An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, by Tamar Adler, is a popular book. I had to wait in a queue of 40 people to get it from the library. So I suspect some (all?) of you have already read it. I know someone mentioned it in the comments lately. But I thought I’d mention it for others who, like me, are always the last to know what’s going on. The theme of the book is also on track with last week’s posts about cheap eating and beans.
Adler’s book is not a cookbook. It has recipes throughout, but its mission is more about imparting an attitude, a style, a way of thinking in the kitchen, than delivering recipes. In fact, the core of her message is that you don’t need a recipe to cook.
I was attracted to this book because it is reportedly inspired by M.F.K. Fisher’s book, How to Cook a Wolf, which is one of my favorites, and well worth checking out if you haven’t. Wolf is a wartime book about living well on very little. And An Everlasting Feast is indeed very Fishereque, both in form and tone. For me, this Fishereque tone is simultaneously attractive and offputting. Adler’s writing can be beautiful–very playful and creative–but sometimes I felt like it was overdone. The tone started to wear on me, and I after a few chapters I began to wish she’d dial it down a bit. But then, before I wrote this review, I went back to find an annoying passage to make sure I wasn’t just being mean-spirited. Well, it turns out I couldn’t find anything terrible after a couple of minutes of flipping the pages. So either I am overly fussy, or (and this is what I suspect) the effect of the prose is cumulative. It’s not annoying in small doses, but when you’re reading chapter after chapter… It’s like adding too much salt to soup. By her own advice, an over-salted soup can be repaired by dropping in a plain potato. A few prosy potatoes would have helped this book, too.
Oh, but I am petty and I liked the message of the book very much, so please don’t let this put you off.
To get back to the point, like How to Cook a Wolf, An Everlasting Meal is also about smart, frugal cooking, and living well on a short budget. Despite all these overblown cooking shows on TV, and high-end stores happy to sell you expensive kitchen gadgets, the truth is that good cooking and frugal cooking are one in the same.
She covers all the basics. This makes for a good review for a seasoned cook, but would be a great introduction for someone just learning to cook. She’ll tell you how to make basics like rice and beans and eggs, how to deal with stew meat, how to dress a salad, how to put together little finishing touches, like herbed butters or fast sauces, that make these basics sing. Even how to rescue things you screw up.
I especially like how she encourages the cook to make good use of everything that goes through the kitchen, not would-be discards, like celery leaves to shrimp shells, nor little dabs of leftovers, or even something that’s been left out all night.
She’s a big advocate of boiling. I haven’t tried her advanced boiling techniques yet, but I like the idea of rescuing boiling from the dust bin of modern cooking.
Another thing she advocates is roasting a bunch of vegetables once a week and eating off those all week long. I tried it. As much as I’m a fan of cook-ahead schemes, I found I didn’t like using pre-cooked vegetables much. The beets were good. Roasted beets, I learned, are a handy thing to have in the fridge. But potatoes, cauliflower, greens…they all seemed sad after refrigeration. They made okay soup, but I’d rather roast them fresh. That said, she does offer good guidelines on roasting vegetables–everyone should know how to roast a pan of vegetables. It’s good eating and it’s so simple.
Adler does a great job teaching the hesitant cook to be unafraid of food, to bring playfulness and invention and sensuality into the kitchen. She teaches love and deep respect for the food, but not awe. And that is a Good Thing.