Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Cook's Appetites

A few months ago, an old friend of mine gave me the following book as a belated birthday/holiday present:
Thorne, John with Thorne, Matt Lewis.  Mouth Wide Open: A Cook and His Appetite.  North Point Press (paperback ed. 2008).
Any of my readers who are fascinated with food may well have read this book or one of the other half-dozen or so books Mr. Thorne has published over the years. Mouth Wide Open fits pretty well with the theme of this blog, because one of its subthemes is the evolution of recipes, both historically and as Mr. Thorne has attempted to prepare them, though the book is not a culinary history. The book contains a number of tasty-looking recipes, though it is not a cookbook either. And although Mr. Thorne writes, at great length, about his personal experiences with cooking, food, and weight gain, this book isn't really a memoir.

Mouth Wide Open is a gentle but firm exposition of Mr. Thorne's philosophy about cooking, described against the backdrop of his personal experiences with cooking and food.   Mr. Thorne's philosophy is that cooking is (or at least should be) more than a mechanical process of following printed recipes; it should be a process of learning about how foods behave under different preparation methods, how they combine with other foods, and how to use that information to produce dishes that can be eaten with enjoyment.  In Mr. Thorne's view, cooking is also a sensual process, because all of the senses have information to provide about whether a dish is being prepared "right".  (And also because, in his view, cooking is more fun that way.)

Ever since I finished Mouth Wide Open, I've been struggling to put my finger on why the book was interesting to me.  Although I enjoy my food, and I find the whys and wherefores that lead people to eat and cook certain foods interesting, I don't enjoy the actual process of cooking very much. To me, cooking feels like too much work for way too little enjoyment. The final insult is that after you've finished, you have to clean the pots, dishes and pans, and the kitchen too! In fact, you have to do some cleaning after every meal--unless you eat out, of course. So although I've learned to cook well enough to feed myself and give enjoyment to other people, I don't relish the physical experience of cooking.

Having pondered the matter for quite some time, I think that what I found appealing about Mouth Wide Open is the fact that it is not just about food, or the appetite for food.  Mr. Thorne has many different appetites, judging by what he has written, and he discusses all of them in an easy, fascinating way. For example:
  • An appetite for knowledge. In an essay called "Have It Your Way," Mr. Thorne writes very intelligently about the well-known expose, Fast Food Nation, tracing Eric Schlosser's description of how the evolution of the American fast food industry has gone a long way toward making Americans fatter.  Mr. Thorne also provides some powerful personal insights as to how the fast food phenomenon affected him personally; insights that suggest new ways of looking at the problems Schlosser discussed.  (pages 331-352)
  • An appetite for experimentation.  This appetite is not only implicit in Mr. Thorne's main theme--that cooking should be an experimental process--but also in his account of having sauteed, and eaten, spinach stems (pages 318-319), and of making and eating a cilantro sandwich (page 323), and from his description of what it was like to eat a five-month-old croissant (page 177).   
  • An appetite for sensation.  Mr. Thorne describes with impressive power the sensual aspects of eating unusual foods such as the marrow of beef bones (pages 4-6) and beef kidneys (pages 169-170).
  • An appetite for the familiar.  Mr. Thorne loves eating foreign foods, but he retains his fondness for the foods he learned to love as a child and young man, even the ones he later learned were "second best", such as (American) Chinese restaurant glazed spare ribs (pages 156-157).
  • An appetite for the exotic.  Mouth Wide Open features mini cultural histories of a wide variety of dishes, including (but by no means limited to) marmalade (pages 41-57), falafel (pages 181-197), minestrone (pages 109-124), satay (pages 208-227),  and Chinese fried rice (pages 154-166).
  • An appetite for thrift. "I find it hard to shake the idea that I ought to eat all the food I buy to make a particular dish, or at least save it for another day.  This means that there are many dishes I wouldn't even think of making, even once, out of mere curiosity." (page xxxii).
The real charm of Mr. Thorne's book is that he isn't just "writing about food." He's telling stories--about his life, about the development of recipes, about eating, about learning--and those recipes give the reader a very strong sense, by the time the book is done, of having spent a week with the man and come to know *him* to an impressive degree.  I don't know of any other food author of whom that can be said.

And the John Thorne one gets to know by reading this book is a very likeable guy.  I'd give him my spinach stems any time (especially since I detest the darn things).

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