a woman appraises her market’s shelves. By 1943, food rationing was in full swing: Meat, butter, oil, some cheeses, white sugar, and coffee were rationed, as were canned goods, frozen fruits, and vegetables. Doing with less meant not only rethinking what was in your pantry but rethinking what constituted a meal itself.

The big challenge was to satisfy the hefty Amencan hunger for meat. Before the war, the average American ate 126 pounds of meat a year; even during rationing, Americans were allotted an average of 6 ounces each per day, compared with the Brits’ 16 ounces a week . (These numbers pale in comparison with what an Amer-ican meat-eater consumes now: 195 pounds a year.)

HAMBURGER HELPERS. Ground beef became popular during the ‘40s, as a patriotic salvo to fire across the battlements of steakless houses. Hamburger was only seven rationing points as compared with 12 (one person’s allotment for a whole week) for a T-bone steak and could be made into such meat-stretching dishes as tamale pie, meatloaf (bulked with bread crumbs), and stuffed peppers. The custom of serving the meat course in a ring—of buttered noodles, rice, or hominy grits—began during the ‘40s as a way to distract the American stomach from the diminished amount of meat at the ring’s center.

The war generated creative answers to entertaining with less as well. It was during the ‘40s that potluck suppers and progressive dinners appeared, with neighbors pooling their rationing points and either contributing a dish or. moving from house to house for each course. Gardens were grown for victory; vitamins were pushed to keep the home front in fighting shape. Over and over, the preparation of food was yoked to the war: Eating had a purpose, and how one ate was a sign of one’s real support.

NICER THINGS. So Fisher urged cooks to eke out simple pleasures. Suggest-ing a tiny dollop of herbed buffer on a piece of meat or fish, she says, “They are not necessary, but they are nice, in the right sense of the word, so that eating meat becomes not a physical function, like breathing or defecating, but an agreeable and almost intellectual satisfaction of the senses.” In between practical asides—choosing a roast with the bone in is more economical because it will cook six minutes faster per pound and therefore cut down on the gas bill—come moments like these:  “The wolf was at the door and no mistake: until I filled the room with the smell of hot buffer and red wine,” says Fisher. “And with a glass of wine and some honest-to-God bread, [a frittata] is a meal. At the end of it you know that Fate cannot harm you, for you have dined.”

Fisher keeps in mind the women who have just returned from the munitions factory. For the end of the month, when the wolf is stalking more closely than ever, the rationing points have run down, and a paycheck maybe tight, there is her famous recipe for “sludge”: Take 15 cents of ground beef and whatever vegetables are in the grocer’s bin. Using a food grinder, grind them into a pot, cover the mixture with “what seems too much water,” and cook it. After an hour, add 10 cents’ worth of whole-grain cereal, and cook two more hours. “It is obvious to even the most optimistic,” Fisher writes, “that this sludge, which should be like stiff cold mush, and a rather unpleasant murky brown-gray in color, is strictiy for hunger.”

But hunger can be appeased, charmed, and wiled. And all human beings dance with this wolf, no matter where they live. Fisher had traveled extensively throughout Europe during the ‘30s, and How to Cook a Wolf reminds readers of the world before war, when everyone sat down to the table knowing that eating, and loving what was eaten, was life, pure and simple. It was one of the things people were fighting for, then and always..


 Margarine was an instant success in 1869 when it was invented from beef suet and milk. In 1887, there were more than 30 margarine factories in the United States, many using yellow dye to make the impostor look like butter. But traditional dairies squawked, and by 1902, some 32 states had passed laws banning the dye. WWII butter rationing made margarine popular nonetheless . And more people used the spread with the news in the late 1960s that butter was high in saturated fat. The later concern over trans-fats has converted some back to dairy. Still. Americans today eat about twice as much margarine as butter.


                                                      U. S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT

August 15 / August 22, 2005. (Pg. 57-59)

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