Book review: An Everlasting Meal leaves an everlasting impression

An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace is Tamar Adler’s homage to great writer M.F.K. Fisher. I started Fisher’s anthology when I was in St. Lucia last winter but it’s such a hefty book that I didn’t get far. I like books that fit in my purse.

An Everlasting Meal is one of the books that sat on my liquor cabinet & bookshelf for months before I got around to reading it, and then it just fit in my purse.  I approached the book looking for good reading but repeatedly flagged pages for reference and have referred to it many times. It was such a good read that it’s difficult to choose parts to talk about. Luckily this is my blog so word count isn’t much of an issue unless I decide it is, though I fear giving away so much of the book that you’ll feel like you don’t need to read it – and you do.

An Everlasting Meal is a how-to book written poetically. A food philosophy book sprinkled with a soupçon of history. A book that embraces nose to tail, and root to tip, eating. Gently didactic, the reader will learn or remember some fundamentals of meal preparation. The book provides guidance on how to make anything from just about anything and encourages us to salvage failures and make something with them.  It’s a book about how to nourish yourself and those you love. There are recipes in it but it’s not a cookbook.

On recipes:

“they begin where their writers are, asking you to collect the ingredients their writers have…” Adler explains,

…cooking is best approached from wherever you find yourself when you are hungry, and should extend long past the end of the page. There should be serving, and also eating, and storing away what’s left; there should be looking at meals’ remainders with interest and imagining all the good things they will become.

Sounds good to me. I use recipes as guidelines and rarely follow them exactly.  As for remainders, think beyond making sandwiches with holiday turkey leftovers.

There are things in the book that seem obvious but I find that we tend to overlook the obvious or simple and favor the more difficult or complicated, especially when we leave our school years. Food doesn’t need to be. Keep it simple, silly.

Chapter 1, How to Boil Water, had me wanting to buy a chicken to boil and also make chicken soup. In this chapter Adler talks about the simple act of salting water and its many applications, of boiling vegetables and meat. “We think we’re being bullish with vegetables by putting them in water when we’re actually being gentle.” On salting cooking water well Adler says, “It must be salted until it tastes good because what you’re doing isn’t just boiling an ingredient, but cooking one thing that tastes good in another, which requires that they both taste like something.” So simple, so easy to forget. Sometimes we get wrapped up in the science of cooking and forget that in the end it’s about taste.

On shocking boiled vegetables in an ice bath to preserve their bright colour she refers to Fergus Henderson, who tells new cooks that fresh vegetables can be just as beautiful when they’re pale and faded. I’d prefer cooking in any way that maximizes nutritional value. I care less about colour. Vegetables are beautiful, naked or lightly attired.

Chapter 2, How to Teach an Egg to Fly, is about eggs.

I don’t know what to call the things that are produced by hens crowded into dirty cages, their beaks snipped, tricked into laying constantly. Whatever they are, they are only edible in the sense that we an cram anything down if we need to.

Admittedly, sometimes I don’t mind “cramming” but I also like to be more thoughtful in my eating.

Frying’ and ‘scrambling’ imply too much aggression. I soft-fry and I soft-scramble….scrambling should just be a series of persistent nudges.

I love the imagery of “soft fry” and “soft scramble” and “persistent nudges”. It speaks to nurturing the ingredients to make them become the best version of themselves.  There is so much more of that in this chapter and book. I’ve referenced this chapter since reading it. This chapter changed the way I think about omelets, which Adler refers to as “an egg’s comeuppance”. I always thought of omelets as somewhat lowbrow but now believe that they can be beautiful. I’ve made more omelets since reading this chapter.

Her chapter on salads made me rethink my usual salad. I usually buy mixed organic greens in a box. I add stuff. I drizzle and toss it with just enough basic vinaigrette or, occasionally, bottled dressing (I keep a bottle at the office) to bathe it without drowning. This is often lunch. Like me, Adler likes to dress salads with her hands. I can’t do this with lunch time salads at the office. I did it once. Too messy. Instead I pour and shake or toss and hope that the result gets me through the afternoon, that I enjoy it, or, at least, derive nourishment and satiation. Dinner is where I really get the satisfaction. Lunch time is when I juggle eating, getting away from my desk, and going to the gym. Like many, I’m kind of cramming down my throat, so I try to make it as healthy and interesting as possible.

