At Home in the Kitchen

Being an editor at a food magazine is not all fun and foie gras, but one of the great perks of this job is that every week a pile of new cookbooks lands on my desk. The humble and the high gloss, the great and the horrid—I see them all. Ironically, though, while browsing their pages invariably makes me want to eat, only the exceptional volume actually inspires me to cook. In fact, by now I've narrowed the field of keepers down to a few categories: those focused on bacon, pies, or booze—and anything written by John Thorne.

With his stocky frame, bristly beard, and wire-rimmed glasses, Thorne doesn't look the part of a culinary superhero, but don't let appearances fool you. Beneath that mild-mannered, shy exterior lurks an incorrigibly curious cook, an adventurer capable of transforming every trip to Stop & Shop into inspired prose and every bowl of baked beans into an opportunity for scholarship. In the two and a half decades since he began producing the homemade-food newsletter Simple Cooking (which, in the language of the day, would have been dubbed a 'zine, had it been authored by a purple-haired 19-year-old and not a bespectacled 40-year old), Thorne, along with his wife and coauthor, Matt Lewis Thorne, have authored five books, won numerous awards, and acquired a fiercely loyal readership. Reading their latest collection of essays, Mouth Wide Open (North Point Press, 2007), I was reminded once again of why, when I'm yearning for the satisfactions of the kitchen—not just a romp through the latest, shiny, coffee table cookbook—and feeling playful or peckish or peevish, it is always Thorne's essays to which I return. It's not just their uncanny ability to reveal the hidden anthropological meanings behind the Campbell's soup shelf at the local supermarket (see the essay "Pepper Pot Hot") or his poetic musings on the pleasures of marrow that lure me back. No; it is the generous, genial approach that Thorne himself calls "a lively conversation—a friendly argument between two cooks". Ever the iconoclast, Thorne is not so much interested in perfecting a set of recipes for someone else to follow as he is in inviting a companionable reader to come along as he fumbles through his own kitchen epiphanies. Luckily for readers everywhere, even his disasters are delightful.

One morning this winter, after he'd finished his breakfast, SAVEUR spoke with Thorne by phone from his home in Northampton, Massachusetts, about his unlikely career, his affection for the food of New England, and why he's never going to eat acorns again.

When you started writing you had ambitions to be a novelist. How did you end up focusing on food?

It was really just a comfortable fit. I noticed that when I went to a party, everybody else gravitated to the living room and I gravitated to the kitchen. But I was also inspired by a writer for the alternative paper in Boston, who was the first food writer I'd encountered who sounded like someone I could hang out with. Suddenly it dawned on me that you didn't have to wear a three-piece suit or be a schoolteacher in order to produce food writing.

You mean it wasn't just about home economics and restaurant reviews?

Exactly. At first I started producing little pamphlets on single subjects like olive oil and garlic, and from there I moved on to the newsletter Simple Cooking, which I'm still doing 26 years later.

What was the subject of your first pamphlet?

Onion soup. At the time, I'd been unemployed for about six months and needed to come up with an idea for an inexpensive Christmas present I could send out to friends. All I knew was that I had two things: a big electric typewriter and a folder full of onion soup recipes. I'm the sort of person who clips and files away the same recipe over and over again; clearly it was a subject I was drawn to, and I found a great deal of pleasure in writing it. But earning a living doing it did not even cross my mind.

You've been putting together Simple Cooking for more than two decades. Is your idea of what "simple cooking" means the same now as it was when you began?

It has changed a little, but more than that, I think the world has changed. Today you go into the supermarket, and you're faced with a barrage of different foods. Everything is possible, and you have to figure out, from the dizzying amount of stuff that comes pouring over you, what you will use. It's almost the reverse of what I think of as simple cooking.

I learned to cook in two extreme situations. As a young man, I spent my summers alone at a family cottage in Maine. I had very little money and no cooking experience. I just had to figure out what to do. But one day, it occurred to me that I was surrounded by food: I just had to go out and get it and figure out how to cook it. I started digging clams and picking blueberries and gathering wild salad—and as I did that my interest in that grew, and I became better at feeding myself.

Later on, I dropped out of college and went to live on the Lower East Side of New York City. I was paying 60 dollars a month for an apartment and making 120 dollars a month working in a mailroom. New York was very, very different from Maine, though I did once go up to Central Park because I'd read that acorns were edible. That was a one-time experience.

Did you eat them?

The thing about acorns is that in order to make them edible, you have to boil them for a day and a half. By the time I finished, my apartment just reeked with this acidic smell and I couldn't bear the idea of swallowing them. I gave them to somebody else to eat, but I believe they threw up afterwards. That was it for me and acorns.

Still, the point is that in both situations, I had to teach myself how to cook using very little money and with the ingredients that were around me. Back then, the Lower East Side was full of treasures. One store sold butter in big chunks, another sold day-old bread, and another sold every green you can imagine. I'm a very shy person, but gradually I started venturing out listening to what other people were ordering and how they were using it. For instance, the tenements just reeked of cabbage, so I figured that cabbage must be edible, despite my suspicions to the contrary.

In the preface to your new book, Mouth Wide Open, you soften your stance a little on some of the food trends you've been suspicious of in the past, like food television and the culture of chef worship. What made you reevaluate your opinions?

Well, as far as chef worship goes, I haven't bought into that, to tell you the truth. And I don't own a television, so I've seen only two cooking shows. I think it was, what's his name…the Naked Chef?

Jamie Oliver.

Right. I actually thought he was pretty charming. But Iron Chef, you couldn't get me to watch that at gunpoint.

