I first heard of this book by way of my sister, on her blog The Graceful Light, which is often more uplifting than my morning coffee, so I badger her to post frequently, for purely selfish reasons.
The subtitle is actually a better clue as to the agenda of this book: COOKING with ECONOMY and GRACE. The author, Tamar Adler, tells you right up front, that her book is modeled after a small cookbook published in 1942 by M.F.K. Fisher titled, How to Cook a Wolf. I’ve read both in the last two weeks and can tell you that Adler was right to reference the book as often as she does, because she borrows from Fisher’s content heavily. But, unless you are just a nerd for history, skip Fisher’s book and read An Everlasting Meal, which takes the wonderful lessons in How to Cook a Wolf and modernizes them.
The “wolf” Fisher refers to is a metaphor for the aggressive, ugly and unwanted presence of lack/poverty/bare pantries. Fisher lived during World War II, so ingredient shortages were a part of every day life (can you imagine getting tickets for sugar allowances?!) “Cooking a Wolf” is Fisher’s guide to making the most out of little. Tamar Adler carries this mindset into the 21st century. She explains that her book is “about eating affordably, responsibly, and well, and because doing so relies on cooking, it is mostly about that.”
I learned so much from her thought process—which is essentially what this book is. As if Adler were thinking out loud, she introduces you to the possibilities in literally every scrap of food in your kitchen. As someone who usually relies on recipes to give me a starting point for how to combine flavors and create meals, my perspective was really turned on it’s head.
“Great meals rarely start at points that look like beginnings. They usually pick up where something else leaves off…I have spare but sturdy recommendations for beginnings, and lots for picking up loose ends. Stale slices of bread should be ground into breadcrumbs, which make a delicious topping for pasta, and add crunch to a salad. Or they must be toasted and broken apart for croutons or brittle crackers, which ask to be smeared with olive paste.
Meals’ ingredients must be allowed to topple into one another like dominos. Broccoli stems, their florets perfectly boiled in salty water, must be simmered with olive oil and eaten with shaved Parmesan on toast; their leftover cooking liquid kept for the base for soup, studded with other vegetables, drizzled with good olive oil, with the rind of the Parmesan added for heartiness…
I have always found that recipes make food preparation seem staccato: they begin where their writers are, asking that you collect the ingredients their writers have…But cooking is best approached from wherever you find yourself when you are hungry, and should extend long past the end of the page. There should be serving, and also eating, and storing away what’s left; there should be looking at meals’ remainders with interest and imagining all the good things they will become. I have tried to include more of that and fewer teaspoons and tablespoons and cups.”
And just as she says, this book really is not so much a cookbook in the traditional sense, as there are very few teaspoons and tablespoons mentioned, rather this book is like a mentor showing you the methods and mind needed to create meals with the simplest of pantries.
After reading it, I shopped quite differently. I have a great many pantry staples (rice, pasta, beans) and usually a good supply of meat in the freezer that I’ve purchased during a sale, so all I was really missing was produce. So I went to our local weekend farmer’s market and had the freeing experience of shopping for vegetables with my eyes. I just loaded up my wagon (yep, kids in tow) with everything that looked appealing. No plans. No recipes. Brought home my haul and began applying the things I learned. Great food happened this week, but the surprising part was that it happened just like Adler said it would. Meals grew from hunger and creativity and the ends that suggested beginnings. That doesn’t mean I’ll never follow a recipe again, but it frees me from the need to always have one, and it makes the most of what is left after shopping for one.
Cooking with economy, as her subtitle claims, is exactly what she teaches, and I have a huge appreciation for that amidst a culture of consumerism. The waste and discontent, the unquenchable thirst for the next new thing stirs up a rant in me, and while I am not entirely innocent in this matter, I hope in the small act of extracting all the good possible from my food, I can combat the temptation to take so much for granted. We may not need to cook “wolves” anymore, but I wonder if our stewardship of plenty, as a nation will be judged and found wanting. What then?