How to Cook a Wolf quotes

It’s never happened to me before that a book about food makes me laugh out loud, but it happened to me, more than once, reading MFK Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf. I found this book on the Guardian’s list of "100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time" and borrowed it from the library on account of its title. As an extra layer of entertainment, the author has gone back on the version originally published in 1944 and made comments in parenthesis and brackets about what she wrote, agreeing sometimes, or disagreeing other times. Here is a collection of quotes about;

Obvious things:
And any kitchen-idiot would know enough to core the apples. (p 21)

The natural progression from boiling water to boiling water with something in it can hardly be avoided, and in most cases is heartily to be wished for. As a steady diet, plain water is inclined to make thin fare, and even saints, of which there are an unexpected number these days, will gladly agree that a few herbs and perhaps a carrot or two and maybe a bit of meager bone on feast-days can mightily improve the somewhat monotonous flavour of the hot liquid.
Soup, in other words, is good. (p 28)

Strange soup customs:
A great deal of misinformation has been quoted for several centuries about the delicious soup that sits for years at the back of every good French stove. It is supposed to be like old-fashioned yeast, always renewing itself and yet always stemming from the original “starter”, so that a chicken bone thrown in last Easter may long since have disappeared but will still lend its aromatic aura to the present brew.
I do not like this fiction, and prefer not to believe it. I think soup-pots should be made fresh now and then, like people’s minds at the New Year. They should be emptied and scrubbed and started over again, with clean water, a few peppercorns, whatever little scraps are left from yesterday, and then today’s bones and lettuce leaves and cold toast and such. Set at the back of the stove and left to summer, with an occasional stir from the cook, they can make a fine clear stock for sauces as well as a heartening broth. (p 30)

The best soup:
Probably the most satisfying soup in the world for people who are hungry, as well as for those who are tired or worried or cross or in debt or in a moderate amount of pain or in love or in robust health or in any kind of business huggermuggery, is minestrone. (p 38)

The proliferation of mediocre cookbooks:
Its inevitable progress from a pot with a watery bone in it to potage à la Reine and Crème Vichyssoise is for anyone to read in forty thousand cookbooks, most of them bad. [By now there must be fifty thousand, most of them still bad, or at least dull. It is safe to wager that in the past eight years not more than eight really important cookbooks have been published in America… and that, of those, not more than one is essential. (At first I wrote: “Not one.”)] (p 29)

About consulting other cookbooks:
I can make amazingly bad fried eggs, and in spite of what people tell me about this method and that, I continue to make amazingly bad fried eggs: tough, with edges like some kind of dirty starched lace, and a taste part sulphur and part singed newspaper. The best way to find a trustworthy method, I think, is to ask almost anyone but me. Or look in a cookbook. Or experiment. (p 57)

I suggest that anyone who acknowledges the value of good cookery in a life deliberately full of love, happiness and health (that is, anyone who cares about human dignity!) read several other books and from them and this one and most of all from himself produce his own decision. (p 124)

Animal parts:
One way to horrify at least eight out of ten Anglo-Saxons is to suggest their eating anything but the actual red fibrous meat of a beast. A heart or a kidney or even a sweetbread is anathema. It is too bad, since there are so many nutritious and entertaining ways to prepare the various livers and lights. They can become gastronomic pleasures instead of dogged voodoo, so that when you eat a stuffed baked bull’s heart, or a grilled lamb’s brain or a “mountain oyster,” you  need not choke them down with the nauseated resolve to be braver or wiser or more potent, but with plain delight. [I believe this more firmly than ever, but am years wearier in my fight: Now, when I want to eat what English butchers call “offal,” I wait until everyone has gone to the Mid-South Peoria Muezzins’ Jamboree and Ham-bake, and then make myself a dainty dish.] (p 101)

