“Hey, I hear you just published a cookbook!” a friend’s husband said in greeting when we bumped into each other in town today at noon.

“Well, no, not really,” I stammered. “It’s a book, but not a cookbook.  It’s what’s called a ‘memoir with recipes.’  That means — ”

“Ooops, sorry, gotta run,” he said, wrapping a friendly arm around my shoulder. “I’m on my lunch break and I’ve gotta get something to eat!”

Okay. So here’s the story I might have told him if we’d had all the time in the world standing there on a sidewalk in Taos on this sparklingly beautiful mid-October day:

Once upon a time, there was a glamorous American writer named Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher who lived in California.  During WWII, when due to war rationing many American households had reason to fear the wolf at the door, she, then thirty-something, published a collection of personal essays titled How to Cook a Wolf.

Fisher (known to her subsequent fans and followers as M.F.K.) was the first American woman writer to fearlessly include recipes to illustrate and augment her literary prose.  How to Cook a Wolf was about surviving - with style — and the recipes included in it provided both a real and a metaphorical how-to.

According to Fisher’s biographer, Joan Reardon, the general perception at the time How to Cook a Wolf came out was that it “was not only entertaining but also practical.”  To her credit, the critics applauded Fisher’s fearless and groundbreaking inclusion of recipes in her highly literate and literary writing.  Clifton Fadiman (who would later dub Fisher “a philosopher of food”), writing about How to Cook a Wolf in The New Yorker, said, “M.F.K. Fisher writes about food as others do about love, only better.”  Another critic said of it, “Fisher thought well enough of both food and writing to perfect a hybrid genre … that gently folded recipes into stories” (Poet of the Appetites, p. 146).

Fisher led the way with this “hybrid genre,” and many others soon followed her lead.  Especially during the decades from the early 1960’s to the late ’80’s, when such American gastronomic icons as Julia Child and James Beard succeeded in raising the country’s culinary consciousness, M.F.K. Fisher’s literary following grew.  Her dozens of books were reissued and more widely read.  Her method of incorporating recipes with memoir was unapologetically imitated, particularly by writers who most resembled her:  educated, sophisticated, traveled, adventuresome, literary, American (by birth or naturalization) women.

Literary American men, of course, have written beautiful books about food, but not, for the most part, the way Fisher and her followers have.  A. J. Liebling’s Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris, published in 1959, is considered by many in the English-speaking food world to be the best culinary memoir ever written.  Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, published posthumously in 1964, recreates Hemingway’s years as a struggling, hungry writer in Paris in the ’20’s.  Though this classic is considered a “literary feast,” it is less about food than it is about the lack of it.  More recently, author Nigel Slater published his memoir, Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger, a “lesson in how to let your stomach heal your hungry heart,” according to the book’s dust jacket.  But none of these books by literary men include recipes.    

Exceptions to this are memoirs by men whose profession keeps them in the kitchen.  Famous men chefs and major male food professionals have indeed published culinary memoirs containing recipes.  But the accent in these books belongs squarely on the culinary, rather than the literary.  These authors, even behemoths like James Beard, are clearly “foodies,” not writers. Their interest is food qua food, not food as anything resembling a metaphor.  They don’t even pretend to follow in the footsteps of M.F.K. Fisher, as far as writing is concerned.  

One of M.F.K. Fisher’s first female disciples was Ruth Reichl, former editor of Gourmet.  Reichl’s second (of several) memoir-with-recipes, Comfort Me with Apples, in fact, recounts her excitement when as a young, aspiring freelance writer in California in the ’70’s, she was given the assignment of interviewing M.F.K. face to face, for Ms. Magazine.  When the Ms. editor asked Reichl, “Do you know who M.F.K. Fisher is?” the young writer replied, “Doesn’t everyone?”

“And so,” I might have told my friend’s husband as a wrap-up to my long-winded story if he weren’t rushing off to eat lunch, “this is what memoirs-with-recipes are and how they came to be.  No, my new book How to Cook a Crocodile is not a cookbook.  It’s the wild grandchild of How to Cook a Wolf.”