Monday, July 29, 2013

WHEN YOU'RE EATING TO LIVE TRY THE POLENTA: REFLECTIONS ON READING MFK FISHER'S "HOW TO COOK A WOLF"

Strapatsada, a Greek tomato and egg dish, is a delicious and economical choice... 
“By all means marry; if you get a good wife, you'll be happy. If you get a bad one, you'll become a philosopher.” That’s what Socrates said, and it’s well known that he had an unhappy marriage. So he became a philosopher. I imagine his wife was a horrible cook because soon after Socrates became a philosopher he said: “Eat to live, do not live to eat.” I think what Socrates meant was not to be a glutton or engage in debauchery. Keep to the middle of the road, don’t go overboard. 

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 war.  

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. Use wilted vegetables 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 ... 


 MFK Fisher's "How to Cook a Wolf" is the entry for COOK THE BOOKS CLUB, this round hosted by Simona from BRICIOLE.  Read the book, cook what inspires you from the reading, then blog about it.  That's the objective! 

I would not have been able to praise Fisher had I not decided to write what follows, some of my thoughts concerning food shortages in wartime Europe. Once I had those thoughts on paper, I felt a sense of relief and was able to go back and reread "How to Cook a Wolf" with enjoyment. It was Fisher's chapter on how to manage during blackouts that brought back memories of stories heard from relatives concerning how they dealt with blackouts. And with curfews, too. And with fear. During World War II, my family lived in Greece, which was under nazi occupation. Things there were just a tad more serious than in the US (of course, if not for US soldiers, who knows what Europe would look like today). 

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: interest, because this is a charming book, but disdain also because I knew and sympathised with people who had it a lot worse than Fisher's intended readers: Plentiful albeit rationed eating in wartime America, compared to virtual starvation in wartime Greece. 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.



But if during World War II my relatives considered beans to be a rich meal, polenta was their staple meal. They would eat polenta nearly every day. My grandfather was the polenta guru of the clan, cooking it over an open fire in the yard, and stirring it all the long time it needed to be stirred. Then he would take it to my grandmother who poured it onto a platter and flavored it either with petimezi (a syrup made from grapes), or with feta cheese. Polenta made either sweet or savory. My mother has told me that she loved the sweetened petimezi polenta.  

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."  
   
 My version for polenta, cooked in the oven and with feta cheese added.  

I would like to dedicate this post to the persevering spirit of my relatives and the like minded spirit of all war torn families.  For this entry of Cook the Books Club, I cooked two dishes that I heard lots about from my mother: Strapatsada, a dish made with tomatoes, eggs and feta cheese, something of a luxury food during the war. Strapatsada is reminiscent of Fisher's recipe "eggs in purgatory," known across the pond that is the Atlantic Ocean as "uova in Purgatorio." 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 favorite.

I cut the polenta into triangles (and for some reason felt compelled to provide olives for eyes), toasted it lightly and served it along side the strapatsada.  A truly summery and enjoyable combination!  

Here is a pertinent war-time story: my cousin Socrates was born during World War II. I am very fond of Socrates, he is a righteous dude. He is named after Socrates, the philosopher.  This is how that happened:

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: 

“Socrates!” 

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! 

To make strapatsada, see my recipe here  or  here,   It's delicious and economical.  Serve some and enjoy!  




Sweet Almond Tree says:  How lovely, and thank you so much!






9 comments:

  1. I loved the story of Socrates, your cousin's naming. And, it is good to remember what privations our families went through, being appreciative of what we have. I want to make that delicious sounding Strapatsada.

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  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you for posting your family stories. You do put it all in a different and important perspective. You are right. There are many Americans who have no clue what families in Europe went through during WW II and probably even more who don't even have stories from their own families and the meager sacrifices that were made over here. We are losing our history, I think.

    I do hope you post the feta story for all.

    Wonderful recipes, too, btw.

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  3. First of all, I am glad I introduced you to MFK Fisher's writings. May I recommend the Alphabet book next? ;) Second, I had some of your same thoughts when I read the book the first time. My family was in Italy during the war and not having enough food was a reality the whole nation. I know that such an experience leaves a mark and I inherited the manic attention towards making full use of whatever food I have. Thanks for sharing the story of your cousin's naming. And thanks for the info about polenta: I didn't know it had fallen from favor in Greece. I had seen Strapatsada before and it is intriguing to see how it is connected to dishes in other Mediterranean countries: I just saw an Israeli recipe that is very similar. Thank you so much for contributing to Cook the Books!

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  4. This is an excellent post. I enjoyed every scrap, every word. Thank you for sharing such excellent stories and with such verve. One of my favorite Cook the Books posts ever.

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  5. Wow Ana, what a wonderful thorough and very moving review. I love the perspective of your family and the stories. You are right, very different from most American experiences.

    About your dish, I love polenta but am less familiar with the Strapatsada--which sounds amazing. A perfect dish for the book. Great job!

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  6. Ana,

    This was a great read. It is an interesting recipe, Strapatsada, and it sounds good. I think that if one likes all the ingredients it is almost a given that you will enjoy the flavor of the meal.

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  7. From http://cookthebooksclub.blogspot.com/2013/08/message-from-our-guest-judge-for-how-to.html
    Our esteemed judge Jeannette Ferrary enjoyed reading all the posts inspired by M.F.K. Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf. This is what she writes:
    Being not only a fan but a friend of MFK Fisher, I was totally delighted and truly grateful for this opportunity to peek in on her once again in the company of such fantastic writers. As noted in Eliot's Eats, who knows what Fisher might think of blogging considering her famous “snarkiness” at anything overly trendy. “The cuisine was good,” she once commented about a meal at one of San Francisco’s trendy restaurants whose chef had served each course atop its respective painterly sauce; “definitely the Puddle School from start to finish, but all very fresh and good as well as stylish.” In her personal lexicon, the single word stylish was death.
    But I do know that no one appreciated good, clear, sensuous writing more than Mrs. Fisher; and that, in abundance, is what we have here in these Cook the Books essays. I suspect that the quality of the writing might be enough for her to forgive any offending trendiness.

    However, you people didn’t do me any favors giving me such an embarrassment of riches from which to choose. Your discussions both of Fisher's menus and of her message showed such sensitivity and appreciation of them in the context of their original intent. Everyone took liberties with the literalness of the recipes, which is exactly what she would have done. And in fact, that's what she did do as witness her comments on her own comments a decade after the initial publication. Best of all, all the Cook the Books riffs were delightful.
    Getting to specifics:

    Girlichef: I really loved the way the essay learned from itself and expanded into something other than how it started out. Girlichef's observations and openness to experimenting ("I’d never eaten sweet-ish pasta…and needed to remedy that immediately") made for an evolving adventure. Beautifully written, it sparkled with touches of humor, and the final insight is a lesson for us all: "I look forward to inviting the chaos into many more meals." And I look forward to actually making that spaghetti with almonds in cinnamon honey butter. Who knew?

    Sweet Almond Tree gave us a sober sense of moment with its reality check on living in wartime. The personal nature of her references lent a particular poignancy to her observations; yet the piece is alive with occasional humor (the "polenta guru," the christening of Socrates ("a righteous dude")). And her summation of Fisher precepts is a cogent synthesis of the whole book. The story and the recipe for Strapasada were so compelling that, the afternoon I read it, I actually changed my dinner menu in midstream!
    So I guess that means two winners for the wonderful Wolf roundup with extremely honorable mentions all around. And again, thank you all for involving me in this fun and soul-satisfying project.

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  8. Thank you all so very much for your wonderful comments!!!

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