Why is it worse, in the end, to see an animal’s head cooked and prepared for out pleasure than a thigh or a tail or a rib? If we are going to live on other inhabitants of this world we must not bind ourselves with illogical prejudices, but savor to the fullest the beasts we have killed.
People who feel that a lamb’s cheek is gross and vulgar when a chop is not are like the medieval philosophers who argued about such hairsplitting problems as how many angels could dance on the point of a pin. If you have these prejudices, ask yourself if they are not built on what you may have been taught when you were young and unthinking, and then if you can, teach yourself to enjoy some of the parts of an animal that are not commonly prepared. (p 103)

Appreciating meat:
But for all of us, no matter what our tastes, life would be simpler and the wolf would howl less loudly if we could adjust our minds to admit, even if we never quite believed it, that a tender sizzling rare grilled tenderloin was a luxury instead of a necessity. (p 110)

Food memories:
War cake can be made in muffin-tins, and baked more quickly, but in a loaf it stays fresh longer. It is very good with a glass of milk, I remember. (I am sure that I could live happily forever without tasting it again. There are many things like that: you recall with astonishment and a kind of admiration some of the things eaten with sensual delight at eight or eighteen, that would be a gastronomical auto da fé for you at twenty-eight, or fifty. But that does not mean that you were wrong so long ago. War Cake says nothing to me now, but I know that it is an honest cake, and one loved by hungry children. And I’m not ashamed of having loved it… merely a little puzzled, and thankful that I am no longer eight.) (p 155)

Unpleasant kitchen smells:
Indeed, it can be said that fumes linger, period. They lurk in cupboards. They drift subtly through closed doors, not matter what cunning draft you may enforce, at risk of double pneumonia, through the kitchenette. They hang in the curtains, and fall out at you two nights later like overripe shreds of dead ghost.
There is not much to do about it; you either like fried onion or hot cabbage salad enough to endure them, or you eat lettuce or green peas instead. (p 172)


Near summer’s end, I read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, drawn to the book because of quotes on the subject of agriculture here. It was a fascinating read! Here are a few things that stuck with me.

On pages 90-91, Harari talks about Gobekli Tepe an archaeological site dating from 9500 B.C. from pre-agricultural societies. He posits that a common belief enabled the cooperation of Neolithic peoples and that villages grew around this site later, and furthermore, that the initial domestication of wheat 30 kilometres away wasn’t a coincidence but the natural development of people coming and living together. This is contrary to the assumption of the hunter-gatherer, then agriculture then religion order you might assume. But the book is full of these idea reversals and that is what makes it an invigorating read.

This is what Harari has to say about capitalism:

/…/ Smith made the following novel argument: when a landlord, a weaver, or a shoemaker has greater profits than he needs to maintain his own family, he uses the surplus to employ more assistants, in order to further increase his profits. The more profits he has, the more assistants he can employ. It follows that an increase in the profits of private entrepreneurs is the basis for the increase in collective wealth and prosperity.

It may not strike you as very original, because we all live in a capitalist world that takes Smith’s argument for granted. We hear variations on this theme every day in the news. Yet Smith’s claim that the selfish human urge to increase private profits is the basis for collective wealth is one of the most revolutionary ideas in human history – revolutionary not just from an economic perspective, but even more so from a moral and political perspective. What Smith says is, in fact, that greed is good, and that by becoming richer I benefit everybody, not just myself. Egoism is altruism.

Inevitably I think of Trump, most especially during the first debate. But Harari goes on to compare capitalism to a force stronger than religion.

Christians and Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs could nevertheless agree on a monetary belief, because whereas religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something. (p 185)

Or perhaps, more to the point, Harari compares capitalism to the most compelling religion ever invented:

The capitalist-consumerist ethic is revolutionary in another respect. Most previous ethical systems presented people with a pretty tough deal. They were promised paradise, but only if they cultivated compassion and tolerance, overcame craving and anger, and restrained their selfish interests. This was too tough for most. The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha, and most Confucians would have caused Conficius a temper tantrum.