There are the ingredients that Adler discusses: Anchovies, capers, cornichons, beans, using lettuce in unconventional ways,   grits, polenta, rice, risotto, herbs, little fish, big fish (red fish, blue fish?). I don’t like olives but she made me understand them better.

Adler addresses under-used vegetables that people tend to have lying around and some cooking methods seem fresh and ingenious. Have you ever thought to pan fry whole scallions? I hadn’t.

And meat.

I’ve looked at animals raised amid the roiled and rich chaos of sun and dirt and barnyard. I’ve watched exchanges on farms where things are slow and sensible; between pig and pig, pig and soil, soil and sky. I’ve watched children care for animals and learn a little bit about transience and wildness from it. I’ve also peeked over the high walls of the factory farms behind which most meat is raised and seen how beastly we can be to the animals we eat.

What we do to animals counts.

This last line requires repeating: What we do to animals counts.

I’ve been to small farms and seen animals that become food. I also have a curiosity about hunting which I’ve discussed here before.

On cooking through instinct:

“If we were taught to cook as we are taught to walk, encouraged first to feel for pebbles with our toes, then to wobble forward and fall, then had our hands firmly tugged on so we would try again, we would learn that being good at it relies on something deeply rooted, akin to walking, to get good at which we need only guidance, senses, and a little faith.”

You might lack the motivation, energy and funds to go grocery shopping this time of year and this book can help you with that. Not by shopping for you (though you can do that online), but to provide guidance about what to do when you’ve got little in the pantry. Tips include “Find half bags of pasta or rice you’ve stuffed into drawers, look for single potatoes and end of bags of nuts.” This is perfect for students on a budget and those of us cooking only for ourselves. It’s also how I often cook. One recent dinner was softened vermicelli topped with blanched snow peas, raw shaved Brussels sprouts and baba ganoush, sprinkled with pepper (not even freshly ground – I need to replace my pepper mill) and Meyer lemon juice. Not knowing whether I’ll be employed next month and with so much random stuff in my pantry I’m trying to avoid grocery shopping. I want to use what’s been there for a long time.

I don’t like the “full fridge but nothing to eat” syndrome. As a society we suffer from an overabundance and have to know how to use it.

Adler’s chapter on how to end a meal is beautiful. “What we eat at the end of a meal marks its passage…” She speaks of her travels in this chapter. Of how the end of the meal is executed in different places in the world.

I love how simplistic some of her dessert advice is. After suggesting making sandwiches of baguette and dark chocolate she says,

Or dispense with any heating and combining and buy a few dark chocolate bars. Break them into big squares and serve them in a tumble on a plate, with a glass of Scotch per person, which will make each appetite feel listened to, and provide a tiny anesthetic to the pain of letting go.

I don’t know if she had me at dark chocolate, at Scotch or the “tiny anesthetic to the pain of letting go”.

Up in paragraph 2 I said, “Luckily this is my blog so word count isn’t much of an issue unless I decide it is, though I fear giving away so much of the book that you’ll feel like you don’t need to read it – and you do.” That was nearly 1700 words ago.

All I can say is that the book is beautifully written and makes me feel like a terrible writer in comparison, and not in a bad way. Reading well written material will help me improve my own writing. Guidance, senses, and a little faith. I also need the inspiration in my own cooking and eating and feeding. Editors (“firmly tugging on my hands”?) can make my words better when I’m writing for other media but cooking is really up to me. For that I read good books and surround myself with talented cooks who constantly teach and inspire me with their knowledge and tools.

Thank you, Ms. Adler.

Book details:
An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace
Author: Tamar Adler, foreword by: Alice Waters
Publication date: October 18, 2011
Editions: Hardcover, trade paperpack, ebook.
List Price: $28.99 for hardcover, $17 for paperback, $14.99 for ebook.
– or borrow it from the library, but you’ll want your own.

Read more at Tamar Adler’s website.

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  1. Happy 1,000 blog post to me! - Andrea the Gastronaut - December 28, 2013

    […] later today for a post about her Fab Detox program). I’ve read and reviewed some great books. An Everlasting Meal is still one of my favourites because it’s so practical and easy. I refer to it […]

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