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Mouth Wide Open: A Cook and His Appetite Paperback – Bargain Price, November 25, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
This cornucopia of previously published pieces by James Beard Award–winning food writer Thorne, from his newsletter, Simple Cooking, along with a few from other publications, showcases his relaxed, unfussy attitude, refreshing in this age of cookbook and food-personality overabundance. That casualness comes through on subjects from bagna cauda to pepper pot. It's all foodstuff to him, and his affection for foods of all kinds is boundless. Some of the most intriguing suggestions, reprinted from a regular feature of the newsletter, reflect an awareness that the avocado-green electric range is as legitimate as the Viking. Thorne likes to delve into the source and cultural history of individual dishes, and many spur-of-the-moment concoctions, whose recipes are given, were prepared out of a sense of what-the-heck invention and appetite. He fervently promotes his belief that in every foodie lurks a cook capable of doing wonders with prepared foods, that the opposite also holds, and that the ultimate authority on food is the person eating. (Dec.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Even more than in all his previous books, Mr. Thorne validates exactly my approach to reading and reporting on cookbooks. At one point, he states that the most interesting kind of writing a professional chef can do is to describe how they cook at home. This fits exactly my feelings about books such as Jacques Pepin's `Chez Jacque' and `Fast Food My Way', Alice Waters' `The Art of Simple Food', and Eric Rippert's `A Return to Cooking'.
Thorne's own food writing embraces an approach to recipes which matches my own reading and writing, and which probably drives some of my readers to distraction, when I don't get around to actually cooking the recipes. This approach may be compared to Biblical textual criticism, where scholars adjudicate the authenticity of many different versions and fragments of versions for the canonical works in scripture. My favorite Thorne exercise of this sort is his essay on New England clam chowder in an earlier book, `Serious Pig'. If there is any lesson to be learned from his many exercises in this form, it is that one may never find the `genuine' version of any traditional recipe, but it is certainly fun to make the journey. You come out the other end with an enormously improved understanding of a cuisine and the needs of the people who created it. Thorne's essays in this genre in this book start with that rather unfamiliar sauce native to the Piedmont in Italy, bagna cauda. Among his researches are `depositions' from twelve different modern recipes for the sauce, including such notables as Elizabeth David, Faith Willinger, and Jeffrey Steingarten. And, lo and behold, each one is different from one another, and different from Thorne's eyewitness of a preparation in Piedmont.
It is no surprise that Thorne cites David and Steingarten, as his work owes much to David's style of writing, as is also allied to the writings of Patience Gray and Richard Olney. As the title of his newsletter attests, Thorne is a great proponent of `simple cooking', which, however, is different from either fast or easy cooking. Thorne presents an excellent exercise in `simple cooking' when he describes his first exposure to making homemade mayonnaise. Like an omelet, it is utterly simple, involving nothing more than an egg, oil, some lemon juice, and some dexterity.
Another evidence of Thorne's great orthodoxy is that his conception of good cooking is to make the best with what you have. This is virtually identical to Tom Colicchio's elegant description of cooking creativity in his `How to Think Like a Chef'.
In the course of my rambling, I have not taken the time to point out that Thorne's books are definitely meant to be read from cover to cover and enjoyed in their own right, and not from the incidental recipe one may glean from it, as you might do from a celebrity chef cookbook. In doing so, we may discover that Thorne may actually have some opinions with which we may rightfully disagree. Thorne takes issue with the replacing of books (and TV cooking shows) by cooks with books (and TV shows) by `entertainers' such as Rachael Ray. I am sympathetic with his primary point that the TV Network approach to food has tended to drive out the kind of writing done by Thorne and Steingarten and (formerly) by Gray and Grigson and David. I disagree on two counts. First, Thorne and Steingarten and Nigel Slater and Amanda Hesser are still going strong in this kind of writing. Second, people like Rachael Ray address a particular audience who has no time for a contemplative approach to cooking, and Miss Rachael does have some reasonably serious credentials as a food professional. She is NOT just an engaging talker who fronts culinary staff who do the real work.
In spite of those little quibbles, I am enthusiastically in Thorne's camp when he talks about a meditative approach, as profound in its own way as Alton Brown's metaphor of culinary teaching which replaces the directions of the recipe with the explanations comparable to a map of the whole city. While Brown gives us a map, Thorne gives us a history, seen from a very personal point of view.
Thorne includes in this book some reviews of notable books on culinary subjects. Most notable are reviews of Eric Schlosser's `Fast Food Nation', `Amanda Hesser's `The Cook and the Gardener', and Raymond Sokolow's `The Cook's Canon: 100 Classic Recipes Everyone Should Know'. I'm delighted less by Mr. Thorne's opinions of the books, all of which I reviewed, than by the fact that approaches each review in a manner very similar to `The New Yorker' style, which I often consciously emulate.
The book does contain many recipes, and Mr. Thorne does us the great service of listing them all at the beginning of the book. And, unlike recipes in other culinary memoirs, these are integral to the story and need to be read; however, they are `examples', almost footnotes to the main line of narrative. One reads the book for how John Thorne got there, not for a description of the destination.
A really, really great read for foodies.
Now that am poor again, "Mouth Wide Open" is the perfect book for me in these miraculous times of ours. I have not yet bought this latest book of his, I but keep renewing from my library as I slowly work through it. He makes hash of our cult chefs and turns on the kitchen sink disposal for our kitchen celebrities. He is looking to pick a fight. He does not like to spend money. He wants to play with his food. Bravo!
There is nothing much more fun than a food fight. So long as you hang in with his extended diatribes, Mr. Thorne eventually gets around to his points. He got me so excited with something he got from a box of De Cecco fusilli pasta that I went out and bought a box. I had been buying boutique pasta at three times the price, but there it was with the same dang "Fusilli with Tomato and Green Olive Sauce" on the back. Thorne turns the makings inside out and upside down (NO TOMATOES!!), but he works into a variation that rhymes pretty well.
His chapter on Cod and Potato is for the ages. This is a book for reading, argument (even if only alone) and only then cooking. He likes powerful cooking concepts that can play out in different ways without quite loosing touch.
Try his fooling around with making mayo on a plate with a fork. You could learn sumpin'.
What finally sold me on him and this book is how often he sent me scurrying for more information before making anything. Two dozen searches on the internet and nearly as many in the local low brow market. He gives credit to all who have helped him on his way and lets fly against all those who presume and posture.
Spend much pre-cooking time with him and argue along the way, but never fail to give a fair hearing. I notice tag suggestions include Alice Waters and California Cuisine. Guess again...
At the end of each workout has transformed an inspiring recipe into a new incarnation. His hope is that you can develop the same knack. Worth every star.
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