By John Thorne ’65 with Matt Lewis Thorne. New York City: North Point Press, 2007. 448 pp. $26 hardcover.
Reviewed by Alexander Chee
I first met John Thorne through his second book, Outlaw Cook, a gift to me from a foodie boyfriend who said it would teach me to cook without recipes. To my surprise, it did. In chapters with titles like “Salt,” I learned about the elements of the kitchen’s basics, how they would perform under different circumstances, why they mattered and how they could work with each other. The book also introduced me to Thorne’s radically different kind of food writing. A chapter on stock, for example, begins with a description of the sensation caused at the 1898 Salon des Artistes in Paris by Joseph-Ferdinand Gueldry’s painting The Blood Drinkers. This is classic Thorne.
Simple Cooking, Thorne’s first book, published in 1989, was a collection of his columns from the foodie-must-have newsletter he began in the ’80s (interested readers can sign up at www.outlawcook.com). We met Thorne then as an unprepossessing man, living and cooking in Castine, Maine, hungry and prone to midnight snacks (his Midnight Snack journal in the newsletter is pretty good reading all on its own).
The newest of Thorne’s six books, Mouth Wide Open, finds our unprepossessing man living in Northampton, Mass., and taking a look at home cooking in the age of the Food Network: how, he wonders in his opening, have we changed while watching Rachael Ray, Iron Chef, Mario Batali and Martha? He brings us back to a time when none of us knew what “extra virgin” meant, or, at least, we thought it meant something very different. Then he takes us through the food he knows now, the kinds of things Rachael Ray wouldn’t go near and couldn’t handle: A chapter on Bagna Caôda, a fondue-like Piedmontese snack, includes a graph with cross-sections of 12 different published recipes for it. Thorne describes how he is inspired to commit a heresy—he dips a piece of raw beef in it and discovers it is good on steak, not just on the traditional vegetables. He takes apart the myths (and recipes) surrounding Pepper Pot Hot, a dish said to have been invented by George Washington for his soldiers.
The chapter “Real Italians” starts with Thorne reminiscing about summers in Long Island, Maine, off Casco Bay, in the ’70s. I discovered, to my shock, that he used to go to the same Italian sandwich shop I did back then: Amato’s, on India Street. He goes on to describe how to make some truly incredible sandwiches. There’s a round-up of his midnight snacks—baked fat, sautéed spinach stems, “Bagel mit Wiener Salswasser,” sweet corn and milk, Khai Pen. He also gives his views on Fast Food Nation and our dangerous culture of speeded-up food and sugary drinks.
“Of course, it’s not in my nature to present a recipe without conveying something of how I happened to choose it and how I went about shaping it to my taste,” he writes, and it occurs to me that this is why those of us who love him love him. By the time I reach the book’s ending, I’ve forgotten entirely that there was even a theme: I don’t care. I’m too happy, too satisfied, to wonder if he set out to do what he was going to do, though, of course, when I check (this is a review, after all), he has. The world is getting smaller with all this food, he is saying. No American before us could cook like we do now. So open wide and give it a try.
Chee is the visiting writer at Amherst.
Photo courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux