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John Thorne
August 11, 2012 7:45 PM   Subscribe

Food writing’s shameful secret, wrote John Thorne his seminal essay, “Cuisine Mécanique”, is its intellectual poverty. John himself is a notable exception. He is one of those rare authors who have the gift of transporting us into a world of their own creation which we are happy to occupy for a while in preference to any other. They are Virgils to our Dante, showing us around the territory and introducing us to the natives. In these magic realms, strangers speak to us immediately as old friends; arriving unexpectedly at dinner time, we find a place already set for us. posted by Egg Shen (26 comments total) 98 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm forever grateful to the friend who introduced me to Outlaw Cook a decade or so ago. Similarly, I'm grateful for these links. Thanks, Egg Shen.

I may not qualify as a "good cook", but like Thorne himself I'm prepared to describe myself as an "interested cook".
posted by tangerine at 7:59 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I hadn't heard of this writer ever, despite being a pretty serious foodie, so I opened up some of the links and have started reading. Fifteen minutes later, I'm looking up for the first time to remember to favorite this post. Now I'm going back to reading about the original 8-inch cast iron skillet and the shitty New York apartment. What a gifted writer. Great stuff, thank you.
posted by Miko at 8:00 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I just ate dinner, and there's a pot of carnitas cooking away on the stove, but by god do I want chicken with forty cloves of garlic.
posted by rtha at 8:01 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow. Thanks for these links!

I will certainly pursue this author, but I really must demur:

Food writing’s shameful secret...is its intellectual poverty.

That is in no way true. Off the top of my head (and I'm tired) I refer you to M.F.K. Fisher, Athenaeus, Reay Tannahill, Tamar Adler, John T. Edge. I'll stop there for now, and maybe I've missed the point(?) but that is a broad and jarring statement.

rtha: I'm reheating carnitas from earlier this week for my dinner right now!
posted by trip and a half at 9:10 PM on August 11, 2012 [8 favorites]


trip and a half, I don't have my copy of Outlaw Cook within easy reach, but as I recall, that "food writing/intellectual poverty" quote is pretty context-dependent, and as lovely as that "Thank You, One and All!" post is, I don't think that isolating that one quote from "Cuisine Mecanique" does Thorne any favors. Thorne himself is a big fan of M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, John T. Edge, John and Karen Hess, Sheila Hibben, Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, Laurie Colwin, and Richard Olney, just to name a few. He maintained a charming correspondence with Patience Gray until her death, and his essay on boeuf aux carottes includes a nifty afterword in the form of a letter from Madeleine Kamman. Again, I can't remember the exact context for the "intellectual poverty" line, but I know that Thorne wasn't saying that there is no value in food writing. He certainly found it valuable enough to share with his Simple Cooking readers.
posted by bakerina at 9:34 PM on August 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


(By which I mean that when he enjoyed a food writer's work, he shared his enthusiasm with his readers.)
posted by bakerina at 9:36 PM on August 11, 2012


Thank you, bakerina. I'm afraid that it is my unfamiliarity with Thorne (though I have heard of him) that caused what I hope won't be a derail to this thread. I am going through the links now, and see that he acknowledges many of the people that I (mistakenly) took his remark out of context to dismiss.
posted by trip and a half at 9:54 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


In other words I jumped the gun. Sorry.
posted by trip and a half at 9:58 PM on August 11, 2012


I love John Thorne's writing. It's truly phenomenal, and I really appreciate how he'll approach a recipe or an ingredient, and then show you several different versions, plus a history lesson and a good story, while still making you incredibly hungry.

also, his macaroni and cheese recipe is excellent. (third one on this page)
posted by dubold at 2:00 AM on August 12, 2012


Should I be able to read portions of the book from those links? All I get is the Google Books page for Outlaw Cook.
posted by bardophile at 2:57 AM on August 12, 2012


Should I be able to read portions of the book from those links? All I get is the Google Books page for Outlaw Cook.

Same here. Do Google Books links work outside the US? (For reference, I'm in Ireland.)
posted by Azara at 3:08 AM on August 12, 2012


The links don't work in the UK either.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:17 AM on August 12, 2012


For those of us who can't read the Google Books links, there are a couple of his books at Amazon that include the "look inside" feature that allows you to read some pages:

Outlaw Cook

Simple Cooking

And a couple of other books with other writers listed on his Amazon page.
posted by taz at 4:56 AM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Marvelous stuff! Thanks for this post. As a teenager I befriended a woman who had a real knack for cooking amazing meals from simple ingredients. In my twenties I discovered M.F.K. Fisher with her powerful narratives and respect for honest food. Both women had a strong influence on the way I approach cooking and eating to this day.

