Weigl: The plain poetry of familiar cooking

aweigl@newsobserver.comMay 2, 2012 

"An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace" by Tamar Adler.

  • Win a copy of “An Everlasting Meal” Go to blogs.newsobserver.com/Mouthful and enter to win a copy of Tamar Adler’s book. You must leave a comment below the post about the giveaway before noon May 11. Good luck.

If you love the late food writer M.F.K. Fisher, you will love Tamar Adler.

This winter, I finally had a chance to pick up Adler’s “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace.” I was mesmerized by her writing in a way I haven’t been in a long time. It was both inspiring and comforting, which for me can be dueling notions when it comes to the kitchen.

Before I introduce you to Adler, I need to tell you about Fisher. Fisher was the first of her kind: a woman who evoked all the senses when writing about food, apparently a scandalous thing back in the 1940s. She didn’t fall into the home economics camp of female food writers. She veered into the pleasures of the table, which had been largely the domain of male writers, like A.J. Liebling.

Fisher’s writing is full of lovely sentences: “When we exist without thought or thanksgiving we are not men, but beasts.” Or this plea about the day’s first meal: “Breakfast, then, can be toast. It can be piles of toast, generously buttered, and a bowl of honey or jam, and milk for Mortimer and coffee for you. You can be lavish because the meal is so inexpensive. You can have fun, because there is no trotting around with fried eggs and mussy dishes and grease in the pan and a lingeringly unpleasant smell in the air.”

Those two quotes come from Fisher’s “How to Cook a Wolf,” which was written in 1942 when the world was in the grip of World War II, struggling with rations and hunger. Fisher’s mantra was that good simple meals were possible and frankly essential in those difficult times.

“How to Cook a Wolf” also captivated Adler, who couldn’t put it down when she first read it at the age of 23. “It bound the poetry of words to cooking,” Adler says. “I’ve been a writer my whole life. When I read her doing that, I was able to turn my creative lens on food for the first time.”

Adler thought about writing a book modeled on “How to Cook a Wolf,” but she says her life experiences had to catch up first. She went on to become an editor at Harper’s Magazine, an executive chef at a farm-to-table restaurant in Athens, Ga., and worked for a year and a half at the local food mecca that is Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Ca. Adler’s homage to Fisher, “An Everlasting Meal” was published last year.

Adler’s book is not a cookbook although it contains recipes. It is more a cooking philosophy, meant to inspire, one passage at a time, at the market and the stove. In a chapter called “How to Stride Ahead,” I was struck by her method of cooking all the vegetables she bought at the farmers market as soon as she gets home. That form of batch cooking becomes the basis for a week’s worth of meals from salads to soups to curries.

Adler’s voice is reassuring: Feeding yourself well on a daily basis is possible. The key is to make simple food from good ingredients.

One of my favorite lines from Adler’s book is this: “We do know that people have always found ways to eat and live well, whether on boiling water or bread or beans, and that some of our best eating hasn’t been our most foreign or expensive or elaborate, but quite plain and quite familiar. And knowing that is probably the best way to cook, and certainly the best way to live.”

This year, Adler was nominated for a James Beard award in the journalism contest. A piece she wrote for Gilt Taste about the rivalry between herself and her brother, who is also a chef, is a finalist for an M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award. She’ll find out Friday night if she has won.

Having found a writer I like as much as Fisher, I already feel like a winner.

Weigl: 919-829-4848 or aweigl@newsobserver.com

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