Posted by: Rachel | July 13, 2013

what makes an original?

My friend Simone (yes, Simone of Novel Food fame), who has her fingers in many pies (so to speak) has suggested a new challenge. This time the challenge is to pull a recipe from MFK Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf. The only challenge for me was choosing which recipe!

poster of Davis Goines cover for The Physiology of Taste

did I mention I’m a fan?

If you know me at all you know I am a great fan of her writing. I have a copy of almost everything she has written, including several books for which she wrote only (only?!) a foreword or afterword and The Cooking of Provincial France which is part of that vast TimeLife international series. Oh, and of course a copy of her translation of Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste

More than anyone else that I’ve read so far I spend my time reading and re-reading her books thinking gee, I wish I’d written that! Mmmm…

OK, so now you know I have a mad crush on her writing style. What can I say. I love her voice. And, since my copy of How to Cook a Wolf is part of the 1976 Vintage Press edition of The Art of Eating, a compendium of five of her books, it is not the original version. It is better.

The original book was written in 1942. She revised it in 1951 and my copy has the full original version with her revisions as call-outs and sidebars. Fascinating to see how times and the economy changed and how her thoughts on food changed as well.

In any event (oh I could rave on all day about her books) I thought that, since it is supposed to top 102F here today (again) a cold soup might be nice. So I opted for her cream of potato soup.

She says “Here is a recipe, a combination really of Escoffier’s Soupe à la Bonne Femme and one I found in a calendar published by the gas company in the Canton of Vaud in Switzerland.” How could I resist? And, cold potato soup makes me happy!

I looked up the Escoffier recipe because I was curious what differences there were between that one and hers. That one uses leeks not onions and doesn’t poach the potatoes in the butter like her recipe. It also calls for butter to finish the soup, and chervil. Hmmm… not anything I’m likely to find around here! So…

Since not even the Internet seemed willing to cough up the recipe from the 1940-something gas company calendar from the Canton of Vaud, I can only guess what wonders it might have had to offer. Oh well…

Of course, I took a few liberties with her recipe. Shocking! But, what makes an original recipe? I think that, much as there are really only 8 notes in music (if you doubt this, take a look at this… you’ll see!) there are only so many ingredients that can be happily combined in so many ways before it is just silly.

And, if I understood correctly, my lawyer friend told me that recipes themselves cannot be copyrighted. The surrounding commentary certainly can be and is, but not the actual recipe itself. And, much as we do try to credit our sources, sometimes it starts looking like the “begats” in the bible.

So, if you want to read the “original”, and by that I mean MFK Fisher’s version of Cream of Potato Soup via Escoffier and the Canton of Vaud’s gas company calendar, it is in the “How to Boil Water” chapter of “How to Cook a Wolf”. If you want to try mine, see below (grin).

red onions in skillet with butter

yes, butter!! mmm…

A Slightly Revised and Revamped Version of…

3 Tbsp butter*
1 medium red onion sliced thin
4 medium white potatoes*, sliced thin
1 cup water or as needed
3-4 cups whole milk**
salt**** and pepper
chopped cilantro (yes, really – mmm!)
chopped garlic chives

Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add the sliced onion and sauté gently until soft but do not brown. Add the sliced potatoes, toss to coat with the butter, add water to just barely cover and gently simmer until the potatoes are soft.

In a large soup pot scald 3 cups milk. Add in the entire contents of the skillet, water and all. Using a stick blender, purée the contents***, and add salt and pepper to taste.

finished soup in cup

need I say more?

Serve hot or cold topped with chopped herbs.

*In the “original” recipe MFK Fisher states “…butter (no compromise here)” so I didn’t reach for my olive oil as I usually would. Oh my. I’d almost forgotten how onions smell cooking in butter. Wowza… Oh and I used Yukon Gold potatoes. Mmmmm, buttery!

**Or you can use a mix of 2% and half and half, but really this is not a “fat-free” sort of soup!

***Be careful here. Potatoes can get gluey. I like a little bit of texture in my soup anyway – do not over-purée!!!

****Add your salt of choice. Potatoes do cry for salt I think. And, I (cough cough) just happened to have some truffle salt (good heavens!) on hand so I use that – this soup turned out pretty much obscenely good (she said modestly).

That’s it! Simple, tasty, filling, and good hot or cold. If you chill it you will probably need to add a bit more milk to thin it before serving. Mmmm…

Oh and on a totally (and I mean totally) unrelated note, my thanks to my friend Sarah for including my “garden” in her “You Can Garden” series. You so rock (grin)!!

Stay cool, y’all… and if you make the soup be sure to let us know! Mmm…



  1. Rach So Im a fairly new solo cook as you know. I looked up scalding milk and trusty Wikipedia described to me more than I needed to know. Is it just heating it up but making sure it doesn’t boil? This recipe looks sinfully delicious.

    • You got it – just heat it up but don’t let it boil. You don’t want to put all that hot buttery stuff into cold milk! 🙂

  2. This sounds tasty! And happy to feature you on the blog – your garden is a sanctuary that needs to be seen!

  3. I love cold potato soup and your recipe sounds good. I like that you added cilantro to it for a totally different flavor. Yum.

  4. Potato soup is sooo a comfort food. Great idea for the post and interesting commentary. I love that she took a classic recipe and tweaked it with a freebie from a utility company. 🙂

  5. Potato soup, always good, and great minds think alike 🙂

  6. Truffle salt? Oh la la! I think MFK Fisher would have approved. So glad to read you are also a fan of her writing. It is always a pleasure to hear her voice chat amiably of soup and life and everything else. Very nice choice of dish. Thank you so much for contributing to Cook the Books Club!

  7. I enjoyed reading your post very much. Welcome to Cook the Books!

  8. I was just saying I could eat soup all year round. Nothing like a good bowl of nourishment. You are correct, you can read Fisher’s books over and over.

  9. So great to have you join in with us at Cook the Books! As a a fellow soup fan (love the name of your blog!) I would happily eat potato soup any time–hot or cold. 😉 Yay for Yukon gold potatoes and some butter!

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