Love came shortly after New Year's, as I sat reading a copy of a newsletter I had been given for Christmas. The attached note had announced it as the first of a year's subscription to Simple Cooking, a rambling and happily discursive mixture of recipes, discussions of food and entertaining, reviews of cookbooks, sources for particularly good ingredients or equipment and the always-interesting ideas of its author, John Thorne, who has put out the newsletter for the last seven years.
Love hit when, after describing the kitchen of his youth in a summer cottage off the coast of Maine, he went on: "All this is why my own dream kitchen has nothing in common with those displayed in home design magazines, utterly renovated or built new from scratch. These are rooms with their tongues torn out. Going into one I hear nothing speaking but myself. For me, a kitchen has always been -- before being a workroom or a storage place for canned goods -- the one place in the house that could still speak: and in learning how to listen I found out how to be a cook."
All of John Thorne's writings are about learning to listen, to listen to food, to listen to guests, to listen to the proddings of hunger. And he says more sensible things about entertaining -- sharing food and conversation with friends -- than anyone else writing today.
Here he is on what's wrong with the culinary picture books put out by Martha Stewart: "Quite simply, there is nothing about Martha Stewart herself that invites us to dig in ... This is the danger with all 'self-catered' parties: forgetting that a good time isn't a gift but a joint conspiracy. To eat this food is to feel as you would if, on accepting an offer for coffee, your host made just one cup and then sat down to watch you drink it." John Thorne knows the difference between showing off and sharing and he reminds us that the latter is not only more pleasurable; it is easier to do.
While most food writers write to show off their knowledge, Thorne writes to share his questions. He is likely to explain how he had a wonderful idea (cooking a chicken in an armor of salty pastry, for instance, to encase the juices and the flavors) and how it turned out to be not such a wonderful idea after all, the skin coming off with the coating and the crisp, flavor-rich pastry being too salty to eat.
He experiments, he shares the variety of recipes which led him to the finished dish, and he writes about food in the same way that M.F.K. Fisher does -- not as a metaphor, food doesn't need to be a metaphor since in itself it is central to existence -- but with an acknowledgment that it is central to our being and to the way we think about ourselves and the way we connect with others.
It is hard to imagine most cookbook writers approaching the subject of intimate dinners with the suggestion that one share "a supper of bread and butter, with a little something to give it savor ... At its simplest, the meal might be a loaf of terrific pumpernickel, say, a chunk of sweet butter, and dish of coarse salt, all served with some beer to wash it down. But it could also be expanded to include some radish cut into coin, or slivers of scallion, or leaves of romaine, which are delicious with butter and a densely flavored loaf."
It is a suggestion of sensuous simplicity, far more intimate in its earthiness than a richly elaborate, labor-intensive meal ever could be.
Reading his newsletter and his recently published cookbook, I realized how embarrassed I would be to have most food writers visit my kitchen, where their censorious eyes would be sure to see into my cupboards, spotting the soup cubes tucked behind the container of pine nuts, noting the jar of supermarket brand fudge sauce ready to be poured over ice cream for the unexpected guest.
John Thorne, a man who confesses to a partiality for Marshmallow Fluff in his hot chocolate, and who admits that his party recipe for chocolate cake is comprised of a packaged cake mix and a packaged pudding, removes that embarrassment and by freeing the reader from the need to be a perfect cook, allows him to be a creative one.
Announcing the discovery of John Thorne may be the equivalent of telling the world that Paul Newman has blue eyes. Perhaps everybody already knows. But if I am not the last to learn to love him, and you have not yet had the pleasure, Viking recently published a collection of his essays and recipes (Simple Cooking, $20) and his quarterly newsletter of the same name is available for $12 a year from Jackdaw Press, P.O. Box 622, Castine, Maine 04421.