Monday, January 17, 2011

{review} two books about wolves

M. F. K. Fisher How to Cook a Wolf (1942, rev. 1954)
Fred Vargas Seeking Whom He May Devour (2004)

How to Cook a Wolf Seeking Whom He May Devour

In the whole Julia & Julia Child whirlwind I rather thought that the eccentric M. F. K. Fisher might get a better look-in. I've previously read her Alphabet for Gourmets – a witty A to Z of culinary delights (available on-line here from the Gourmet archives) and loved her witty style of food-writing:
W is for wanton …

… and the great difference between the way a man eats and has his lady love eat, when he plans to lead her to the nearest couch, and the way a woman will feed a man for the same end.

A man is much more straightforward, usually. He believes with the unreasoning intuition of a cat or a wolf that he must be strong for the fray and that strength comes from meat: he orders rare steak, with plenty of potatoes alongside, and perhaps a pastry afterwards. He may have heard that oysters or a glass of port work aphrodisiacal wonders, more on himself than on the little woman, or, in an unusual attempt at subtlety augmented by something he vaguely remembers from an old movie, he may provide a glass or two of champagne. But in general, his gastronomical as well as alcoholic approach to the delights of love is an uncomplicated one which has almost nothing to do with the pleasurable preparation of his companion.

A woman contemplating seduction, on the other hand, is wanton.

A wanton woman, according to the dictionary, is unchaste, licentious, and lewd. This definition obviously applies to her moral rather than her culinary side. Considered solely in connection with the pleasures of the table, a wanton woman is one who with cunning and deliberation prepares a meal which will draw another person to her. The reasons she does so may be anything from political to polite, but her basic acknowledgment that sexual play can be a sure aftermath of gastronomical bliss dictates the game, from the first invitation to the final mouthful of ginger omelette.

An Alphabet for Gourmets 

Fisher would have made an excellent blogger, with her ability to sum up perfectly and avoid the extraneous. Her authorial pose is so definitively worldly, so apposite. I suppose her nearest comparison in this culinary authority is Elizabeth David – they share a simplicity of style which makes reading a cook-book into an intellectually satisfying pursuit. It is the journey towards the meal that fascinates and inspires. 

Fisher's 'wolf' here is the 'wolf at the door' – hunger. She was brought up in poverty and her relationship with food is coloured by that experience. This may also make her a particularly good spokeswoman for wartime austerity for the gourmet cook, which is what this little book is mostly about: how to make do without dropping all of your standards. Each chapter has a catchy title ("How to Be Content with a Vegetable Love", for instance): "Almost all vegetables are good, although there is some doubt still about parsnips (which I share)." My only criticism is the up-dating that occured in the 1954 revision - Fisher's comments are included throughout the text in square brackets, as she comments on this previous austere self. This proves quite distracting as she has a lot to add. Some of the recipes look pretty vile to modern eyes, as she herself admits ("uninspired, but dependale"), but this book is an interesting insight into American wartime austerity. When contrasted with the dire food situation in the UK at the same time, it doesn't look so austere.

Rating: 7/10. Alphabet for Gourmets has aged better.
If you like this… anything by Elizabeth David.

The wolf loose in Seeking Whom He May Devour by Fred Vargas is another animal entirely, though he too is hungry - for blood. If you haven't encountered Vargas' eccentric French  police inspector Adamsberg yet, you've missed a total treat. OK, yes, another flawed copper with family problems. But the plot, characterisation, setting and writing of this book is flawless. Is a giant wolf roaming the French Alps picking off its prey, or is something even more sinister going on? I sometimes think that everyone in a Vargas' book is completely barking mad and this book is a roll-call of the most eccentric and memorable characters you might ever encounter. In sum: a baffling and intelligent crime thriller. I can't imagine translating a Vargas' book – the language is so clever.

Rating: 9/10. Mysteries in Paradise has another fine review here.
If you like this… try other Fred Vargas' books: The Three Evangelists, The Chalk Circle Man, Have Mercy on Us All, etc. (aren't the titles brilliant?). Adamberg is an old school guy like Simenon's Maigret.

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