In her 1942 cookbook for economy in the wartime kitchen, M. F. K. Fisher issues a bold call to arms for home cooks: “Now, of all times in our history, we should be using our minds as well as our hearts in order to survive…to live gracefully if we live at all” (1990: 192). Equal parts belles lettres and practical guide, How to Cook a Wolf, perhaps more than any other piece of twentieth-century food writing, speaks presciently to our pandemic zeitgeist. For the denizens of the 1940s, it was cupboard blackouts and ration cards. For us, in the second month of the lockdown caused by COVID-19, it’s the appalling scarcity of toilet paper and the dog days of social distance. And for some 22 million Americans, it’s also the swift kick to the gut of suddenly losing your livelihood.
Here in Atlanta, Georgia, in April of the year 2020, I’m daydreaming of posterity. I imagine that in the not-so-distant future, when scholars and archivists are parsing through the digital sediment of our social media, one thing will be clear: this was a time of much home cooking. Few activities stimulate the mind in equal measure to the heart, or the body in proportion to the soul, as well as cooking does. And since we must eat to live, and since we’re stuck at home, and since we’ve suddenly got a surfeit of time on our hands, cooking has become one of the most important facets of daily life. But the body can’t live on bread alone: it also needs a stiff drink now and again.
Fisher knew this too, and so dedicates a chapter to the ritual of having “a pre-dinner nip” (330), economically, responsibly, of course. She urges readers to avoid “Ye Cozie Nooke Cocktail Lounge,” and to enjoy happy hour at home. Since all of our cozie nookes are closed, it’s all the more sensible to follow the advice she lays out in “How to Drink to the Wolf.”
After bashing dry martinis, and before offering a dependable recipe for making your own vodka, Fisher advocates for vermouth, sherry, and fortified wines as low-ABV alternatives to slugging whiskey or thinning gin in the afternoon. She offers a recipe for a Half-and-Half Cocktail (332), now better known by bartenders and cocktail aficionados as a Bamboo: an elegant balance of equal parts (1.5 oz) amontillado sherry and blanc vermouth, a dash of orange bitters, properly stirred, and served in a coupe with a lemon twist (I recommend expressing and discarding the twist). This is the kind of cost-effective drink to whet your appetite without getting you wobbly before dinner. Fisher, a forward-thinker if ever there was one, also tells us that beer is a perfectly good aperitif (amen).
But more than any specific alcoholic prescription, she instructs us to share happy hour with the person we like best in this world: “He will if possible be your husband or your own true love, and you will find in this sudden quiet and peacefulness something that has sometimes seemed much too far from you both, lately” (330). And it’s this reverence for the shared act of communion that resonates with me so profoundly. I’m fortunate enough to be locked down at the lush beginning of spring, the most beautiful time of year in the South, with my own true love. I recognize that many people aren’t so lucky.
So, I think of widows, widowers, the newly divorced, the dispassionately single—any person who lives alone against their wishes or will. I picture my grandmother in the foothills east of Los Angeles, looking down at a valley clogged with late afternoon smog, cutting a lemon rind into lip-shaped strips, and pouring Crown Royal over the cloudy cubes from her freezer’s icemaker. I can see and smell the perfumed explosion of citrus oil as she flicks a twist over the glass. But no matter how much I can imagine, I can’t be with her as she takes the first resolute, melancholic sip, her husband and best friend, my grandfather, now five years dead.
Etymologically, the word communion is almost redundant. The root com meaning “with” or “together,” and unus meaning “oneness” or “union.” Stripped of its ecclesiastic connotations, the word itself roughly compounds unity with togetherness. Up until now, only war on a global scale has caused the whole world to experience the same thing at the same time. As sentimental as it sounds, the pandemic, almost like nothing before, is something we truly share—together, with oneness.
So even if you are alone, know that you are not. If you fix yourself a drink after a day’s work, remember that a great swath of the curved earth is likewise tilting in twilight, and many of its inhabitants are also pouring a glass, or cracking open a can, or mixing up a mocktail. And if you remember this, Fisher says, “Then you can raise a glass to the wolf with impunity and a courage that is real, no matter how alcoholic, and know that even if you regret it tomorrow, you have been a [person] without qualms either amorous or budgetary tonight” (334).
P.S.—Here’s a recipe for an original cocktail, devised during the pandemic. As a bartender, my liquor cabinet is replete with strange bottles, but each of these can be found at a decent liquor store. (And yes, Green Chartreuse is pricey, but know that it will last a long time, and that you will be making an investment in future happiness.) This is a riff on a classic cocktail called The Last Word, which is equal parts (.75 oz.) gin, Green Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur, and lime juice. (Pro move: bump up the gin to one ounce for something less sweet and more balanced.) I’ve taken the Last Word template, and swapped out gin for rum, and maraschino for banana liqueur. The result is a bright, dry, utterly delicious and complex daiquiri variation.
To the Wolf
1 oz. dark rum (Blackwell is good and inexpensive)
.75 oz. Green Chartreuse
.5 oz. Banana Liqueur (preferably Giffard’s)
.75 oz. lime juice (it must be fresh)
Pinch of kosher salt
Combine all ingredients and shake as hard as you can with lots of ice for twelve seconds. Strain into a coupe (chilled if possible). No garnish. Drink, with oneness, to the health of the whole world.