In Maine, we are having what might be called a good, old-fashioned cold spell, where the temperature barely rises above zero during the day and goes well below zero at night. Add a brisk wind and you have weather so chilly that people barely want to go out to get their mail, much less go for a walk. A hard time for our dog, Liam, who is still energetic at 8 and loves to run and bark in the backyard. Despite the cold, Liam nevertheless gets his chance to run and bark as every day I have to bring in three wheel barrow’s worth of wood for our furnace.
This brisk weather is a good time to make a cup of tea and settle on the couch with a book. This January, I am rereading M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf, first published in 1944. Despite the stiff competition from an increasingly crowded field, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher (1908–1992) remains one of America’s best food writers. W. H. Auden noted, “I do not know know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose.” This is high praise coming from a great poet, and it is no exaggeration. M.F.K. Fisher wrote beautifully, and, just as important, she had something to say.
How to Cook a Wolf is fortunately metaphorical rather than literal—there are no instructions on how to butcher and roast a wolf. The book was written during World War II, and it addresses how one might live creatively in a time of shortage. In the second chapter, Fisher quotes her grandmother: “I see that ever since I was married, well over fifty years ago, I have been living on a war budget without realizing it! I never knew before that using common sense in the kitchen was stylish only in emergencies.” Fisher notes that although her “grandmother’s observation need not have been so sardonically phrased…probably it was true then…and it is even more appropriate now.”
Almost 70 years later it is still true. Common sense belongs in the kitchen (and the rest of the house) in good times as well as hard ones. In addition, Fisher’s frugal but common-sense tips are particularly relevant today.
Many of us, even in this richest country in the world, feel as though the “wolf is at the door.” Expenses go up, but for most of us, salaries remain the same. What was once a comfortable income is no longer quite as comfortable. Bills must be paid. Pennies must be pinched. Extras—such as meals out and plays—are often eliminated. While those who have jobs and health care have much to be grateful for, there is no denying the feeling that things aren’t quite as good as they once were, except for the few at the top, where life is better than ever. With Earth’s dwindling resources, increased automation at the work place, and a still-rising population, it is my guess that the wolf will be at the door for quite a while. It seems to me the trick is to acknowledge this and to still live as well as possible. (And, of course, to elect politicians who will address the gross inequality in this country.)
These observations, in turn, bring me to creamed tuna, a thrifty dish my mother often served for supper. She was a child of the Great Depression and knew a thing or two about making do with little. My mother often said of her own grandmother: “Even when it seemed as though there was hardly anything in the cupboards or refrigerator, my grandmother could still put together a warm, tasty meal.”
Cream sauces are not very much in vogue right now, but I must admit to having a fondness for them. Smooth, warm, rich with butter. Really, what’s not to like? All right, they are a little plain and old-fashioned, but what wrong with that?
I loved my mother’s creamed tuna, which she usually served over potatoes. (We are Mainers, after all.) But I wondered, could I jazz it up just a little, so that it would have extra zing? Yes, I could, with garlic and dill, nice additions which lifted the cream sauce from tasty to very tasty. And how about a little sour cream or yogurt to replace some of the milk? Ditto.
Creamed tuna is definitely a family dish and probably not one you would serve to company. However, when the thermometer barely rises above zero, and the wolf seems to be nuzzling the door, creamed tuna on potatoes (or toast) tastes, as my Yankee husband would put it, pretty darned good.
Note about the tuna: Tuna, as I’m sure readers know, can be high in mercury, with albacore being the worst. Chunk light tuna, which is often yellow fin, is lower in mercury and the tuna of choice in our house. Still, it is only an occasional treat for us.