Thank you one and all!
Thank you, John Thorne . . .
for being equally particular about
your methods, your materials and your metaphors.
Food writing’s shameful secret, wrote John Thorne his seminal essay, “Cuisine Mécanique”, is its intellectual poverty. John himself is a notable exception. He is one of those rare authors who have the gift of transporting us into a world of their own creation which we are happy to occupy for a while in preference to any other. They are Virgils to our Dante, showing us around the territory and introducing us to the natives. In these magic realms, strangers speak to us immediately as old friends; arriving unexpectedly at dinner time, we find a place already set for us.
What is most attractive about Thorne's writing is the extraordinary degree to which the title of his newsletter, Simple Cooking, is his working principle. You will search in vain for Leaning Towers of Pizza, those quasi-edible structures which modern chefs raise like monuments to their overweening, transitory ambition. His recipes are as level as his prose, down-to-earth creations which follow a long tradition of unostentatious simplicity. He can linger for pages over a cup of cocoa or a bowl of porridge. In his hands plebeian macaroni cheese becomes a creamy marriage of cheddar and pasta, light years away from the floury "white sauce" with a suggestion of cheese flavor that one endured through so many school dinners.
Such simplicity is as deceptive as a Mozart piano sonata - in the words of Artur Schnabel, "too easy for children, too difficult for artists." Thorne takes up culinary clichés, working them over like clay images and breathing life into them until they dance of their own accord.
This magnetic attraction to simple tradition may not be unrelated to the fact that Thorne is by family heritage a Down East Yankee. Though he grew up near El Paso Texas, he spent his summers in Maine, where he eventually withdrew to a wintry coastal town so small as to be off the map. After a decade, driven by the environmental schizophrenia that commonly afflicts writers, he sought a compromise in Northampton, Mass, the genteel home of Smith College and of Calvin Coolidge.
And there he remains, with his wife and meticulous editor Martha, trudging between the kitchen and the word processor. So how does he gain experience of the world's gastronomic Meccas? "I am not, and never have been, a gourmet," he wrote in 1992. (How John Hess must have applauded those words!) "I possess no curiosity about world-class restaurants. . ." The principle is salutary, for most of our successful food writers are either living high off the hog or sucking up to the industry. (As new technology brings these apparent opposites closer together and the middle ground disappears into a black hole, it becomes almost obligatory to straddle them.)
Thorne's world is introspective and ambiguously apolitical. He is not a Hebrew prophet like John Hess, warning us (accurately) of culinary corruption and impending disaster. Nor is he primarily a scholar, except in little boxes, functionally divorced from his text, in which he sends his readers off on literary fungi forays. Rather, he is a sculptor, whose most profound relationships are with his ingredients and the tools with which he manipulates them. No, manipulates is the wrong word - he makes himself vulnerable and coaxes them to reveal their inner nature.
IT IS CURIOUS that America, which has done so much to corrupt our diet, has also given us some of the most eloquent defenders of good simple food: M.F.K. Fisher, Waverley Root, A. J. Liebling, Roy Andries de Groot, Richard Olney, John & Karen Hess, Alice Waters. It produces more than its share of evangelists, dedicated advocates of endangered causes. A land of widespread (though far from universal) prosperity, it is a milieu in which maverick members of the prosperous middle classes can survive on the economic fringes, where they can afford the luxury of habitual integrity. Once they have withdrawn from the rat race, another luxury they can afford is time; thus John Thorne could spend years intermittently learning how to make an artisanal loaf of bread, a search that would be passed on to Jeffrey Steingarten. (It's ironic that this laborious process, forced upon peasants through the ages, is loftily dismissed by some readers as "elitist".)
England too once had a tradition of upper/middle class eccentricity, wittily documented by Sir Osbert Sitwell; but it has been overtaken by a brutal iconoclasm which is itself the new orthodoxy. (One surly London restaurant critic's chief claim to fame was being a drug addict.) Among Britain's knowledgeable and eloquent food writers, those who earn their living by it must typically don the motley of the popular journalist, conveying their real opinions by wit so abstruse as to escape the notice of all save their fellow-jesters. As for the prestigious British food magazines, they are so ardently devoted to sensuous photography that, for the inattentive browser, the text could be replaced with the telephone directory.
John Thorne is able to maintain the integrity of his prose style by the simple expedient of having been deemed by the American gourmet press to be unemployable. Not having written for Gourmet, he was untouched by its demise. As he recently wrote to me,
We live a modest life and so the hurly-burly of the financial world has mostly left us unscathed.
Meanwhile, as John gets older the interval between issues of Simple Cooking seems to get longer. Those of us who value his writing and his cooking must take comfort in the fact that he has always written, not just for the moment, but for a timeless and eternal present.
John Whiting can be reached HERE