Both currently available books, `Serious Pig’ and `Pot on the Fire’, by John Thorne and wife Matt Lewis Thorne, are composed of essays cut from the same culinary journalistic cloth, the authors’ food letter `Simple Cooking’. These essays as bodies of work do not quite fit any established form of culinary writing. It is certainly not `The Best Recipe’ genre followed by the magazine `Cooks Illustrated’ and some writers, although there is some element of this point of view. It is not culinary history, since it is so distinctly done from the authors’ point of view. There are some essays that taste like memoir or nostalgia, but these serve more as chapters used to set the scene for text dealing with the food. It is certainly not food science a la Shirley Corriher or Alton Brown, although Alton Brown does credit Thorne as one of his biggest influences. In a nutshell, the Thornes simply provide interesting writing about food. I love intellectual connections, so I was delighted to discover that one of the wellsprings from which John Thorne draws his inspiration is the writing of Richard Olney. This ties up a string of influence from Elizabeth David to Olney to Thorne to Alton Brown, one of the most influential popular voices in culinary journalism. Olney is one of the most intellectual writers on culinary matters writing in English and available in the United States. And, it is clear not only in Thorne’s `Simple Food’ motto but also in his intellectual point of view that he owes much to Olney. The first thing which changed my reading Thorne from simple pleasure to respect was his essay on the Italian Panzanella salad, which he describes in great detail and with great attention to what Italians really mean when they make this salad, a combination of tomato, stale bread, red onion, mozzarella, cucumber, basil, and salt and pepper. The subtle intellectual honesty that caught my attention was when Thorne created an adaptation using fresh bread and remained true to the original nomenclature by calling his invention Panzanetta salad. Contrast this to Alton Brown’s borrowing the same Panzanella term and applying it to a twist on the BLT sandwich by adding bacon and forgetting the onion and garlic. Not Panzanella at all, I think. Not much to most people, but to a person schooled in the principle that language was something to be respected, I was impressed. The second thing that caught my attention was the tale of how Thorne fell into the vocation of cooking and culinary journalism. Like so many things, and like myself, it was by accident and necessity. In Thorne’s case, it was because he was a dropout with little money who needed to feed himself with as few dollars as possible. If this was the prime mover in his career path, a strong influence seems to be his Maine roots. More than one essay has the feel of Maine’s Stephen King writing about food. Popular subjects are his old residences, Maine crops such as potatoes and blueberries, and Maine cuisine featuring the lobster and other seafood, and Maine restaurants. One of my favorite series of essays deals with the origin of chowder. I will never again respect a chowder recipe that does not include some potato or biscuit as a thickening agent. Maine does not monopolize the story. A long series of essays covers Cajun and Creole culinary topics from New Orleans. This is where he proposes the theory that a great cuisine such as the Cajun or Italian cuisine is based on emulating a memory of greatness. I think there is a germ of truth here, but I believe Paula Wolfert offers a much fuller picture in her Morocco book. The third and most enduring attraction of Thorne’s writing is that it is simply entertaining stuff. A writer could provide the recipes on these pages with no explanation or commentary and they would be good recipes, but the writing would be like the food with the salt and pepper left out. Similarly, the history / memoir / commentary would not be nearly as interesting without the instructions for preparing the dishes on which the essays expound. The very best example of a perfect mix of culinary technique with storytelling is the essay on `Perfect Rice’. It all starts with John Thorne’s claiming that he makes a pretty good pot of rice, followed by a derisive response from Madame Thorne, who had studied the issue at some length before Sir John touched on the subject early in their joint lives. Thorne proceeds to relate the story of their mutual investigations into making perfect rice. In the process, we learn much about the world’s rice varieties and why rices behave like it does. After seeing how much care one can devote to such a simple subject, I mentally demote people like Sara Moulton for posing as a teacher of culinary matters when they confesses to not being able to properly cook a pot of rice. Both volumes are available in midpriced trade paperback editions with no pictures. It is a sure test of the fact that pictures are not necessary in works on cooking in that I never miss them. A really important addition to books of this type is a list of recipes in addition to the index and table of contents. Both volumes have this important tool. The most telling endorsement of these books is that I am sure I will read them again, cover to cover, and enjoy every minute of it. A rare treat for foodie readers.
