Best Wartime Cookbook (1942) (2010)

How to Cook a Wolf

The late 1930s and early 1940s were kind of a grim time in Southern California. The Great Depression hit Los Angeles as hard as it hit practically anywhere in the country, and the vast influx of penniless retirees from cold states put an unusual burden on the state. Although the agricultural bounty was still unmatched in the world, a huge portion of it was swallowed by the war effort starting in 1942, and food, as elsewhere in the country, was rationed. M.F.K. Fisher, a glamorous Whittier-born sybarite who wrote for Hollywood and had spent her formative gastronomic years in France, was probably not the most obvious candidate to write a masterpiece about privation. She had become well-known for writing about dishes that few Americans would ever have a chance to taste, not about dishes that most Americans would soon be forced to eat. Yet as with Elizabeth David in England, the cincture of wartime rations touched something in her that was deep and true. And it can be argued that How to Cook a Wolf, her third cookbook, is the finest thing she ever wrote about food — not just recipes, but a thrifty worldview that brings out the best in a cook. In the midst of even our limited abundance, few of us are likely to follow her directions for war cake made with bacon fat, a grand hash made from the wilting weekend contents of an icebox, or poverty sludge; but read as literature, the book is superb. "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." How to Cook a Wolf, by M.F.K. Fisher. —Jonathan Gold