There are books I want to write. There are books I admire, but don’t want to write, necessarily. Then there are books that I just want to have the knowledge and experience to be able to write. That’s Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. I first heard about this book in an interview I read with Tamar Adler, in which she talked about the book and the ways that eating needs to be ordinary. I blogged a bit about that idea of ordinary cooking and eating a few months ago, and now, I’ve finally read the book.
This book essentially operates on the idea that ends should lead to beginnings. We are not unfamiliar with this concept: a cliffhanger in a movie naturally leads to its sequel. A to-do list composed at the end of a work day reminds us what we are supposed to do when we get back to work the next morning. But what Adler does is translate that principle into cooking: the leftovers of one night’s meal should lead into the next day’s lunch or dinner. The leftover scraps of vegetables should be saved to season soup, for instance. The carcass of a chicken should be saved and boiled down for stock. Stale bread should be baked into croutons or used to create a bread bottom to a bowl of soup.
The principles of ends leading to beginnings covers the economy aspect of the book. The idea is that we should become less wasteful in our cooking. For instance, Adler recommends cooking all your vegetables as soon as you get them home from the market before they can sit around in your fridge while your life takes over and you order pizza and your greens or whatever veggies you have wilt and rot away in your crisper drawer. If you do the heavy lifting of preparing them all in one batch, she suggests, then you’ll be more likely to use them as the week goes on.
The economy aspects of the book were very interesting and enlightening to me. For me, I don’t think they’re all terribly realistic or applicable. Cooking would have to be my entire life. (Everyone in the peanut gallery: hush. I know I cook a lot, but I have other stuff to do too.)
But what really appealed to me about this book was the grace aspect of cooking. Tamar Adler describes cooking in a way that goes beyond just knowing a lot about ingredients (though that does factor in). Rather, she talks about cooking in a way that suggests connectivity with food. I started calling this book The Zen of Cooking because it felt more like a meditation on cooking than a proper cooking resource book. The writing in Adler’s book really encourages that feeling of knowing your ingredients. She encourages her readers to taste as they go so they know what the food should taste like, how they like it. She suggests doing things by hand – stirring, chopping, etc. – so that cooking can become muscle memory.
Have you ever experienced that? The muscle memory of cooking? That feeling of connection with a food, or even just one specific recipe, of knowing exactly how it should look at each moment? I have. And it’s powerful. It’s thrilling. When I make chocolate pie, I know that once I turn the heat on under the milk and start stirring, it will take 10-11 minutes for the milk to turn to a pudding-like filling. I can drink a beer in that time. I can watch the milk go from thin to dark to bubbly to smoky to that point where it starts thickening against my whisk and bubbles surface in fat plops. That feeling of confidence in a cooking process is, for me, what An Everlasting Meal was about.
The book references several other food books, but one that particularly grabbed me was M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf, which is now on my book wish list. She references Fisher’s advice to “Balance the day, not each meal in the day.” Great advice; each meal doesn’t need a protein and 2 servings of veggies and a serving of fruit and a grain and a dairy product. Balance your day. Make sure you’re eating what’s good and tasty and healthy, but go ahead and have fun, too. Have dessert, just don’t eat it all day. Eat bread, just don’t eat it all day. Balance yourself. Listen to your body.
This book is great for meditation on food, on connecting to ingredients and process, and for some really lovely writing. Adler is the queen of one-liners, pieces of wisdom or opinion or observation that shine out, making it very different from just a guide book on healthy eating or a cookbook, though it does contain recipes.
As with any of these sorts of books, however, from Michael Pollan to Tamar Adler, I think there is great responsibility on the reader. This is one cook’s advice, one person’s observations from living. Her taste is not my taste, and that’s okay. I take what I can from her, I learn what I can, and I let the rest go. Maybe I’ll return to it for more later, or maybe I’ll find what she’s already taught me to be sufficient. I can now feel more conscious of what I eat. I can balance the day. I can work on being conscious of the ends and looking forward to beginnings.