In Defense of Eating Well

In 1942, a little-known Michigan-born journalist living in Europe decided to write a cookbook of sorts. Her name was M.F.K. Fisher, and the result, How to Cook a Wolf, was less a collection of recipes than a guide to, and a fierce defense of, eating well when the world was at war, food was scarce and the proverbial wolf was "snuffling at the door." Fisher was adamant that, whatever the circumstances, one must try to exist as richly as possible. As she later told an interviewer, "One has to live, you know. You can't just die from grief or anything. You don't die. You might as well eat well, have a good glass of wine, a good tomato."

I've been thinking about Fisher a lot lately. While the wolf has not yet reached the threshold again, she's been sighted in the neighborhood and can be heard baying up the empty canyons of Wall Street. Which makes advice like Fisher's as important now as it was 60 years ago. For her point was not just that we should struggle to live well for the sake of the struggle. It was that, when conditions are rough, finding comfort—whether in a tomato or a lovingly prepared meal—is especially important, both to salve our wounds and to remind ourselves of our humanity.

It's a lesson I first learned about a decade ago. The circumstances were far less astringent and romantic than occupied France, but the grub was almost as bad. I was a student living on a narrow budget in England, before Cool Brittania made the U.K. part of Europe again, bringing cappuccino and tapenade even to remote academia. Back then the dorms were cold, the plumbing erratic and the dining-hall food comically bad, either gray or beige and fat or starch. Albion was still the land of dishwater coffee, the chip butty (a french-fry sandwich) and bacon dinners. I'd come to study law and was overwhelmed by the course load and losing weight so rapidly I was eating two chocolate bars a day to keep my pants up. And then I fell in love, and everything changed.

She studied Latin poetry and was strong-willed, beautiful and brilliant—and a maniacal cook, who fed me candied ginger the first time we had tea (who knew there was such a thing?) and soon started serving me elaborate, exquisite meals. Then the rules shifted and I soon found myself drafted into twice-weekly shopping trips and nightly kitchen duty. At first, panicked at the library hours I was losing, I resented this drudgery deeply; not helping never seemed an option. But it wasn't long before I realized, over a forkful of wild Scottish trout, a plate of orrechiette with rapini and sausage or a post-dinner glass of vin santo, that this extraordinary food and the time spent preparing it wasn't undermining my work—it was enabling it. Left to my own devices and an institutional menu of mushy peas, I wouldn't have lasted a full term. The classicist showed me how to slow down and live better. I succumbed to it and Oxford's other eccentric charms—like inkwells in the libraries, the white-tie ensemble we wore for exams or the bicycles we rode everywhere (often while wearing white tie). I made room and time for the Good Life, and the Good Life saved me.

The classicist is long gone, despite my obedient kitchen servitude and the stock-pot I bought her for Valentine's Day (which she took with her). But her lesson sticks with me. Whenever things get ugly and I hear that telltale huffing outside, I gird myself for battle, first fortifying the nerves with Scotch whisky—preferably a honeyed and comforting 12-year-old Highland malt like Balvenie—and one of the Cuban cigars I stock for such emergencies (a spicy-sweet Montecristo No. 2 will quickly remind you why God gave us fire). Then I reach for my wolf-hunting gear. The choices have become reflexive. To kill the beast you need a knife; I use a heavy, basic Wüsthof eight-inch chef's blade, which is hard to improve on. You need a pot to cook her in, and none serves better than a cast-iron Le Creuset Dutch oven in its traditional flame-colored enamel. You need a field guide: for basic technique, my soup-spattered New Testament is Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. In New York, where I live, I rely on the Union Square Greenmarket for herbs and vegetables to dress the beast, on the Neal's Yard stand at Whole Foods for hard English cheeses to accompany it (for as the French gastronome Brillat-Savarin wrote, a meal without cheese "is like a beautiful woman with one eye"). When wolf-meat proves too gamey, I head to the Florence Meat Market in the West Village—one of the only places I've found that can sell you a rib-eye with that elusive, almost truffle-like aged flavor.

None of these tricks will keep the wolf at bay forever, just as even a perfect tomato can't mend a broken heart or make up for a collapsing 401(k). But they all help. They remind you the world has beauty, all is not lost and that humans can outwit the craftiest beast of prey. As Fisher pointed out—and the classicist drummed into me—even when we're miserable, life goes on, wolf or no wolf. So we might as well make the best of it.