Thorne seems to come from a similar place and I will be devouring his writing over the next week.
posted by idest at 5:29 AM on August 12, 2012


Love John Thorne. I'm been a subscriber to his on-again/off-again newsletters for years and own most of his books in paper. Now that I see that there's Kindle versions, I'm off to add them to my Kindle library.
posted by jgaiser at 5:44 AM on August 12, 2012


> That is in no way true. Off the top of my head (and I'm tired) I refer you to M.F.K. Fisher, Athenaeus, Reay Tannahill, Tamar Adler, John T. Edge. I'll stop there for now, and maybe I've missed the point(?) but that is a broad and jarring statement.

They are exceptions in a field of dross. Even among published writers whose prose is competent (there are too few of those as it is), not many have the skill to go beyond the basic mechanical and sensual components of food and eating and skillfully involve the mind and the heart and other people.

In food writing, there are very many romance novelists and very few Anias Nins.
posted by ardgedee at 5:53 AM on August 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


The links don't work in the UK either.

Sorry about that. But this was one of those cases where Google Books links were the only ones I could find that made as strong a case for the subject as I felt it deserved.

With the other commenters' testimonials now on record, you could also try "In Defense of the Savory Breakfast" or "Food for Thinkers: What You'll Find In a Discarded Can of Vienna Sausages".
posted by Egg Shen at 6:08 AM on August 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thank you for a great Sunday morning of food writing! I just finished reading "Food for Thinkers: What You'll Find In a Discarded Can of Vienna Sausages" and this line "...in truth the addiction that best deals with a dreary life is the craving for saturated fat." and the concept of "eating bitter" just hit me where I live. His essay has done a better job of explaining my on-again, off-again history of emotional eating than anything I've ever read.

I'd never heard of him before your post - his books are now on my wishlist.
posted by champagneminimalist at 7:04 AM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


One of my all-time favorite dishes is roast chicken with two heads of roasted garlic. I don't know how many cloves that is, but next time I make the dish, I'm counting.

Like Miko, I too am a pretty serious foodie but had never heard of this writer. I recently started my own Boston-based food blog and am always looking for food writing to read because I think doing so may make own writing better. If anybody else has any home-run food writing suggestions, please comment here or memail me!

This is fantastic writing and I think my own food writing will improve because of this post. Thanks, Egg Shen!
posted by The Girl Who Ate Boston at 7:48 AM on August 12, 2012


Thanks for this post. It will give me a chance to revisit Thorne, who I should love, by all rights, but whom I've always found to be a bit too smug for my taste. It's been ten years since I tried him, so I'm glad to get the chance to do so again now.
posted by OmieWise at 8:58 AM on August 12, 2012


That diary of savory breakfasts in the "In defense of..." link is amazing, and has me craving bone marrow. I'm not sure that the thesis of the piece holds in these post-Atkins days, but it's a great read.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 9:51 AM on August 12, 2012


Thank you for posting this. I'm making the forty cloves of garlic recipe tonight!

NB: It appears that the Matt he refers to is his wife Martha, which certainly recasts my initial readings of these articles, ha ha. I've never heard "Matt" as a nickname for Martha, but this being Metafilter I'm sure the next 10 comments will be along the lines of "There are people who don't know that Matt is short for Martha?" all faux-shocked at my ignorance...
posted by Ian A.T. at 10:34 AM on August 12, 2012


The savory breakfasts piece made me want a large desi breakfast, instantly. Anda paratha, or poori kabab, or poori chhole... yummmmm. To say nothing of nihari, which is perhaps the ultimate in savory breakfasts. Sigh...
posted by bardophile at 11:36 AM on August 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


When my husband and I were first married, we found a recipe for "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic" that gave one the option of using the 40 cloves to make a garlic cream sauce for the chicken, or just to squeeze them out onto fresh crusty bread and eat them that way. We refused to choose, and so made both, using 80 cloves of garlic. Twenty years later, and we still recall this meal with the reverence due a religious experience.

I have no idea how long it took for us to stop smelling of garlic. And I don't care.
posted by blurker at 5:26 PM on August 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


this being Metafilter I'm sure the next 10 comments will be along the lines of "There are people who don't know that Mat

Well, I guess I have to play along. Never seen it spelled that way with the double T, but I have heard the variant of "Mats" or "Mattie" among women a little older than my parents' generationj.
posted by Miko at 6:58 PM on August 12, 2012


Here is a (dated) appreciation of the Thornes by Mark Bittman along with a very reliable pseudo-risoto recipe
posted by shothotbot at 5:48 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


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