I like to remember the “eat to live, do not live to eat” quote every time I go to the supermarket. Everything there is strategically arranged to tempt the buyer! That’s what you call marketing (pun intended). Before you know it, you’ve bought a whole host of things that you have no use for. That’s excess, and that's not a good thing. Socrates would be disappointed as would be MFK Fisher; MFK eschewed excess. Of course, when times are hard, excess is difficult. When the "wolf is at the door," meaning when one is faced with difficult times, ingenuity must come into play.
MFK Fisher’s book “How to Cook a Wolf,” written during World War II, is devoted to giving ideas on how to eat well during hard times. The book's premise is how to master the proverbial wolf rather than let him threaten. Keep calm, be ingenious, and persevere. That's "How to Cook a Wolf!" Clever title, enjoyable book. This was my introduction to MFK Fisher (Thank you, Simona). Fisher was a bohemian, a cook, a gourmet, a journalist and a pioneering food essayist. In her book, she discusses food shortages, rationing and other difficulties faced in the US during the World War II.
Her observations about food contradicted what was commonly believed at the time, but she was right on target: Eat lots of fresh vegetables she said. Have a nice, big salad. Don't forget about seafood. If you have wilted vegetables, they're perfect for soup. Make sure your eggs are fresh, even if you have to pay a little more. It will be worth it in the end. Make your food stretch by adding rice or potatoes to it. Save on gas: your oven can accommodate more than one dish at a time. Add the dessert in there along with the main course ... Her ideas about fresh food and food economy are conveyed in a clever, appealing manner. One of these days I may have to try baking her tomato soup cake. Tomato soup? In cake? It's been heard of. It was a pretty common Depression-era and wartime addition to spice cake. Tomato soup was the "mystery ingredient" which allowed cooks to economise on the use of oil/butter, milk, eggs, and sugar. MFK doesn't tell us, but tomato soup makes a cake moister and sweeter. Of course, you know ... don't add it when making a genoise ...
In her book, Fisher explained such things as how to cook a tough cut of meat. During the war, my family felt they were rich if they could eat bean soup for dinner. My grandfather was imprisoned and nearly shot because he bought meat from someone who butchered a cow without having gotten permission from the authorities. Needless to say, the man who butchered the cow (his own cow), was shot. Shot dead. Knowing all these stories, plus lots more, I initially reacted to Fisher’s book with commingled feelings: with interest, because this is a charming book, but also with disdain because I knew and sympathised with people who had it a lot worse than Fisher's intended readers. In wartime America, food was plentiful albeit rationed. In Greece, food was a luxury and near starvation was the norm. Tell me MFK, how do you make a nice meal out of just a handful of raisins? I really don't think MFK, knowledgeable as she was, would have had an answer.
Fisher has a very nice recipe for polenta in the chapter "How to Pray for Peace," and she aptly describes the starchy cornmeal concoction that is polenta as "a sturdy... mixture, the kind that has survived centuries of loving obedience from hungry, simple peoples."
I also made polenta, which was my family's wartime staple. After the war, polenta all but disappeared from Greek dinner tables, but strapatsada is still a favourite.
Soon after he was born, the yet unnamed baby Socrates was taken to church, ready and willing to be christened. It’s a Greek tradition to name the newborn after his or her grandparents. And there was the problem. The baby's mother wanted her son to have her father’s name, and the baby's father wanted his son to have his father’s name. For days, the back and forth had been:
"It's going to be Nicholas!"
"No, it's going to be Constantine!"
Husband and wife could not agree (sound familiar)? They arrived at church still arguing about names. Now the godmother of the baby was to be my mother, who at the time was about 12 years old. Godparents in Greece have special powers. They can execute a coup, and give the baby a name of their own choosing. My grandfather saw that the argument between the baby’s parents was not going to be settled anytime soon, so he approached my mother.
“Tell the priest to name the baby Socrates,” he whispered in her ear.
As a compromise, grandfather decided to have the baby named after one of the famous ancient Greeks. You know, Socrates, the philosopher who said “eat to live, do not live to eat.” So the ceremony started, and when the priest asked:
“What is this servant of God going to be named?” my mother belted out:
So Socrates it was, and Socrates it is. After every christening, there always follows a big celebratory dinner. That’s the point of this story: what do you serve when there is nothing much to be had? Vegetables! My grandparents grew tomatoes in their yard. Plus they had some chickens they kept for the eggs, plus they always managed to get feta cheese. (How they got feta cheese during the war is a very long story. I can email you the details). With those ingredients on hand, they made strapatsada. Lots and lots of strapatsada. And the sweet kind of polenta. And a salad too. A really big salad. Plus they had homemade noodles flavored with olive oil and more feta cheese. Then, there was fruit for dessert. My mother always spoke about that dinner. In the midst of deprivation such a feast made a big impression. I think MFK Fisher would have been pleased with the results.
Thank you for reading my post, but I am not finished. Reader, hang on. I have one more thing to add:
Socrates, I love you!