Thinking Cookbooks: An Everlasting Meal

I wasn’t raised at the elbow of a great cook. I grew up in suburban New York, where my mother fed my brother and me hot dogs, buttered spaghetti, and frozen corn on Mondays. There were broiled pork chops with a brushing of yellow mustard, my grandmother’s apple-and-hot-dog casserole, and take-out pizza for dinner on Wednesdays. On Saturday mornings, my dad flipped Bisquick pancakes and served them with Aunt Jemima.

Despite my less-than-epicurean start, I’m a cook; a dogged and reasonably able one in constant search of the kitchen mentor that my childhood lacked.

M.F.K. Fisher, one of my main muses, once wrote that cooking is a way to “live most agreeably in a world full of an increasing number of disagreeable surprises.” Disagreeable surprises, in fact, pushed me into the kitchen. When I was twelve, my parents divorced and I became our home’s shopper and cook. When I was in my early twenties and both of my parents died of cancer, the lure of the kitchen became even more insistent. At first, it was a matter of practicality—someone had to get everyone fed. But I stayed because cooking is the only practice that makes me feel that my feet are firmly planted on solid ground.

I’ve never taken a cooking class and I am perpetually impatient in the kitchen. My apartment in Brooklyn is crammed with cookbooks full of would-be mentors’ wisdom, but I have little loyalty to recipes. Still, the hours I’ve spent mimicking knife skills from cooking programs, caramelizing onions, whipping egg whites, and flipping Spanish tortillas assures me that at least a part of life can be counted on to turn out fine and satisfying, if not completely perfect.

Since I was a teenager, I’ve courted cookbooks as I do friends. This past month, I’ve been seeking out a sort of gastronomical sisterhood in Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace (Scribner, 2011). Adler, thirty-something, a former editor at Harper’s and a cook schooled in the kitchens of Alice Waters, Dan Barber, and Gabrielle Hamilton, has written a much-hyped amalgam of kitchen wisdom and philosophy, scattered with recipes. Some are new to me—a pesto of forgotten leaves and stems, and chow-chow, for example. But the vast majority of the recipes in An Everlasting Meal are riffs on familiar dishes such as gratins, stocks, pastas, toppings for toasts, and eggs every which way.

Adler modeled her book upon M.F.K. Fisher’s first significant work, How to Cook a Wolf, with the context adapted from Fisher’s wartime era to today’s D.I.Y. farm-to-table sensibility. Adler comes very—sometimes uncomfortably, almost word-for-word close—to Fisher. An Everlasting Meal’s structure is identical to Wolf’s, with a suggestive “How to ___” (“How to Catch Your Tail,” “How to Be Tender”) title to each chapter. Recipes perched on Fisher’s proverbial “branches” pop up amongst bits of almost Victorian musings on “feeding ourselves well” as a means to “living well.” “How to Have Balance,” a chapter dedicated to bread and toast, quotes Fisher so often it’s difficult to discern whether it’s been written as an attempt at original thought or as an homage. In these moments, it’s as if the D.I.Y.-er has slapped a new coat of paint on the best of Fisher’s food prose.

But I didn’t know any of that when I read the author’s manifesto and dedicated the dog days of summer to a new best friendship. “Cooking is both simpler and more necessary than we imagine,” writes Adler. “We don’t need to shop like chefs or cook like chefs; we need to shop and cook like people learning to cook, like what we are—people who are hungry.”

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I found myself in that very state. I had just landed in Rio de Janeiro after a two-week research trip with a Brazilian chef with whom I’m writing a cookbook. For days, we’d tasted, visited small producers, been fed and feted—but not once had we cooked for ourselves.

I couldn’t wait to get into the kitchen of my tiny, four-day rental. I’d carried Adler with me and had finished reading the book on the flight to Brazil. She writes that cooking is best approached from wherever you find yourself when you are hungry and I was eager to see how this functioned outside the North American milieu. I rushed off to the market with a headful of Adler’s Italian-accented recipes in mind.

The first effect of having read the book was my economy. Normally, I return from the market in Brazil laden with more bright, fresh fruits and vegetables than I can consume. But with a mere four days in Rio, I found myself exercising a bit of Adler-induced frugality. For fat and salt (Adler’s “good olive oil” induces sticker shock in Brazil), I settled on some magnificently fatty salted yellow butter.

