Pastry Chef Lisa Donovan Transformed Her Life on a Poem by M.F.K. Fisher, Offers a Caramel Rich Homage to Edna Lewis

Chef Lisa Donovan Photo © Andrea Behrends
By Lisa Donovan Posted January 05, 2015

Chef Lisa Donovan shares a recipe honoring Edna Lewis and M.F.K. Fisher—the women who inspired her to cook—and changed her life.

F&W's #FOODWINEWOMEN series spotlights top women in food and drink in collaboration with Toklas Society. On Mondays through January, we'll look at inspiring mentors. Use the hashtag on Twitter (@foodandwine) to share lessons from your (real and dream) mentors for the chance to be featured.

Who: Lisa Donovan
What: Pastry Chef, Writer, Biscuit Pusher
Where: Buttermilk Road Sunday Supper, Formerly of Husk Nashville; @ButtermilkRoad

My husband and I refer to the period I’m going to tell you about simply as “the dark days.” We had a five-month-old daughter, a five-year-old son, a dog, two cats and a hamster named Burnt Waffle, and we lived in a one-bedroom, third-floor walk-up five blocks from a Red Bull–soaked college bar where I was not exactly having the time of my life working as a cocktail waitress and 3:30 a.m. mop artist.

Every night, I would sneak off to the bathroom to pump breast milk. I’d stand on the toilet in the left stall, squat and lean back on the cleanest part of the wall. Then I would feverishly squeeze the handle of the pump to the count of the cha-cha, trying to ignore the carnival of illicit activity rotating in and out of the right stall. My milk felt so dirty, I threw it out.

One especially grim night, I walked home at 4 a.m. in despair and dragged myself up the three flights of stairs, desperate to find a package from my aunt Barbara—she was a book broker and collector who sent me boxes upon boxes of books. But waiting for me was just one book, M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf. It came to me during a time when, truly and intensely, the wolf was at my door: fangs, claws, hunger and all. I scooped up the used copy, went to get my daughter out of her crib and, with tears in my eyes and nursing baby on my lap, read this poem on the opening pages:

There’s a whining at the threshold,
There’s a scratching at the floor.
To Work! To Work! In Heaven’s name!
The wolf is at the door!

In describing the food shortages of World War II, Fisher wrote of finding beauty in feeding others when you are spiritually or physically hungry yourself. Reading her book was a moment of discovery, and I began to make my life’s work out of the spirit of that text. It started with my babies, then stretched out into my community, until here I am, almost a decade later—a pastry chef.

The Southern-inspired recipes that have come forth (many of which owe a debt to the legendary Edna Lewis, who means so much to who I am as a baker) are now my family’s traditions. They are the recipes my children have learned to love and I hope will pass along to whomever they love in their lives.—As told to Kate Krader

Get Lisa's Caramel Layer Cake Recipe

Lisa Donovan is the former pastry chef at Husk in Nashville. She is working on a memoir.

Name your mentor @foodandwine using #FOODWINEWOMEN and tell us what she's taught you.

Related:
Lessons from Legendary Chefs
Chef Recipes Made Easy
Nashville Travel Guide

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