I would like to start this post by reiterating that I only argue with authors in books that I’m engaged with. Arguing with an author is never, in my mind, a bad thing.
That being said, I’m feeling a bit upset with Tamar Adler, author of An Everlasting Meal. I love this book and at some point in my life, I hope to have the kind of brain that can see a nearly moldy cabbage, an old thing of olives and a couple of crusty ends of bread and think — Hello gourmet meal!
We got right to my point about this book. I summed it up with, “At some point in my life.” Much of this book is aspirational and not at all practical to how people actually live. At one point she recommends keeping the liquid from the veggies you boil in jars in your fridge for future use. I love the idea of this, but I L-O-L when I think about my OCD husband and his weekend ritual of cleaning out the fridge. I can just hear the weekly question, “What is the green crap? Can I get rid of it?”
Last weekend, I cooked based on her thinking — get it all prepped and then use every last bit of it. And yes, all week we’ve been eating the things I made on Sunday. It’s been very convenient and good. But there are two drawbacks to it — the first is that I feel that because we have this ease, our mealtimes are less structured. We’ve had plans and plans and more plans this week and we’re eating what we can out of the fridge. A proper cooking and dinner time marks the day. This might be just this week that feels chaotic, however. I bet other weeks would be better.
The second drawback is that if you don’t do this type of hollistic cooking, good luck to you to find something for a weeknight in this book. The recipes are all simple and time-consuming.
Her writing is very flowery too. It’s beautiful and careful and precise, but I don’t believe that someone who doesn’t share her basic love of cooking would make it past the first chapter (how to boil water.) It’s just too much.
Not to mention her tales of her travels and the amazing meal she ate in Laos and her lunches with Alice Waters. Oh come on.
But that aspiration is what’s appealing about the book. I want my fingers stained with chile after eating chicken on the riverbanks in the far east, chicken cooked by a woman who manned a hollowed out drum filled with coals. I totally want that! The likelihood of me getting that currently is…well impossible. In the future, maybe. But not right now. She describes this in a chapter about re-igniting your love of cooking after a slump and tying food to your finest memories.
This is so wholly impractical for anyone who is a regular person who just needs to get dinner on the table, it’s laughable and almost irresponsible. I say irresponsible because do we really need to make people feel like cooking is this hard-to-reach thing? Only loved by those who’ve traveled the farthest and eaten the best? No.
I think a better story is from one regular cook to another. I have a few recipes I treasure — my guacamole recipe that was taught to me by my best friend in high school, my canning technique taught to me by my friend KLM, and my apple pie recipe taught to me by V (I just said it was mine, when it is in fact, V’s. You can see it here. And here. With her name. So, no. It isn’t mine). I was taught all of these things under far from extraordinary circumstances. Just a few hours with friends. To me, this lesson is far more useful.
I do love that Adler frees us up to call food an expression of love. I think food has become this other thing. It’s a definition of who we are (gluten free, vegan). It’s medicine (antioxidants, superfoods). It’s something other than turning one thing into another to feed our loved ones. How can it be all of this other stuff? We do food a disservice when we ask it to be more than an act of love. How could it be more than that? Why do we need it to be?