An Everlasting Meal is filled with casual wisdom and everyday suggestions, many of which are starred and underlined in my copy. There are the basics—how to poach an egg or roast bones for stock and guidelines for vinaigrettes, rice, and boiled chicken. There are some cleverly resourceful tips—saving stalks and leaves to make pesto, using Parmesan rinds to add oomph to soups, and an exceedingly useful chapter entitled “How to Snatch Victory from the Jaws of Defeat,” a collection of ideas for bouncing back after mundane culinary failures.

Adler’s palate leans towards Italy with loads of garlic, Parmesan, lemon, and olive oil. There is bread, lots of it, eaten as toast heaped or spread with most anything. Stale bread is salvaged and turned into breadcrumbs, bread soup, or ribollita. The book is about feeding oneself well, and finding some joy—or at least less anxiety—in kitchen work.

I exercised only one of Adler’s specific recommendations that night. I baked a sweet potato whole, its skin scrubbed and pricked for ventilation. I can’t say, though, that Adler had anything to do with imparting that wisdom (even my mother could bake a potato). But Adler’s urgings towards simplicity are reassuring even if much of what she writes is just a mirror of what’s long become second nature. Some parts of An Everlasting Meal, however, are downright silly. Broccoli stems apparently “must” be simmered with olive oil and served on toast with shaved Parmesan. When it comes to beans, Adler tells us not to fear them—we need only put a cup or so of the legumes on the counter, in a bowl covered with some cold water. But then comes a moment of unnecessary food writing snobbery: “You will be on your way toward making beans that taste like those that have fed laborers and fighters for centuries. You will also have plowed effortlessly through the hurdle of ‘soaking beans,’ a hurdle whose existence and gnarliness is a pure invention of food writers’ proclivities for making cooking seem difficult.” As far as I can tell, Adler’s technique is exactly the same as any other I have ever read. Where either her “hurdle” or her issue with previous bean recipes lie, I couldn’t say. And yes, this is a cookbook, but even so, the author’s disparaging view of raw, uncured produce is jarring. More disturbing than her blind spots and presumptions, however, is the author’s tendency to command, rather than suggest. Moral superiority sends up a big red flag in the search for a new best friend.

That night in Rio, I poured myself a glass of water and sat at the small glass table. At home, I tend to cook for crowds and eat with guests. But after so many days on the road, the solitude was a relief. I ate slowly and deliberately, with a book in hand. Framed by the richness of the proceeding weeks, it was one of the more satisfying meals of my Brazilian sojourn. It felt good to feed myself in a faraway city, good too to turn a few ingredients into a simple, soul-satisfying meal for one.

Since returning home, I’ve looked at An Everlasting Meal just once, to check how much vinegar to use to poach a single egg. I wanted not to need to reference Adler. Though her writing is lovely, sometimes her sense of leisure, Generation Q privilege, and the cant of the “local” movement seem to blind the author to the complicated and enduring universal human desires that M.F.K. Fisher located in her own troubled era, the very genius, courage, and insight that elevated her to muse in the pantheon of food writing.

Set adrift in the world too young to recognize the importance of a mooring, I don’t hunger for mirrors held up by people like me. I dream of weathered sages in stained aprons, dishing out life lessons like ladlefuls of soup. Perhaps, if Adler’s book had landed on my desk several years ago, when I was just beginning to fumble about the kitchen, I’d have swooned for it. Today, though, basic recipes and good sense alone are not enough to inspire me.

I am not looking for nostalgia. I’m looking for the wisdom and recipes of people like my grandmother who, in her eighties, whipped off her clothes to go skinny dipping and then hiked home topless to bake a batch of flawless blueberry tea cake. Fisher offered this, capturing the reader’s imagination with words that are, in turn, playful, reflective, and downright bawdy. Adler is only earnest and, at least in this book, doesn’t see past the doctrine of today’s food fashions or the dogma of the Locavore. I admit, it’s a creed that I share, but who can—or, for that matter, wants—to be dietarily correct with every single mouthful?

Adler, perhaps, hasn’t yet known the feeling of frantically kicking back to the surface, trying to snatch one’s life back not from defeat, but from catastrophe, hasn’t learned the vibrant, messy, and deeply human life that erupts when the best-laid plans are shredded to bits. But the author recognizes her limits. An Everlasting Feast is written in the hope of inspiring readers to feel “more alive” by exerting “tiny bits of our human preference in the universe.”A very good place to start. As I glance at the book in my kitchen, I hope that its author summons the courage to look past the much-discussed and dip into the unknown emotional and cultural territories that enrich a writer’s word with compassion, wide-ranging curiosity, and the truly everlasting feast of human experience. Adler’s prowess as a cook and a writer deserves these graces.