I guess what has changed is that I now have a relation who's a chef, and because I know him and like him and have followed him as he's gone from job to job, I've realized how hard he works and how very different the job of a real chef is from what is glorified on TV. They work like dogs. It's very hard to produce the same dish over and over again, and it's something I've never even remotely thought about doing. I've also realized that because of the economics of the restaurant business, chefs have an influence that a layperson can't. I have to go find the farmers' market, but the farmers' market will come to the chef because he buys so much. I've warmed up to the world of professional cooks, even though I think that most of it has only a limited application inside the home kitchen.

You write a lot about your practice in the kitchen but focus less on your results. Do you find that once you've perfected a dish you lose interest in making it?

That's absolutely true, and one of the things I look for in any subject is the possibility of continuing to play with it, because once I can replicate it in a way that my wife, Matt, and I both really like, I get bored with it. Still, often just the smallest amount of tinkering can transform a dish. For that reason, I prefer simple dishes because the more complex they are, the harder it is to play with the variables. Take this morning, for instance: I opened our refrigerator and saw a big bowl of cauliflower that Matt had prepared, and because it's white, the first thing I thought of was potato salad. So then I thought, Hmm, what would cauliflower potato salad be like? Cauliflower and potato go so well together in curry; they might go together in a potato salad. That's the kind of thing that gets my mind turning. I try it, and it might be good, it might be awful.

Speaking of breakfast, on your website, www.outlawcook.com, you keep a chronicle of your morning meals. What is it about breakfast that makes it such good fodder for writing?

What I find so appealing about breakfast is the solitariness. You're sleepy, and you feel the need to coddle yourself. It's the same thing when I go to bed when I get my midnight snack. There's just something about the focus of it—it doesn't require any great intellectual thinking. It's just pulling together something that's pleasing to you, alone, personally, with no worry about anyone else watching you.

Strange things come out of you during that time. That is something that has always fascinated me. When you have to cook in order to feed a family, you don't really get to explore the inner recesses of your psyche. It's only when you cook for yourself that you find out how good some strange things can be. It's like the time I decided to live without any clocks. You see different things in the world. What I realized was that I would have lunch at around ten o'clock in the morning and supper at three o'clock, making five or six meals a day. So, eventually I went back to clocks!

You grew up in an army family that moved around a lot, but many of the dishes you've meditated on in your essays, like baked beans and corned beef hash and chowder, are archetypal Yankee fare. How have the years you've spent living in New England shaped your sensibility?

I would say that there's a real part of my psyche that feels uncomfortable when it's out of New England. I went to Florida once, and I just thought, This is the weirdest place. As far as food is concerned, the book that deals the most pointedly with the subject of New England is Serious Pig. I wrote it when Matt and I lived in Maine, way out in the country. To get anywhere you had to drive, so you stop thinking about driving as being a prologue; it was just part of the experience. We would go to one place to get potatoes and another to get lobster. It was very, very different from being here [in Northampton, Massachusetts], where you go to the supermarket or maybe a farmers' market. That's not the same as being in Maine and coming upon boxes of blueberries that someone has left on the side of the road.

Recently I've been thinking about how, in the United States, almost all of us have immigrant pasts, and when you think about the herbs we use, they're all things we brought with us. The Indians didn't use rosemary or oregano. There is a way, if you're in a place, you have a habit of eating the landscape. I remember once reading a story about an Italian family who had mattress stuffers come and restuff their mattresses every year. The stuffers would arrive carrying a salad bowl and a bottle of olive oil, and when lunchtime came they would just go out in the field and pick up a huge salad. Now, if you stuck you and me you out in a field, we wouldn't know the pigweed from the amaranth. That seems a tragedy to me. But, if anything, being in Maine brought me closer to feeling like someone who could live like that.

Why did you leave, then?

There were two reasons: we hated winter lasting until May, and Matt wanted to be closer to her nephews as they grew up. Truthfully, though, much as I love Maine, I began to find it rather restrictive. Just about the time Matt and I went to get our last 50-pound bag of potatoes, I suddenly thought, I want rice. I guess, in the end, I didn't possess the moral determination to live off that little plot of land.

In your essays, you do experiment at length with international dishes, but travel is never part of the equation. Do you believe that you can be a culinary adventurer without being a globe-trotter?

Absolutely. The thing is, when you read Paula Wolfert's books, she always seems to meet these little old ladies who insist on sharing their secrets. Then you go overseas yourself, and the little old ladies want nothing to do with you. Some people have a personality that invites people to them, but the rest of us have to figure out how to do it differently. Since I'm terribly shy and terrible at foreign languages—I find English difficult enough—I've settled for going into my Vietnamese grocery store and trying to have a conversation without being dumbfounded.

Speaking of cookbooks, in one piece in your new book you admit to something that would be considered heresy among many food writers: you don't believe it's necessary to test recipes in order to review a cookbook. Care to make your case?

Sure. I think first you have to say, What is my gift as a reviewer? The cookbooks that attract me are ones where I find the personality of the cook absolutely engaging; imitating their recipes isn't my focus. In fact, I'm consistently unable to follow people's recipes. It's like being back in school: when I was in college, the only way I could listen to a lecture would be to draw two little squares on a piece of paper in front of me and label one of them "agree" and the other one "disagree". I couldn't argue—these were lectures, not class discussions—so I would scribble notes to myself.

When I pick up a recipe, I can't just leave it alone. So when I really like a book, it's because it's got me thinking about lots of different things that I've never done before, and when I don't like a book, it could very well have nothing to do with the recipes. So, I guess my argument is that there's more to cookbooks than recipes, and isn't it fine to have at least some reviewers looking at that other world for the reader? I know it's not a popular position. In fact, I was at this culinary event not long ago, and someone on a panel I was taking part in said every reviewer should test at least seven recipes. I kept my mouth shut, but in my heart, I was busily scribbling, "Disagree."