Cooking with Wolves: Lessons Rooted in Depression-Era and Wartime Cooking

Part II of an occasional series (See Part I HERE.)

how-to-cook-a-wolfNote: The title of this series stems from a book written in response to rationing during World War II by the celebrated American food writer, M. F. K. Fisher. The book in question was called How to Cook a Wolf and referred to the wolf being at the door in times of hardship.

These are the times that try cooks’ souls.

For the wolf has one paw in the door and who knows when the other three will cross the threshold?

What to do when life throws you a wolf?

Not too long ago, I realized that some of those knobby roots sitting somewhat forlornly on the nubbly shelf carpet in the local produce section might just be the ticket to a lower food bill. I could do my M. F. K. Fisher imitation AND eat well to boot. Or rather, root.

Beatrice Murch
Photo credit: Beatrice Murch

And so for several days I found myself rooting around literally among the root vegetables in my veggie crisper, the fruits of the greenbacks I forked over to a young cashier on my last visit to the local big chain supermarket. Said cashier asked me to spell the rutabaga’s name; wondered what the parsnip was, thinking it was a white carrot; and stood totally flummoxed in the presence of a celeriac the size of small dog’s head. “You’re going to eat that? Awesome.”

Yes, awesome it all becomes, because these roots kept our ancestors alive, at least if they came from northern European climes.

tulip-bulbsDuring World War II, the starving people of Holland resorted to eating other kinds of roots, especially tulip bulbs.

Read this first-hand account by Father Leo Zonneveld of Culpeper, Virginia:

Even though much of Western Europe had been liberated from Nazis control, Holland remained under their firm grip. I remember the hunger. We were forced to eat tulip bulbs and sugar beets because there was no other food. Bread made from tulips is not very good; I can tell you that! The skin of the bulb is removed, pretty much like an onion, and so is the center, because that is poisonous. Then it is dried and baked in the oven. My mother or older sisters would grind the bulbs to a meal-like consistency. Then they would mix the meal with water and salt, shape it like a meatloaf, and bake it. I can still remember the taste of it: like wet sawdust. Sugar beets were usually thrown to the hogs, but that winter we ate them, too. We still shared tulip bulbs and sugar beets with those with hand-drawn carts who continued to go from door to door. I think seeing my mother still give to the hungry at this time, even though we had very little …

My mother tells stories of eating boiled celery sticks for dinner, even though both of her parents each worked at two jobs to keep even that little bit of food on the table during the Great Depression.

depression-era-recipes-1Take a look at Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes. The USDA Bureau of Home Economics and the Radio Service created Aunt Sammy, who was supposed to be Uncle Sam’s wife. My paternal grandmother made something like Browned Parsnips, which my father hated so much that to this day he won’t get within peeling range of a parsnip.

Liz West
Photo credit: Liz West

Browned Parsnips

(This treatment would work for just about any root vegetable; just modify the cooking times so that the vegetables don’t end up as a soggy mass before the final frying.)

Scrub parsnips clean, drop into boiling, lightly salted water, and cook for 15 to 30 minutes or until tender. Drain, scrape off the skin, split lengthwise, and pull out the stringy cores. Dip the pieces in flour and fry in fat until golden brown.

celeriac-1Celery Sauce

The following recipe was transcribed verbatim from the following vintage magazine:

The House
The Journal of Arts & Crafts


December, 1901

Two heads of celery, one pint milk, three ounces butter, three ounces flour, pepper and salt.

Scrub the celery and put aside all discoloured pieces; cut the rest small and place in a saucepan with enough cold water to cover it. The instant this water boils strain it off and put the celery to boil for about 1-1/2 hours in one pint of water and one pint of milk. Put the butter and flour into another pan and stir them over the fire until well blended, then add the celery and liquor, stir the mixture until boiling, rub through a hair sieve, season, re-warm, and serve.

More Books on the Delicate Topic of Cooking in Times of Scarcity:

Depression-Era Recipes, by P. Wagner

Family Recipes of the Depression Era, by Joshua Romney (Thesis)

Mother Hubbard’s Cookbook, by Marion White

Old Carolina Tobacco Country Cookbook, by Arline Crisp Aaseby

Roots and Recipes: Six Generations of Heartland Cookery, by Vern Berry with Connie Heckert

And while you’re at it, take a look at this fascinating book about recipes and those who read them:

The Recipe Reader, by Janet Floyd and Laurel Foster (available on Google Books)

© 2009 C. Bertelsen



  • You know, I have always wanted to cook salsify, but I’ve never had the opportunity — either it’s not available when I have access to a kitchen or it’s available when I don’t have access to a kitchen …


  • Every once in a while I see salsify available. When I mention buying it my children become frightened.



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