John Thorne's Before Side of a Recipe
by John Thorne
North Point Press, $13 paper
by John Thorne with Matt Lewis Thorne
North Point Press, $10 paper
Serious Pig: An American Cook in Search of His Roots
by John Thorne with Matt Lewis Thorne
North Point Press, $30 hard
Simple Cooking Newsletter
P.O. Box 8
Steuben, Maine 04680
I once dreamed of writing a cookbook called Beyond Recipes -- a philosophical guidebook that taught you how to follow the seasons, be true to the ingredients, and create your own cooking style without precise measurements, fixed ingredient lists, or ironclad instructions. It seemed like the most interesting and difficult kind of cookbook that could ever be written.
Then I discovered it had already been done. Not only do John Thorne's three cookbooks, Simple Cooking, Outlaw Cook, and Serious Pig, set forth just such a philosophical guide to cooking in modern America, they also provide some scathingly honest insights into the problems with other cookbooks.
I heard about John Thorne three or four years ago when then Chronicle food writer Ed Ward recommended his second cookbook, Outlaw Cook, in these pages. I bought the book and quickly became mesmerized by it. It begins with Thorne as a hungry writer with nothing more than a cast-iron skillet and a hot plate in a New York apartment and proceeds to delve into literature and history to come up with an understanding of such fascinating issues as why beer, cheese, and mustard go so well together. It goes on to debunk authentic French cookbook authors by name and trash recipes like the one for cassoulet that calls for duck confit which you have to make weeks or months in advance. It is an irreverent, intelligent, and scathingly honest book about food.
In truth, I was a little put off at first by the book's tendency to jump around from one subject to another. It took me a while to realize that this capriciousness was due to the fact that almost all of Thorne's material is reprinted from his newsletter, Simple Cooking. The columns in the Simple Cooking newsletter, like "Kitchen Diary," a seasonal look at ingredients, and "Mange Tout," where other cookbooks are reviewed, became the sections of the cookbooks, giving his books an almanac sort of quality. Once you get used to it, it gives you a great excuse to skim around to find subjects that interest you at any given moment.
Texans will be particuarly interested in Thorne's recently released third cookbook, Serious Pig, which is divided into sections called "Here," "There," and "Everywhere." "There" is Louisiana, where Ed Ward makes a guest appearance in a quote about the difficulty of getting any two Cajuns to agree on any one recipe. "Everywhere" is Texas and includes thoughts on barbecue (the serious pig of the title), cornbread, biscuits, and 16 recipes for chili beginning with one from 1880.
The section called "Here" is about Thorne's cooking at home in Maine. Thorne's simple recipe for home-fried potatoes sizzled for over an hour at very low heat in a buttered skillet is one I have already used a dozen times. I've also tried the variations with anchovies, onions, garlic, and cheese. The great thing about a John Thorne recipe is that once you use it, you never forget it. Because what you learn isn't the measurements, it's the underlying philosophy of the dish.
Along with Serious Pig, Thorne's publisher has also just reissued Thorne's first cookbook, Simple Cooking, in paperback. If I had it to do all over again, I would begin my exploration of the Thorne canon with the section called "Rice and Peas, a Preface With Recipes." There, nine pages before you even hit the first chapter, Thorne explains the logic behind his culinary methodology, and sets up the premise that runs through all three cookbooks.
The problem with most recipes, according to Thorne, is that they are re-creations, and following them can never give you what you're really after -- the sensibility that existed before the recipe did. Thorne's cookbooks attempt to get back to that moment in the kitchen when the cook really did not know what to do with the ingredients -- the place he calls the "other side --the before side -- of the recipe."
To get there, Thorne takes lots of different recipes for the same dish, deconstructs them, and tries to figure out what each has to offer. In this way, says Thorne: "We experience the art as it is and should be: opinionated, argumentative, contradictory, with each cook making the exact same `traditional' dish in his or her own particular way, all the while swearing it is the only conceivable one." In this preface, he illustrates the process by comparing several famous Italian cookbooks' recipes for rice and peas, or risi e bisi as the dish is known in Italian. After a few pages of comparisions that lay out every possible option for how to make the dish he says:
When we come to proportions, our cooks again agree to disagree, and in every possible way -- from a tablespoon of butter to a stick, from a handful of Parmesan to a cupful, to the very ratio of rice and peas. However, I'm not going to go on any further about that, nor about the finer points of preparation. By now, I think your thoughts on these points are as lucid as mine.
In other words, if I've interested you at all in this debate, I've already made my point: you find you have your opinions, you feel your recipe, your way with risi e bisi is already taking shape in your fingers. Thick or loose, wet or dry, rich or meager, pungent or subtle, more green or more white, laced with strips of prosciutto or bits of pancetta, showered with coarse pepper or dotted with fennel or celery, dusted or drenched with cheese, spooned, or forked... and suddenly this simple uncomplicated dish comes alive in a richness of possibilty, enough to fire up any genuine culinary sensibility.
Thorne's intelligent, inspirational and emotional books about cooking transcend the whole cookbook genre. They take you beyond recipes and beyond the egos of chefs to the very heart of the matter -- the love of good food. Whether you are an accomplished cook with a state of the art kitchen or a college freshman with a skillet and a hot plate, John Thorne's cookbooks belong on your bookshelf.