I’ve been reading An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler, with many thanks to Karen Edmisten. I’m only on chapter four, but I’m already enchanted.
This is not a cookbook, though there are some recipes inside. It’s not really a memoir either. It’s really quite hard to describe. I keep trying to tell Dom about it and feeling like I’ve failed miserably. In her introduction Alice Waters explains that “it’s an approach to cooking as a narrative that begins not with a list of ingredients or a tutorial on cutting an onion but with a way of thinking.” And while not all of Tamar’s suggestions and recipes are ones that I want to try, her way of thinking is captivating, addictive. Most of all, reading this book makes me want to get into the kitchen and cook. Or I should clarify, many cookbooks make me think about getting up and cooking, Adlers actually gets me chopping and mixing and tasting and, well, cooking.
Tonight, for example, I made the most beautiful salad I’ve had in a long time. The recipe wasn’t in the book, not the way I made it, at least. But the bones of the idea were there and I used the recipe she provided as a sort of road map from which I then took a little detour based on what I actually had in my kitchen.
I began with a shallot and sliced it very thin. I threw it into a bowl with some red wine vinegar, maybe two or three tablespoons of it—one thing I love about this book is that it definitely opens the door to that kind of vagueness. Adler just tells you to put the vinegar on the onions and trusts you to do so without getting fussy about measuring. After the onions had sat for ten or fifteen minutes—while I busied myself with prepping other food and with buttering a slice of bread for Ben and breaking up a couple of disputes and kissed a few bumps and bruises—I added a spoon of mustard, maybe a teaspoon, I didn’t measure. I stirred that well and let it sit a few more minutes while I put on my shoes and wandered out to the garden where I picked some sprigs off my crazy mint plants. I chopped the mint finely and got maybe a couple of tablespoons full. Then I chopped a fistful of arugula, it yielded maybe half a cup. I stirred the mint and arugula into the onions and vinegar and drizzled it with some olive oil. I cubed one of the big tomatoes Bella insisted we buy at the farmer’s market on Saturday and tossed it with my dressing. This tasted like heaven! I served the dressed tomatoes on a bed of salad greens also from the farmer’s market and topped them with a handful of toasted sliced almonds. Normally when I make a salad with such meager ingredients as just greens and tomatoes it would be lackluster and boring. This one zinged and made me yearn to make it again. I’m so glad I still have all the ingredients. I filled up so much on salad I can’t even remember if I ate any of the roast chicken that I served as the main dish.
Along with my roast chicken I served roasted cauliflower, roasted sweet potatoes, and mashed carrots and turnips. The carrots and turnips were somehow over salted. Yet as I lingered over the end of dinner, marveling still at the goodness of the salad as I dipped my cauliflower into the dregs of the dressing, I began to dream about the possibility hidden in that bowl of salty mash. Suddenly I saw an onion sauteed and the carrots and turnips added with some white wine, chicken broth, and cream. A dash of nutmeg and maybe some ginger. Then puree it all until smooth. It would be a perfect soup! That moment really explains the book more than any summary I can give. Adler is a dreamer who looks at odds and ends of food and sees possibilities. And her vision is infectious.
This, finally, is a book which addresses my mealtime malaise. Instead of demanding that I develop better meal planning skills and the discipline to draw up a menu before I go shopping, Adler suggests instead that I need a toolbox of basic principles so that I can see the possibilities of the leftovers from one meal becoming another meal. Instead of demanding that I become something I am not—a disciplined planner and scheduler, Adler gives me permission to become more myself. More of a dreamer and more of an improvisational cook. She says that it’s perfectly ok to let whimsy and momentary preference drive my cooking. She challenges me to be resourceful not in the grim frugal housewife vision I’ve encountered far too often which suggests a narrow vision and a limited horizon. Instead, her economy is the economy of the poet writing a sonnet, allowing the constraints of space and ingredients to bloom into something rare and unexpected. I think part of what I find so inspiring is the lyricism of her writing which suggest to me that cooking is a fine art and not a paint by number kit, and every meal an occasion of grace—not only the grace of the dancer or the potter but also the grace of the whispered prayer: God, please give me inspiration.
No, Adler never comes out and uses religious language or imagery, yet her vision is a very Catholic one, very incarnational. It rejoices in the bounty of what is available rather than yearning for that which could be. It rejoices in seeking out first principles. Throughout it expresses a profound gratitude for simple things.
I’ve checked this book out from the library but I need to go buy a copy so that I can pull it off the shelf when I’m feeling tired and burnt out and uninspired. Tamar Adler makes even boiling a pot of water or turning on the oven into the first step of an amazing adventure. It reminds me rather of Tolkien: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” In the same way, Adler might paraphrase: It’s a dangerous business putting on a pot of water or turning on your oven. If you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.