Learning to Eat Sustainably

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Recently I started reading M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf. In this literary cookbook published in 1942, Fisher teaches American housewives how to keep hunger (the wolf) at bay in the midst of wartime rationing. She shares some practical tricks, like roasting several dishes at once to use less gas or saving cooking water for soup, as well as recipes for wartime feasts. But her aim is not simply practical. Fisher infuses her recipes with humor and vision, proving that although we must sometimes sacrifice food, we need not sacrifice the comfort and joy of the dinner table.

Food writers still talk about How to Cook a Wolf, and not for its quaint recipes. Fisher’s seamless prose and whip-smart advice have proven timeless. After all, she wasn’t just writing for wartime housewives. She was writing for anyone who wanted to eat outside their means and use food as an escape from a life that was perhaps dreary or limited. Although her direct context was war, her words echo through famine, poverty, and drought. If you squint, she was writing for the modern college student.

Or at least, that’s what I thought when I started this column. When I originally sat down to write, with my copy of How to Cook a Wolf all dog-eared and bent, I thought of Fisher’s work as an analogy for college life. Much like Fisher’s wartime housewives, today’s college students must solve a pressing problem: how to eat well with tight budgets.

The analogy fit, but after more thinking, I began to see the gaping hole it left behind. When I reduced Fisher’s work to an analogy, I denied it the real, concrete power it holds in today’s world. After all, she was writing for a country at war.

For many people in my generation, war is background noise, a constant hum like a ceiling fan or a refrigerator. Unless we have family or friends in the armed forces, many of us can tune out the noise. We can pretend the destruction is not ours and ignore questions of responsibility or sacrifice. But the hum seems louder nowadays. Sharp notes clang out: “Mother of all bombs” and “North Korea missile test.” They jolt me back into reality and remind me that for all the peace my privilege provides, the U.S. is still as war-obsessed as ever.

When Fisher wrote How to Cook a Wolf, she imagined that war would soon be over, and over for good. She called World War II “the last war,” but astutely mentioned in a later annotation that she now seems more inclined to write for “the next war.” Her words rang true in Korea, in Vietnam, and they ring true today, when conflict rumbles through the news every night.

From where I sit behind my laptop, I cannot stop the hum of war. None of us can. But we can train our ears to hear the hum, and then train ourselves to live responsibly and sustainably in its midst.  

And that’s where Fisher comes in. That’s when the conversation about rationing and sacrifice moves from 1942 to 2017. We may not be rationing yet, but it couldn’t hurt to learn how. The wolf may be knocking at our door soon, and each bomb dropped hastens his arrival.

So we must learn to eat sustainably. We must learn to reuse our cooking water and eat less meat. We must grocery shop with purpose, buying not what we could eat but what we will. And we must learn to eat deliberately, thinking about what each meal means for our country and our planet. War is one thing, and climate change is quite another, but both demand a sense of restraint that American eaters haven’t practiced in decades.

And that demand is even more urgent at Boston College. Despite BC Dining’s efforts to compost, food waste is still a major problem on campus. We carelessly toss uneaten food in the trash, goaded on by bloated $2,600 meal plans. What would those wartime housewives think if they saw our budgets? Would they even be able to help us if rationing became our reality?

Lucky for us, we aren’t doomed by our overuse. Writers like Fisher have taken up this topic not to chastise, but to explore. If we acknowledge that we must make do with less, then we can begin to learn how to stretch our culinary imaginations. Aided by guides like How to Cook a Wolf, we can tackle complicated questions, such as: How can we learn to sustain both our sense of hunger and comfort with restraint? How can we celebrate food with a ration stamp in hand or a drought-induced water restriction?

And Fisher isn’t alone. This is a conversation that must involve chefs, environmentalists, and everyone with mouths to feed. As a country at war on several fronts and with a fragile climate hanging in the balance, we must take a hard look at the costs of our dinner tables. And then we must learn how to find beauty in that challenge.

So let’s take up the task. If Fisher can craft recipes for Parisian onion soup, sweet potato pudding, and crackling bread in the midst of WWII, there’s hope for us today.

Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Editor

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