SIMPLE COOKING By John Thorne Viking. 290 pp. $20
In order to appreciate fully the strength of character John Thorne displays, several tenets of the food writers' code first need to be revealed:
Always give the people recipes -- recipes that leave no amount unspecified, no cooking time undefined, no ingredient optional.
Be true to your school (Richard Olney, Madeleine Kamman, James Beard, Giuliano Bugialli).
Never admit you like a chocolate cake whose ingredients are cake mix, pudding mix, chocolate chips and sour cream. (Or if you do admit it, veil that fact by using an anthropological approach, as in "I'm reporting from Tecumseh, Nebraska, where people serve this really weird chocolate cake and it's so, like, adorable, and so, like, American ...")
Thorne is a food writer -- he spends his days, and probably some nights as well, writing about food. And "Simple Cooking" is a book about cooking and eating food. It has recipes in it, and essays, a few eccentric cookbook reviews, a little food history, a bit of anthropology and more psychology -- his own and others' -- than Thorne probably realizes.
But what it doesn't have in it -- not even between the lines -- is all those rules that food writers take so seriously. Thorne has just gone ahead and put down what he knows, what he thinks and what he theorizes -- about shortcake, about thin cooks, about succotash. And he has sent this information straight from himself into the heads of readers without first filtering it through convention, editors (internal or external), fashion or the constraints of any particular school of thought. If the territory called writing-from-the-soul hadn't been so cluttered with the meretricious confessions of every author of every formula cookbook published in the last five years, we could say that Thorne writes from his soul.
In a delicious introductory essay on the subject of rice and peas, Thorne declares his objective. It is to get readers on the "before" side of recipes -- a vantage point from which they will be able to see all the possibilities in a particular dish, even one such as rice and peas that has been so thoroughly worked over in every conceivable direction by every possible authority. The idea, says Thorne, is to read the authorities, find the common threads or the things that appeal, then do what you damn well please.
But Thorne has actually done more than get readers on the "before" side of recipes. He's found a place for us, and for himself as well, on the "before" side of the food writers' code. He presents even his own stuff in such a way that readers will feel comfortable taking it all in and then doing what they damn well please.
This is a man who's willing to reveal himself, and he's a pretty interesting guy. Sometimes he gets dour, as in a tiny lecture on why "freshened" strawberries are not the same as "macerated" strawberries. And sometimes, especially in recipes, his prose takes on a tone that means to be relaxed but is actually so edgy as to glitter. But mostly his style is earnest, friendly, forgiving us our sins because he's a sinner too (he really does like the cake made with pudding mix and cake mix). And even when he's edgy or dour, he's compelling.
"Simple Food" is more prose than recipes, although about 175 recipes are included, some of them listed conventionally, some in theme-and-variations style, and some woven into the prose. The recipes are eccentrically chosen and usually wonderful. You couldn't use this as a conventional cookbook, but that's not what Thorne meant for you to do anyway. What the book does is make you think about food in ways you haven't before -- spend some time with hot chocolate, for example, or corn cakes.
His essays are short or medium-length and can be whimsical, ironic, romantic or very serious. In one series of ruminations, Thorne has identified an important subtext in 1980s attitudes. Essays on backpackers versus picnickers, thin cooks versus fat, the food processor, the need to cook with absolutely perfect food, and "loving" to cook are important observations on the dread, suspicion and fear of food (or of appetite) that lurk behind so many current food "trends."
And some of his little essays are nearly cinematic in their effect. For example: It's Valentine's Day 15 years ago, and he's with a girl who drives a wheezing, tiny, ancient British sports car. The car breaks down, it's rainy and they're both covered with grit. They go back to her place, she showers and reappears wearing only a long shirt and underwear, then makes him a steak sub. The recipe for the steak sub is in the book, and if you think a recipe for a steak sub can't make you feel faint with romance and longing, buy the book.
The reviewer frequently writes for the Food and Home sections of The Washington Post and for The Washingtonian magazine.