I picked up Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal because the person who recommended it likened it to The Supper of the Lamb, which I loved. Adler also appreciates Capon’s Supper and refers to it more than once. She quotes several other cookbooks, and her epigraphs are from widely varying sources, from M.F.K. Fisher to Anton Chekhov and C.S. Lewis. Somewhere in the middle of her book, she says that she loves two things, cooking and words. Ah, yes, I identify with the “words.” Teach me to love the “cooking.”
That is what Adler is about in this book. She didn’t write An Everlasting Meal because the world needs another cookbook. She writes about an attitude toward food and cooking; an attitude I do not possess. Though there was a time when I baked almost every day, and usually enjoyed it, much of my cooking now is strictly utilitarian. We have to eat, so I must cook. Wouldn’t a large part of life be more enjoyable if I could absorb some of Adler’s love for something so necessary?
There are recipes in this book. Many of them are for dishes I am never going to try. I have no interest in making fish stock. Nor do I wish to eat thumb-sized octopi or lamb hearts. But I do wish to think differently about food.
Adler also doesn’t counsel me to go out and stock up on expensive ingredients in order to improve my cooking or to make it easier.
“There are some edible already-made pestos, but they are pesto birth to death. It’s more practical to buy fresh basil so that you have it, nuts so you have them, and a wedge of Parmesan cheese and bottle of olive oil, which will all be more useful to you, after you’ve eaten a bowl of pasta with pesto and spread the rest on a sandwich, than an empty plastic container.”
“Frying the leaves of parsley, rosemary, or sage is a good if messy way of making an especially elegant garnish from something ordinary. Fried herbs’ colors and shapes crystallize. Fried parsley becomes a little soldier. Fried sage is an exaggeration of the leaf’s almost animal curve. Fried rosemary looks like rosemary would in the realm of ideas.”
“If you’re out of herbs completely, find another candle. Scatter toasted breadcrumbs or toasted nuts on anything at all, proudly and liberally. Or slice onion as thinly as you can, soak the slices in vinegar, then drain and scatter them instead. If there is no onion, zest some lemon peel; if there is no lemon peel, find a jar of sauerkraut, drain a little, mix it with good olive oil, and call it cabbage relish.”
In her world, you may substitute almost anything except good olive oil.
I’m grateful for a cook who leans toward simplicity and practicality rather than trying to make things more difficult than they need to be.
“Bread soup recipes are comically nitpicky about how stale and rugged their main ingredient must be . . . stale bread cannot be bought. It must be waited for, which gives all dishes containing it the weight of philosophical ballast, as well as dietary and budgetary ones.”
“You will also have plowed effortlessly through the hurdle of “soaking beans,” a hurdle whose existence and gnarliness is a pure invention of food writers’ proclivities for making cooking seem difficult.”
I admire Adler’s position on gadgets and tools. She doesn’t encourage me to go get more. She advises me to keep it simple.
“A writer name Patience Gray recounts the provenance of her favorite wooden spoon in a book called Honey from a Weed. It came flying out of a kitchen window at the climax of a couple’s squabble,and she picked it up and kept it.
“I buy a wooden spoon whenever I see one I like because I may need to throw something, and a passerby may need one.”
“That is my advice then, on experience and equipment. Consider not minding whether you know the answer, and not filling your kitchen with tools, but becoming, rather, the kind of cook who doesn’t need them.”
I also just love the way she talks about food as if it all has personality.
“Olives have to be thoughtfully deployed, or their strength is a disadvantage.”
“If something ever seems too rich or oily or creamy, a caper will negotiate a painless detent.”
“One of the best pairings in condiment history is of pickle and egg. The aggression of the pickle and self-possession of the egg are a perfect match.”
Gherkins: “They are firm, no-nonsense things, and bristle if they’re asked to change.”
“We act as though fish is singularly resistant to resourceful cooking. This is not because it is, but because it comes from a strange dark world, where things fall up not down and it is hard to see.”
The ending is something I can aspire to whether I ever use a single one of her recipes.
“We’re anxious about serving, but the simple, blessed fact is that no one ever comes to dinner for what you’re cooking. We are all hungry and thirsty and happy that someone’s predicted we would be and made arrangements for dealing with it. We come for the opportunity to look up from our plates and say ‘thank you.’ It is for recognition of our common hungers that we come when we are asked.”
“You, of course, are not I, and it must be from someplace in you, not this book, that you serve. If you like symmetry, you must line things up. If you feel most satisfied composing plates away from your table, do it happily, for it will be genuine and full of what is yours to offer. Only remember what is plainly and always true: the act of serving fulfills itself. It doesn’t matter what you serve.”