Why Food Writing Matters: A Profile of John Thorne by Sandy Ebner

For most of us, food is a fascinating, and necessary, subject. Every day we talk about what to eat, how to eat it, where to eat it, and who to eat it with. That, combined with the advent of Food Network and social media, has helped to create an explosion of interest in food—aside from its obvious role in our basic survival. We post pictures of our food online. We download videos to help us fix dinner. Cookbook authors and chefs become superstars seemingly overnight. It seems as if every possible variation on every aspect of food and cooking has, or soon will be, made into a television show. Not surprisingly, there’s a name for this phenomenon: Food porn. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that our obsession with food remains primarily visual. We are increasingly drawn to what we see, not to what we read.

For others though, it has always been about much more than that, people who, through their written words, have elevated the discussion of food to an art form. Some of the best prose ever written has been about food. M.F.K Fisher, Laurie Colwin, Jeffrey Steingarten, and Elizabeth David, to name a scant few, all are—or were—wonderfully talented writers, but almost nobody has heard of them. Perhaps that’s because most people aren’t exposed to great food writing unless they happen to be a gourmet cook or a food professional, or, for lack of a better word, a “foodie,” the loathsome term used to describe anyone with more than a passing interest in anything food-related. While most people can probably rattle off the names of a handful of celebrity chefs, food writers still remain largely unknown. There are exceptions of course, Anthony Bourdain and Ruth Reichl among the most notable. But even Bourdain is likely more recognizable for his work in television than for the marvelous writing he has produced over the years.

Why is this? It could be because throughout history food writing read by the average person was largely instructional: recipes, advice on restaurants or how not to burn dinner. A woman fixing supper for her family in England in 1955 probably wasn’t expecting, nor had time for, a profound literary experience when reading from Elizabeth David’s Summer Cooking:

“Cockles live in the sand and must therefore be most carefully washed under a running cold-water tap for about ten minutes; then leave them in cold salted water, changed several times, until there is no more sand,” et cetera, et cetera.

Food writing as entertainment would likely have been seen as a luxury, if it had been thought about at all. Understandable, perhaps, but also unfortunate, because in the same volume we find David’s recipe for lettuce salad, a recipe that is simplicity itself but also a lovely piece of writing:

“Use only the tenderest [sic] of lettuce hearts for this exquisite salad; arrange them in a salad bowl very lightly, with salt and a scrape of sugar, and at the last moment pour over them melted butter into which you have pounded a very small piece of garlic and a squeeze of lemon juice.”

Well-crafted prose, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, can enlighten, provoke, and entertain.

Food writing is no different. But what sets the genre apart is that it concerns a topic so integral to our lives. It is also one of the very few where instruction and pleasure need not be mutually exclusive. One of the best writers at combining the two is John Thorne, a self-described “outlaw cook,” and iconoclast who takes the subject of food quite seriously. Opinionated and thoughtful, he can also be brutally honest, often refreshingly so. A man who once called legendary food historian Brillat-Savarin an “insufferable old windbag,” is clearly not your average food writer. Revered by his peers, he is rarely, if ever, seen on TV, preferring, perhaps, to let his work speak for itself.

Much like Bourdain, part of Thorne’s appeal is that he seems so much like the rest of us. His recipes are for food that people really eat, not what they might want to eat but probably never will. Ironically, he doesn’t think of himself as a great cook, but neither does he consider that a shortcoming. In one of his best-known quotes he says, “You don’t have to be a good cook, or even aspire to be one, to be an interested cook.” That he’s interested is obvious.

“Rice and peas,” he writes, “fit into that category of dishes where two ordinary foods, combined together, ignite a pleasure far beyond the capacity of either of its parts alone. Like rhubarb and strawberries, apple pie and cheese, roast pork and sage, the two tastes and textures meld together into the sort of subtle transcendental oneness that we once fantasized would be our experience when we finally found the ideal mate.” After reading that it’s hard to believe anyone else wouldn’t be interested as well.

His books, Pot on the Fire, Serious Pig, and Mouth Wide Open among others, are, for the most part, collections of essays originally published in Simple Cooking, the newsletter produced for many years by Thorne and his wife, Matt. They are detailed and often very funny discourses on food, presented with a complete lack of pretension. Whether he’s writing about what he had for breakfast or how to cook the perfect pot of rice, he offers his opinions without hesitation. Whichever foods interest him (and most do), are discussed with enthusiasm and at length. In Quintessential Toast, an essay from Pot on the Fire, he presents a somewhat philosophical view of food, spending eight pages on the subject of dry toast. After reading those eight pages, I never again looked at toast in quite the same way.

Consider this passage:

“Dry toast, let me start by saying, is not—at least in its ideal form—merely unbuttered toast. To the uninitiated the two may look the same, even seem to taste the same, but for the aficionado there is between them all the difference in the world. Unbuttered toast is a substance half complete, and to be forced to eat it in that state is necessarily to feel deprived. Dry toast, from the moment it is sliced, has a destiny wholly its own.” Well, okay then.

