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Outlaw Cook
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52 of 52 people found the following review helpful
on September 10, 1999
Format: Paperback
My first contact with John Thorne was a review of "Serious Pig" that appeared in the Washington Post. I quickly bought the book, and Thorne's two other books, "Simple Cooking" and "Outlaw Cook," and devoured them all. I have bought many copies of each (especially "Outlaw Cook") to share with friends who are serious cooks.
Unlike an ordinary cookbook writers, John Thorne doesn't just share recipes (although there are plenty of them); he inspires good cooks to be better. His style is less about fancy food for dinner parties than about stunningly good food to share with close friends, or to enjoy in contemplative solitude.
In "Outlaw Cook," John shares his memories of his first kitchen, in a cold-water flat on the lower east side of Manhattan, and the important lessons he learned there. He goes on to talk about the properties of garlic as a seducer that possesses body and soul(10 pages on garlic soup!), and about food that is loaded with it. He writes a chapter on "The Perfect Pecan Pie," not to tell you how to make it, but to help you find your own perfect pecan pie. He spends forty pages on sourdough bread, and I felt when I finished that I understood the process (although it took some practice before I really had it just right). There is a pear-ginger cake that is a revelation, although I added a warm caramel sauce to John's recipe for a Christmas dinner treat that has become a tradition.
John Thorne writes about food with keen knowledge, imagination, emotion, wit, and heart I've never found before. He's been compared to M.F.K. Fisher, but he's earthier. His writing has a visceral quality that evokes our most hidden emotions about the food we eat.
John Thorne's books are not for the novice. They are for the cook who knows the ways of the kitchen, but wants to learn to trust his imagination, to leap forward into a new realm where the food one cooks satisfies the hunger of the soul as well as the stomach.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on May 25, 2002
Format: Paperback
John Thorne is one of the most thoughtful, provocative and downright talented writers going, and the book he and his wife, Matt Lewis Thorne, have produced is ample evidence of this. In addition to providing some excellent recipes, "Outlaw Cook" is just plain old good reading.
I was first introduced to Thorne's writing years ago when a colleague gave me a copy of his first book, "Simple Cooking." "Simple Cooking" is a compilation of essays and recipes from his newsletter (by the same name), and it charmed me. From the best essay I have ever read on cheesecake to the recounting of a long-ago romantic evening highlighted by the appearance of homemade Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, Thorne covered a wealth of disparate material and covered it all with an unstuffy and contagious isn't-this-fascinating spirit. "Outlaw Cook" serves up more of the same delicious dish.
One of the most exhilarating things in "Outlaw Cook" is the chapter called "On Not Being a Good Cook." For a man who makes his living writing about food and cooking, this baldly titled essay is a brazen thing to include in a book that bears the imprimatur of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (it was a winner of one of the Julia Child Cookbook Awards). Throwing down the gauntlet to the rarefied world of foodies (as food writers are commonly called), he begins the essay by asserting, "I'm not a good cook." He goes on:
" . . . if our criterion for goodness is whether I possess anything like a genuinely well-rounded repertoire of dishes I consistently prepare well, then my credentials are nothing much to boast about. Quite honestly, this has never bothered me much at all . . . It's my experience that truly good cooks are born. I was not born to be one, and I don't like being trained, especially if the result is going to be mere competency. I've generally found life a lot more interesting learning to use my limitations than struggling to overcome them."
Take that, all you Cordon Bleu-trained snobs! After all, most of us haven't been trained in cooking--except perhaps at a parent's knee, if we are lucky--so his comments, while surprising coming from a food writer, do apply to the majority of the general population. The essay serves the dual purpose of endearing Thorne to his readers and emboldening them to share his defiance of the conventions of cookery.
There are other goodies as well. Thorne writes convincingly (if somewhat obsessively) about the need to bake bread in a wood-fired, outdoor oven. He takes deadly aim at food writer Paula Wolfert and wickedly skewers Martha Stewart. And as if the polished prose weren't enough, there are many worthwhile recipes; his takes on lemon ice cream, Texas toast, Swedish pea soup and pecan pie all leap to the fore.
Matt Lewis Thorne and John Thorne have, with "Outlaw Cook" produced a quiet classic of food writing that deserves to be on any thoughtful cook's bookshelf--or on the bedside table. It's that good.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on July 26, 2005
Format: Paperback
Serendipity put this book into my hands, and I am most grateful. To declare that OUTLAW COOK is a skillful, fascinating collection of essays, recipes, and reviews is accurate, but fails to acknowledge the truest contributions of this unique volume. John Thorne writes with a warmth and self-effacing humor that welcomes even the most callow non-foodie to the kitchen. Thorne, in delicious morsels served throughout the book, offers his readers a sort of cook's autobiography. He's wonderfully transparent about the whys and wherefores of learning to cook, inviting us to give ourselves permission - as he has done for himself - to play in the kitchen, honor our appetites, and be imperfect. The measures of mastery, it would seem, are an idiosyncratic cuisine and a perpetual sense of curiosity. Most of all, though, Thorne gives voice to the myriad celebrations, comforts, and connections inherent in the preparation and sharing of food.

