Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Belated Book Enthusiasm: John Thorne

I meant to post this on September 25, but forgot to copy it from facebook.

All of John Thorne's books are good. I'm finally settling down with "Mouth Wide Open: A Cook and His Appetite" which actually came out last year but I gave away my copy as a present. New copy showed up today. Hard to stop reading and actually cook dinner!

Thorne writes about food in ways that bring little gasps and smiles of recognition to any true food lover. He truly loves things that taste good, whether highbrow or lowbrow. He has a gift of sharing the sensation he's enjoyed. Choosing a recipe by appetite, slicing an onion, frying an egg, even doctoring canned tamales with shredded cheese and pricey Austrian pumpkinseed oil: all grist for his mill. And the tiny essay "Five Month Old Croissant" made me laugh out loud.

Here is a sample of what I love about Thorne, comparing soup to a bright spring morning: "When Matt and I began to eat the minestrone, we kept wondering what the spinach, the zucchini, the parsley, the potato, etcetera, did for the dish; perhaps some of these components could be left out. But gradually we came to understand that each did do something, even if we couldn't easily put our finger on it...pause and pay attention and a quiet pleasure unfolds, one that has a depth to which you were previously oblivious, a harmony composed of many now identifiable parts...the main goal of the cook is to let all the parts shine through."

This minestrone recipe is about technique as much as ingredients, like nearly every dish Thorne dissects and analyzes. Days after reading the chapter, I went and made a pretty good minestrone out of the leftover vegs in the fridge. It wasn't quite his recipe, but now I've made it my own, which is the whole point of his cookery exercises.

And I can particularly relate to this passage, having once been a recipe hoarder:

" would have found a single file folder containing, say, twenty or thirty recipes for French onion soup. I didn't collect these because I thought that one day I'd hold a cook-off to discover which one was best. No, like a teenage boy who covers his bedroom wall with photographs of Christina Aguilera, I just couldn't have too many glimpses of the same desirable object."

He goes on and on about spaghetti with simple savory toppings, such as anchovies, olives and capers. Similar to a dish I used to make but forgot about. Now I've rediscovered it for weekend lunches. Spouse heartily approves, since I seem to have a blind spot about cooking weekend lunches.

The recipes are nice, but I also read Thorne for the same reasons I read Oliver Sacks or Stephen Jay Gould. I learn something and enjoy the intellectual exercise, but I enjoy the words for themselves too. Damn good writing.