Not all pulp readings come from pulp magazines.
I discovered How to cook a wolf a few years back, as I was digging on Amazon in search of cheap Christmas gifts for my friends.
Written by legendary gourmand and writer Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, despite its grim title the volume does not explain how to get a wolf on the table – but it is indeed an interesting read1.
And it has a certain relevance for aficionados of adventure writing and pulp fiction.
Because How to cook a wolf was published in 1942, and it is a book about home economy and kitchen management for a nation facing rationing and the many dramatic shortages of wartime.
And indeed, apart from the recipes – some of which are quite fascinating – what’s interesting is the depiction of an aspect of wartime that is often neglected: putting food on the table.
And more – through M.F. K. Fisher’s witty writing2 about how to solve certain problems, we realize the impact on society of the war, away from the front lines.
No matter what the world politics may be, Fisher informs us, chicken will deliver their weekly quota of eggs… but gasoline shortages cause the prices to grow, and the quality of the eggs to drop (because it takes longer for them to go from the chicken-coop to the shop to the table).
There are also a number of observations on the psychological effects of a good meal – and the importance of putting together something good not just to fill our bellies, but to strengthen the spirit.
There is, between the lines of this cookbook/housewife primer, the clear impact of the desperation of the civilians in England in the bleakest year of the war. But while it is acknowledged – if never mentioned directly, only jokingly referred-to – desperation is never allowed to become overwhelming.
Indeed, the purpose of the book is to keep the wolf from the door – and the wolf, hunger, is only a face of desperation.
The book has been described as a curiosity – and certainly you can look at it that way if you concentrate on the recipes, or the suggestions about keeping your house or your hair clean.
But dig a little deeper, and this is a great first-hand account of what it felt like, back then, at home.
So, I found it by chance, got hooked by its pulpish title, and in the end found it to be an excellent source of information for writing fiction – and for understanding some of the elements of the fiction written in those years.
Later editions also feature Fisher’s notes and corrections – these are marked out in the text, so that we can enjoy two voices: the cultured, witty original, and the equally witty, but somewhat self-deprecating, older voice poking fun at the younger writer.