I read a lot of books about food and cooking. Mr. Thorne is a rare writer on the subject: he’s insightful, his essays are full of interesting minutiae, and he’s willing to be personal in just the right measure.
“Our appetite should always be larger and more curious than our hunger, turned loose to wander the world’s flesh at will. Perfection is as false an economy in cooking as it is in love, since, with carrots and potatoes as with lovers, the perfectly beautiful are all the same; the imperfect, different in their beauty, every one.” The quote is from John Thorne’s essay “Perfect Food.” Thorne is obviously not your average food writer, not the celebrity chef du jour penning his memoir plus recipes. He is first and foremost a writer. The food however, is also a star. The Amazon blurb for “Pot on the Fire” uses a quote from Connosseur Magazine comparing John Thorne to Elizabeth David and M.F.K. Fisher. Good company, to be sure, but Mr. Thorne is way more fun than David, and even more entertaining than Fischer. I love Mary Francis, her references to a world that ended in the 1930s don’t resonate today as they once did. She is certainly at the top of the pantheon, but Thorne speaks to us in the here and now. For all his dry humor and low key style, Thorne (and his wife and writing partner Matt Lewis Thorne)is serious about food. In his previous book “Serious Pig,” we learned that necessity was the mother of his inventiveness. He was a penniless college student, taking a hiatus from studies and living on the (very) cheap,at his grandfather’s New England cabin. Back in those days, lobsters were there for the taking, and no red tides turned clams and mussels toxic. He learned how to cook what the ocean gave him for free, and what he could scrounge from the land. But he also learned how to buy and cook and appreciate other foods. His chapter on potatoes, for instance, is eye-opening. Who knew Maine grew so many varieties of spud? His essays on the lobster roll, blueberry pie, picked crab and the New England Diner will have you itching to take a drive up that coast. By the way, “Serious Pig” is not, despite the title, solely concerned with barbecue. It’s a delightful compendium of food writing and the perfect intro to “Pot On the Fire.” “Pot” takes us further afield. We go on the prowl for the ultimate Bahn Mi, that iconic vietnamese sandwich consisting of a baguette stuffed with moist, rich slices ofpork and rich, unctuous pate, all slathered in a chili-spiked mayo and layered with cucumbers, crispy shallots, slices of pickled carrot and daikon, with cilantro and sometimes a splash of nuoc man. Knee-shaking good. He tells us about preparing perfect rice, finding the Ultimate Breakfast and the World’s Best Cookies. We range from a potato-famished Ireland to the India of Colonel Blimp, checking out their influence on what we eat today. This is a book to read, not a cookbook you take down from the shelf when you need a recipe or want to check out the right temp for roasting a pork loin. Like MFK, Thorne does tell us how to cook some things, but mostly he just whets your appetite for eating them. If you read in bed, as I do, by the time he gets around to describing a brothy, spicy, shellfish packed cioppino, you will have to tie your leg to the nightstand to keep from getting up, getting dressed and driving to San Francisco for a bowlful. For a taste of John Thorne, you could visit his website. I’ll provide the link in comments, since it is not permitted to do so in a review. If you haven’t been there before, his listing of favorite breakfasts and snacks is essential reading for all food lovers. So is “Pot on the Fire.” And “Serious Pig.” And “Simple Cooking, his first book, which came out in 1987, and his most recent, “Mouth Wide Open” (2007. Another book, “Home Body,” which was published in 1997, is about domestic topics, not food. That and “Simple Cooking” were solo efforts. The other books are all co-written with Matt Lewis Thorne. I hope you take a look at “Pot” and “Pig” and “Mouth” and enjoy them as much as I did…and do.
- Title: Pot on the Fire: Further Exploits of a Renegade Cook
- Autor: John Thorne
- Publisher (Publication Date): North Point Press (October 31, 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0865475644 | 0865476209
- ISBN-13: 978-0865475649 | 978-0865476202
- Download File Format: EPUB, PDF