Sharing news about the existence of John Thorne is a bit like revealing the name and location of one's favorite tiny, unknown jewel of a restaurant. The fear is that next time you visit, there will be neon out front and a line waiting to get in.

As of now, Thorne's center -- located in the kitchen of a small cottage on the coast of Maine -- seems to be holding. There are drumbeats of real fame in the distance, however, the latest from the January issue of superglossy Connoisseur magazine, in which an idolatrous profile begins with the words, "The best food writer in America ...

Author Joni Miller, herself a food writer, is of course not the first to notice Thorne -- only the latest. The usual style of food writers writing about each other (most often anonymously) can be summed up by the words "scurrilous innuendo," but Miller has written a poem to this hermit with his two-burner stove.

Considering the clawing, hand-wringing and ugly personal scrounging that often accompany such a rise to prominence, Thorne's unorthodox and gentle ascension merits some attention.

Roughly, it goes like this: He was bored and poor and not getting any younger. He liked to cook, although he had no training. He put some of his thoughts about food on paper and sent them around to friends one Christmas. They liked the thoughts. He started an eccentric newsletter called "Simple Cooking."

People liked that too, despite the fact that: It fit into no known category of food writing; Thorne is opinionated and bold (see "Thoughts on Martha Stewart" in the Spring 1987 issue); he rambles along in prose for a while before he gets to the recipes, which are what the readers seem to think they want; and he is obsessed with odd corners of the consumable world -- corn cakes, for example.

Now the information in the newsletters, with some revisions and deletions, has been collected into book form and published by Viking. "Simple Cooking" (1987, $20) must give the Viking sales force fits, since it's not easily summarized for potential buyers. And some retail cookbook stores have been hesitant to carry the book for the same reason. They don't understand exactly what it is.

Is it a cookbook? Sort of. (There are recipes.) Is it a book of essays? Mm-hmmm. Is it a book of tidbits related only in that they all have food as a text or subtext? Yeah. Are cookbook reviews included? Sure. Does he talk about kitchen equipment? Yes again. Food history? You know the answer.

The newsletters, because they are only eight pages long (plus book review inserts), are somewhat easier to describe. And we can extrapolate from there about the book.

Take the Autumn 1987 issue, for example. The cover foretells articles on dining alone, Italian preserving secrets, pasta dressed with a fried egg, a picnic in the Alps, an olive tasting, fresh raspberry cake and green pea pie.

The lead article, called "Summer Cottage Cook," begins with quotations from George MacDonald (a Scottish novelist and poet) and Carl Jung. It goes on for six columns about Thorne's new (old) house in Castine, Maine, and about the childhood memories that this cottage elicits.

This childhood memories stuff is risky business; stories of another person's childhood are usually about as compelling as the details of a stranger's gall bladder operation. But Thorne is so unself-conscious about his thoughts -- and such a good writer -- that reading them is no less interesting and no more threatening than intense conversation with a cherished friend.

One of the things Thorne likes to do best is experiment with recipes on a certain theme -- it could be potato pancakes, or it could be hot chocolate -- then share the results with his readers. His experimentation sometimes takes on the aura of obsession, and then it really gets interesting. Not everybody in the world is inclined to go off on the subject of pecan pie or garlic soup or rice and peas, but if as a cook and/or reader you have the same weird proclivities, Thorne has something to say to you.

This obsessive theme-and-variations idea, by the way, is itself a theme in the memoirs of many a great cook. Baker and cookbook author Paula Peck, for example, tells of making croissants from slightly different recipes every week for years until she got it right.

And Thorne's idea is not to tell you every last word there is to say on the subject, either. His idea is to get you thinking about it. Listen to him, after a fascinating three-column declamation on the subject of pecan pies, for example: "And your perfect pecan pie? I hope less that my solution proves to be yours, too, than that this account has whetted your appetite to go find it ... " And there follow three recipes for pecan pie just to get you started.

Thorne is also a sort of philosopher, and not the boring kind that sits and whittles and spouts half-baked banalities. He takes a subject and airs it out. His essay on "perfect food" (and by association the narcissism of the cook who only works with "perfect food") is a masterpiece of contemporary social criticism. You may hate it, be embarrassed by it, think he's been lonely too long, but unless your sensibilities have been deadened by too many hours in Sutton Place Gourmet you'll find something acute in it.

Thorne can get away with this kind of iconoclasm because he has no pedigree. He works for no institution, has no training and no mentor. It's not possible to say that he's a graduate of such and such and trained with so and so, then worked for this or that culinary icon. He's not attached, in other words, and his thoughts are not informed by any protocol. And he can make you listen anyway!

All this philosophizing aside, there is information to be had in "Simple Cooking," newsletter and book. Thorne has names and addresses of companies that make Malawi muscovado raw cane sugar, remaindered classic cookbooks, apple-tasting packages and hand-operated coffee grinders. He explains to us why we might want these things, but does not imply that we are dolts if we don't send off right away for them.

