Cookbook Review: Outlaw Cook

By John Thorne, with Matt Lewis Thorne.

Because a pecan pie is so simple to make and because its major ingredients–sugar and nuts–can be combined in so many various ways, a pecan pie can be uniquely honed to a razor’s edge of perfection against a particular palate: unlike almost any dessert, it is amenable to infinite variation. But all that freedom demands that you know yourself; otherwise you will constantly be seduced by other people’s notion of perfect and never realize your own.

I happened to go on a quest for my perfect pecan pie this year (and found it, huzzah!), but that was just luck. I don’t usually go on a quest for my perfect anything in a dish–I split my time between making something that sounds good, winging it without a recipe (and feeling guilty about it) and following a recipe imperfectly, adapting it helter-skelter to what I have at hand (because I didn’t check whether I had enough of what the recipe called for). And the foods that I love to throw together the way I like them? Well, they’re almost embarrassing, because they’re so private. “Hey, world! I like ramen noodles with peanut butter and pre-mixed curry powder and carrots and baby corn when I remember to get it, and maybe some cilantro and garlic and ginger, but mostly just the curry-peanut butter mixture! And here’s my underwear, too, while I’m at it, not the sexy ones, just the regular ones! Freshly washed but at least as old as my daaaaaaauuuuuughterrrrrr!”

But where else does food come from? Until recently, people made food based on what they had on hand (or what they could get), to the particular taste of the family or self, without recipes. And–it was good.

John Thorne kindly points this out. He also charges quixotically at the egos of Paula Wolfert, Martha Stewart*, even James Beard, managing to puncture them a few times without doing them too much damage. He obsesses about things. He glorifies the “plowman’s lunch,” cheese, good bread, a whole onion, and something good to drink (beer!), and how it can be adapted from cheese spread on crackers to onion soup. He asserts the point of having a party is conversation, not centerpieces or impressive dishes. He even denies being a good cook–just an interested one.

Also, I strongly suspect he likes to eat.

*Who is actually the same person as Hillary Clinton.

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