A previous column introduced the newsletter Simple Cooking and the writing of John Thorne, whose book Pot On The Fire won a 2001 James Beard Award, and who has been called the best American food writer by both Gourmet and Connoisseur magazines. Based on the newsletter's success, John and his wife Matt have published six books, the first of which, Outlaw Cook, set the tone of his oeuvre.
John enjoys presenting himself as an artless product of the New England soil, a conceit I allow him. In fact, he is the most erudite scholar of gustatory pleasures since the legendary Waverley Root. He has traced the origins of most American foods, and his articles often give regional variants. Such studies can span the globe. Here, for instance, from 1994, is his citation for "champ," a classic 19th century Irish peasant meal of potatoes:
"In a farmhouse, two stones [28 pounds!] or more of potatoes were peeled and boiled for the dinner. Then the man of the house was summoned when all was ready, and while he pounded the enormous potful of potatoes with a sturdy wooden beetle his wife added the potful of milk and nettles, or scallions, or chives, or parsley, and he beetled it until it was smooth as butter, not a lump anywhere. Everyone got a large bowlful, made a hole in the center, and into this put a large lump of butter. Then the champ was eaten from the outside with a spoon or fork, dipping it into the melting butter in the center. All was washed down with new milk or freshly churned buttermilk."
— Florence Irwin, The Cookin' Woman (1947)
He then gives a more modest and practical recipe using Yukon gold potatoes, cooked unpeeled for more flavor.
Contrast that with a 2004 dish of sherry-infused potatoes from Spain:
3 1/2 T olive oil
1 1/2 pounds peeled white potatoes, cut into 1/8-inch slices
Kosher or sea salt, black pepper
3 bay leaves, halved 1/4 medium-large onion, slivered
3 T Manzanilla or dry Fino sherry
2 T minced fresh parsley
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Coat an 8x12-inch roasting pan, preferably nonstick or Pyrex, with 1/2 tsp olive oil. Add half the potatoes in a slightly overlapping layer and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Scatter the bay leaves and onion over, and layer the rest of the potatoes, sprinkling again with salt and pepper. Spoon the last 3 T of oil over the potatoes. Place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Turn the potatoes, cover lightly with foil and cook for about 20 minutes more, until almost tender.
Turn up the oven to 450 degrees. Sprinkle the sherry over the potatoes, cover again with the foil and continue baking until it is absorbed and the potatoes tender, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.
— Penelope Casas, La Cocina de Mamá: The Great Home Cooking of Spain (2005)
In an essay in the Winter 2001 SC John says, "One of the biggest sources of miscommunication between Matt and myself occurs when I suddenly fall in love with a recipe. This is because Matt takes the recipe as being instructions for making a dish, where, as often as not, its nuts-and-bolts aspect (which some might say is its only aspect) rarely holds my attention. Instead, I see a dish wildly signaling to me on the other side, begging to be let out."
He gives an example. He was intrigued by a recipe on a box of imported pasta. It included minced garlic, anchovies, puréed tomatoes, chopped capers, green olives and basil. But that's not the dish he prepared. His had some of the original ingredients, but deleted the tomatoes, added red chile, oregano, balsamic vinegar, celery, onion, yellow bell pepper, Niçoise olives and a can of imported olive-oil-packed tuna. And the cooking process was completely different.
To enjoy the freedom to make such imperious decisions, the cook must take responsibility for the result. Of course, if you obediently stick to the recipe you will never have to be responsible: "That's what it said to do!" It is often said that good cooks don't use cookbooks or recipes — too often, this is said by bad cooks — and like most clichés it has a germ of truth. But I'm an excellent cook, and I have sheaves of recipes, re-annotated every time I use them, noting what worked and what didn't. I have well over 100 cookbooks, too, and they are a valuable resource for me, as I imagine Thorne's are for him.
The "resource" distinction is a subtle one: neither of us follows cookbook recipes — rather, we use them as a guide, an inspiration, a mnemonic. The chemistry of food is far too subtle to submit to the domination of the printed page. For the aspiring culinary artist, a recipe should be less a formula than a sip from the Pierian spring. If you bring your own experience, taste, and imagination to it, you chance failing spectacularly, but you learn and move on.
Simple Cooking is one of the few journals that give cultural context to cuisine; it is both ingratiating and scholarly. It takes seemingly flat topics and gives them dimension. And Thorne is an adventurous editor as well as writer: In an issue almost a decade ago, one lead article was about street food in Manila and one was titled "Eating Across Mongolia."
The latest issue, while not quite as exotic, has seven pages on peanuts and black-eyed peas in the cooking of West Africa — two narratives that capture the cultures behind the food — and seven recipes (in eight pages) that will make you salivate. And maybe say, "I could make that .. only I'd do it with roasted sweet pepper and shallots."
E-mail Joseph Byrd at email@example.com