Thorne’s philosophy on food is evident on every page, as it is in his essay, Existential Pizza, where he points out that everything in America wasn’t always super-sized, for good reason: “The formula for American fast food plays on our naïve delight in having something good given to us over and over again in exactly the same way. The problem with this, as it turns out, is that the only way to improve on this pleasure is to intensify the sameness. The cheeseburger becomes the double cheeseburger becomes the double cheeseburger with bacon. So, too, the pizza with sausage and cheese becomes the pizza with double sausage and double cheese. This approach gradually polishes away all the edges from what was once real street food.” Sometimes we simply need to be reminded of the obvious.

In his essays, in addition to his opinion on the food in question, he goes through each recipe step by step, often including both the traditional recipe for a dish, and a recipe adapted for use today (Pot-au-feu and Postmodern Pot-au-feu, for example, in Pot on the Fire, an essay from his book of the same name). None of this is particularly unusual—many food writers do the same—but despite all this information the reading is rarely dull. He is both funny (“When it comes to meat, it is the French who are pragmatic and the British wildly idealistic”), and descriptive (“You don’t know the full meaning of the word explode until a flask of boiling-hot beans goes ka-poof in your kitchen), a refreshing antidote to more conventional food writing. He has no use for frills, or what he calls, “culinary flummery.” For him, the essence of the dish is key, and that is not necessarily found by following a recipe. On the contrary, finding that essence means learning each component of the dish through trial and error, thereby making it your own. “Very often,” he says, “I spend days, even weeks, thinking out a dish before I make it, and if I’m unhappy with the results, resolutely go work it out all over again. What delights me about cooking is not getting things right but the simple pleasure of getting to know them in the first place.”

By showing us how he learns about a certain dish, he gives us the tools to do the same thing in our own kitchens. In Desperately Seeking Risotto, he explains not just how to make risotto, but also the history of the dish, the history of each of its ingredients, and, in his view, its entire reason for being. He writes about his quest for the perfect rice, the perfect pot, and the perfect liquid in which to cook the rice: water, stock, or bouillon cube? And if it is a bouillon cube, what’s the best kind? After reading one of Thorne’s essays, you might wonder why on earth you would go to all that trouble, suspecting at the same time that, if you did, your cooking would probably be better for it. For Thorne, the process of cooking is what’s important. The rest, in his opinion, will take care of itself.

Food writing at its best can illuminate the most ordinary of foods, especially when written by a writer to whom that particular food is anything but ordinary. Here, Thorne writes about the joys of sautéed spinach stems, of all things: “One night we had a heap of spinach from a local farmer’s market, and it had a lot of stems. As I picked through the leaves and washed them, I cut off a bunch of the largest stems and set them aside. Then, late in the evening, I put them in a skillet with a thin slice of sweet butter, a pinch of salt, and some pepper, along with two tablespoons of water. I covered them with the pan lid and cooked them for four or five minutes over medium-high heat, until the water had mostly evaporated and the stems were tender but not mushy. Then I took a spatula and tossed them around so they were all coated with the pan butter, turned them into a dish, and I had my midnight snack.”

Too much? Maybe. But great enthusiasm for the subject matter has always been the difference between good food writing and the mediocre. Only a very confident writer would try to convince readers that something destined for the compost pile might be a good idea for a snack. It’s the rare writer that can keep readers interested in such a detailed discussion of a dish, and, rarer still, convince them to put the book down and go make it themselves. To those of us who’ve been reading him for years, none of this is new. Thorne’s work, whether reading it for the first time or the twentieth, is simply wonderful writing, regardless of the topic.


Dry Toast

How to Make It, from Pot on the Fire

To make the best kind of dry toast, you must start with the right kind of bread: a loaf with a dense, moist crumb. A pain de campagne or pain au levain is the perfect bread for this, but so is a whole grain loaf. To get the proper texture, cut the bread into slices that are about 1/3 inch thick.

We prefer a pat of butter
We prefer a pat of butter

For a toaster: Turn it to its lowest setting and keep pushing down the toasting lever until the toast is golden brown. Some rotation of the slices may be necessary to keep the edges from burning. Ideally, you’ll not be standing by the toaster the whole time but engaged in some other business so that the slices can rest a few minutes between trips (thus the advantage of keeping a toaster by your desk or TV).

For a toaster oven: Preheat to 350 degrees. And then set the slices on the toasting rack and bake them until they have turned a golden brown. Again, some adjustments may be necessary.

In either instance: If the toast burns, chuck it and start over.

Sandy Ebner, Reviewer and Contributor
Sandy Ebner, Reviewer and Contributor

Sandy Ebner lives and writes in Northern California. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, the HerStories/ My Other Ex anthology, and other publications. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, and is an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She previously served as the creative nonfiction editor at MadHat Lit and MadHat Annual (Mad Hatter’s Review), and is working on her first novel.

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