In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist-consumerist ideal. The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money, and that the masses give free reign to their cravings and passions – and buy more and more. This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do. How, though, do we know that we’ll really get paradise in return? We’ve seen it on television. (p 349)

He explained the way modern science isn’t just about technology but that it “differs from all previous traditions of knowledge in three critical ways: the willingness to admit ignorance, the centrality of observation and mathematics, and the acquisition of new powers.” (p. 250-251)

One chapter has a lyrical conclusion:

We may conclude by saying that we are on the threshold of both heaven and hell, moving nervously between the gateway of the one and the anteroom of the other. History has still not decided where we will end up, and a string of coincidences might yet send us rolling in either direction.

And then there’s this fascinating discussion about happiness, its only-recent study and its meaning in history:

The crucial importance of human expectations has far-reaching implications for understanding the history of happiness. If happiness depended only on objective conditions such as wealth, health and social relations, it would have been relatively easy to investigate in history. The finding that it depends on subjective expectations makes the task of historians far harder. We moderns have an arsenal of tranquillisers and painkillers at our disposal, but our expectations of ease and pleasure, and our intolerance of inconvenience and discomfort, have increased to such an extent that we may well suffer from pain more than our ancestors did.

It’s hard to accept this line of thinking. The problem is a fallacy of reasoning embedded deep in our psyches. When we try to guess or imagine how happy other people are now, or how people in the past were, we inevitably imagine ourselves in their shoes. But that won’t work because it pastes our expectations on the material conditions of others. In modern affluent societies it is customary to take a shower and change your clothes every day. Medieval peasants went without washing for months on end, and hardly ever changed their clothes. The very thought of living like that, filthy and reeking to the bone, is abhorrent to us. Yet medieval peasants seem not to have minded. They were used to the feel and smell of a long-unlaundered shirt. It’s not that they wanted a change of clothes but couldn’t get it – they had what they wanted. So, at least as far as clothing goes, they were content. […]

… our entire understanding of the history of happiness might be misguided. Maybe it isn’t so important whether people’s expectations are fulfilled and whether they enjoy pleasant feelings. The main question is whether people know the truth about themselves. What evidence do we have that people today understand this truth any better than ancient foragers or medieval peasants?

Harari is fun to read because he acknowledges questions, answers them or else tells you why there isn’t an answer yet. Reading Sapiens makes you feel like you have a falcon’s eye over centuries of human development.

Bit of lit

This wonderful quote comes from the book American Pastoral by Philip Roth. 

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that – well, lucky you.



I am reading Flannery O'Connor's letters. My favourite is a letter she wrote to Eileen Hall on March 10, 1956. Here is a large part of it.

When I first began to write I was much worried about this thing of scandalizing people, as I fancied that what I wrote was highly inflammatory. I was wrong - it wouldn’t even have kept anybody awake, but anyway, thinking this was my problem, I talked to a priest about it. The first thing he said was, “You don’t have to write for fifteen year old girls.” Of course, the mind of a fifteen year old girl lurks in many a head that is seventy-five and people are every day being scandalized not only by what is scandalous of its nature but by what is not. If a novelist wrote a book about Abraham passing his wife Sarah off as his sister - which he did - and allowing her to be taken over by those who wanted her for their lustful purposes - which he did to save his skin - how many Catholics would not be scandalized at the behavior of Abraham? The fact is that in order not to be scandalized, one has to have a whole view of things, which not many of us have.

This is a problem that has concerned Mauriac very much and he wrote a book about it called, “God and Mammon.” His conclusion was that all the novelist could do was “purify the source” - his mind. A young man had written Mauriac a letter saying that as a result of reading one of his novels, he had almost committed suicide. It almost paralyzed Mauriac. At the same time, he was not responsible for the lack of maturity in the boy’s mind and there were doubtless other souls who were profiting from his books. When you write a novel, if you have been honest about it and if your conscience is clear, then it seems to me that you have to leave the rest in God’s hands. When the book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry about this is to take over God’s business.
— Flannery O'Connor