"Simple Cooking" probably won't be loved by folks whose idea of cooking is cranking up the food processor and tuning up the microwave. Thorne is talking about getting your hands into the food, about loving it.

To subscribe to the "Simple Cooking" newsletter, write Jackdaw Press, P.O. Box 622, Castine, Maine 04421. Subscriptions are $12 per year for four issues.

A sampling of writings and recipes from the book "Simple Cooking," all on the subject of corn cakes:

"I eat corn cakes with my fingers, plain. It's curious that we don't consider pancakes finger food; they're sized right and we eat small breads that way, drenched with butter and honey no matter. What it is, I think, is their flabby feel. No matter how much your ordinary flapjack might pleasure the tongue, its touch has all the trusty firmness of an undertaker's handshake.

Each corn cake, on the other hand, has its own integrity: the coarse-textured meal gives it a crust a finger feels no immodesty in touching. In fact, there's tactile pleasure to the whole making of these cakes that makes them so attractive as morning fare, offering a little playfulness before we pull on the grim visage of the day.

You go grab your Aunt Jemima box -- you'll still be blearily looking for the directions while I'm finishing mixing my batter."


These are light, airy and very tender.

1 1/2 cups white cornmeal, water-ground

2 tablespoons flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

2 eggs, separated

2 tablespoons melted butter

Sift together the cornmeal, flour, baking soda, and salt, and pour in the buttermilk gradually, beating hard. Beat the egg yolks until foamy, and then mix these and the butter into the batter. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff and fold these in gently but thoroughly. Fry the cakes on a greased hot griddle.

TEXAS SWEET CORN FLAPJACKS (Makes 8 to 12 pancakes)

These flapjacks, sweet and textured, go nicely, as Thorne says, with dinner.

1 1/2 cups sweet corn kernels (cut from about 3 ears)

1 egg

1 tablespoon melted butter

2 tablespoons light cream

2 tablespoons fine cracker crumbs or flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper (optional)

Grate the corn kernels into a bowl, reserving all juices. (If corn is plentiful and bursting with juice, run a sharp blade down the ear through the center of each row of kernels and, using the back of the knife, squeeze out the tender pulp and milk until you have 1 1/2 cups.) Beat the egg until foamy, then beat in the corn bit by bit, beating thoroughly and very hard. Add the butter and then the cream. Stir in the crumbs, a tablespoon at a time, until the mixture holds together; add salt and pepper. Drop onto a lightly greased griddle by the heaping tablespoon and cook until golden, turning when the tops seem solid. (Note: If you have a food processor, making these is a snap. Insert the steel blade and process the batter following the procedure above, aiming for a slightly pulpy texture. Delicious at breakfast with syrup, and even more wonderful spiced with a bit of hot pepper sauce and served as a side dish at dinner.)


Theses griddle cakes are rich and thick and less crisp than others.

2 eggs, separated

2 tablespoons melted butter

1 cup cold boiled rice, white, brown, or Indian

1 cup cornmeal (for lighter cakes, half white flour and half cornmeal)

1 cup half-and-half

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

Beat the egg yolks well and mix in the butter. Then stir in the rice and beat until the rice is pulped. Stir in the cornmeal, half-and-half, baking powder, and salt, and blend until smooth. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff and then gently fold into the batter. Have the griddle hot and well greased and make the cakes large. Bake until nicely browned and serve with maple syrup.

CORN BREAD CRUMB-CAKES (Makes 8 to 12 cakes)

These basic corncakes make use of stale, leftover corn bread. Their texture is middle of the road -- not lacy and sweet but not bready either.

1 cup crumbled stale corn bread

3/4 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon sugar

1 egg, well beaten

1/4 cup whipping cream

3 tablespoons flour

Soak the stale corn bread crumbs overnight in the milk. Next morning, add the salt, baking powder, sugar, egg, cream, and flour to make a pourable batter. Beat 1 minute, then ladle batter onto a hot, greased griddle. Serve hot.

SOUTHERN LACY-EDGE CORN CAKES (Makes 24 to 30 cakes)

There are various recipes for this corn cake, made famous by the once-annual "Batty Cake Brekfus" on the morning of the Kentucky Derby, where they were served along with "sawsidges, 'lasses, sputterin' coffee, and fried apples." (Sugar is added to this recipe not for sweetness but for a crisper texture.) As the recipe title indicates, these are crisp and lacy, a bit like dessert crepes.

1 cup cornmeal

2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 cup flour

1 egg, well beaten

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

1 tablespoon melted butter

Sift the dry ingredients together in a mixing bowl. In another bowl, beat the egg into the buttermilk and the butter. Stir this into the dry mixture, beating until smooth. It should be very thin. Heat the griddle until it sends a drop of water skating. Grease well with lard or vegetable oil (and again after each batch) and drop the batter by the tablespoon. When the bubbles are set and the edges brown, turn and quickly brown the other side. The cakes should be edged with a crusty lace. Serve at once, stacked in threes with butter between, with molasses or cane or maple syrup. (Note: Keep batter thin by adding buttermilk as needed.)