Many of the essays in OUTLAW COOK are striking in their anthropological or historical depth. Thorne is adept at placing food into contexts; time, place, and culture (high and low) are all important here, but so are individual memory and experience. I was moved repeatedly, reading the book, as Thorne's descriptions triggered my own memories of particular foods in particular places. I was also deeply touched by the relationships Thorne draws among food and cooking, preparation and consumption, solitary and social pleasures. I found as I read that my own sense of myself as a cook and as an eater became more clear, balanced, and healthy. By the end of reading OUTLAW COOK, I had begun the transition from observer - wanting only to watch John and Matt Lewis Thorne work their magic - to participant - trying to cast a spell or two of my own. A marvelous gift from a remarkable book!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on May 30, 2014
Format: Paperback
Oh well. This book demands an essay from me that I cannot write. I don't have the talent to do it justice, if "justice" is the word. If you're neurotic about food--if you constantly say one thing and do another when it comes to cooking--then this book, and Thorne's other books, should shake you up a bit and stop you from cooking an endless procession of miserable, grimy little meals. Stop wallowing in self pity, you bad cooks. You boilers of chicken. You simpering burners of innocent vegetables. Play with your food. Make something really good, just for your own greedy little self. Then, serve it to company. Make them eat it. You eat it too. And if Townspeople bearing torches assemble in your front yard--give them some! Eat. And be merry! Be an outlaw! There's whiskey in the jar-o!
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 23, 2007
Format: Paperback
"Because a pecan pie is so simple to make and because its major ingredients--sugar and nuts--can be combined in so many various ways, a pecan pie can be uniquely honed to a razor's edge of perfection against a particular palate: unlike almost any dessert, it is amenable to infinite variation. But all that freedom demands that you know yourself; otherwise you will constantly be seduced by other people's notion of perfect and never realize your own."

I happened to go on a quest for my perfect pecan pie this year (and found it, huzzah!), but that was just luck. I don't usually go on a quest for my perfect anything in a dish--I split my time between making something that sounds good, winging it without a recipe (and feeling guilty about it) and following a recipe imperfectly, adapting it helter-skelter to what I have at hand (because I didn't check whether I had enough of what the recipe called for). And the foods that I love to throw together the way I like them? Well, they're almost embarrassing, because they're so private. "Hey, world! I like ramen noodles with peanut butter and pre-mixed curry powder and carrots and baby corn when I remember to get it, and maybe some cilantro and garlic and ginger, but mostly just the curry-peanut butter mixture! And here's my underwear, too, while I'm at it, not the sexy ones, just the regular ones! Freshly washed but at least as old as my daaaaaaauuuuuughterrrrrr!"

But where else does food come from? Until recently, people made food based on what they had on hand (or what they could get), to the particular taste of the family or self, without recipes. And--it was good.

John Thorne kindly points this out. He also charges quixotically at the egos of Paula Wolfert, Martha Stewart*, even James Beard, managing to puncture them a few times without doing them too much damage. He obsesses about things. He glorifies the "plowman's lunch," cheese, good bread, a whole onion, and something good to drink (beer!), and how it can be adapted from cheese spread on crackers to onion soup. He asserts the point of having a party is conversation, not centerpieces or impressive dishes. He even denies being a good cook--just an interested one.

Also, I strongly suspect he likes to eat.

*Who is actually the same person as Hillary Clinton.
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on February 4, 2015
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
This is one of the best cooking books that I have read.
The thing I have noticed is that it reads a lot like a novel, and I catch myself quite often getting caught up in it and losing track of time.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on December 27, 2011
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This book is a great collection of essays which any culinary enthusiast will appreciate. I decided to but this book after reading a recommendation by Alton Brown, once again Alton has not lead me astray. This book is worth buying even if the only chapter you read is "The Baker's Apprentice." This chapter inspired me to try creating my own sourdough starter and homemade artisinal bread. The results have been extraordinary and that praise comes from a man who often passes on bread before dinner. After this book and making my own simple artisinal sourdough I find it even harder to enjoy bread. The vast majority of bread you eat relies to heavily on additives and most breads I find incredibly lacking in true depth of flavor. I realize this review only focused on one chapter... but that one chapter has been more valuable than most whole cookbooks I have read.
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6 of 66 people found the following review helpful
on February 19, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This man's problem is obvious. In his youth he dreamed of being a writer, and dropped out of college to flee to NYC and attempt literary fame. Failing, he finished college and taught prep school for a half a dozen years, and then decided to try for literary fame again as a "food writer." Unfortunately, although he is right about how to eat an avocado, most of his recipes are downright uninteresting and his writing is at times absurd.
This man actually wrote that he wanted to understand why the food we eat wanted to kill its father and sleep with its mother! I don't know what you may think, but I find this a pretty dumb question to ask of a turnip!
On another page, he informs us that he loves BBQ ribs and that they are "rebarbative." Oooh, a hard word! Alas, it means "very irritating or repulsive," not a good fifty-dollar word to apply to the food you love to eat.
Deservedly out of print.
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