An Everlasting Meal

Tamar Adler is the shyer, quieter sister of M. F. K. Fisher and Jane Grigson, which doesn’t mean that An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace hasn’t any opinions. There are many — salty ones, too — though a drizzle of olive oil is more her style.
This is a book of gastronomic meditation and memory; it is about appetite and the artful use of scant means, with a cosmopolitan scope and an eye out for the mouthwatering to be found in the unlikeliest of places: the strangest cuts of meat, the rootiest of the root vegetables. The prose narrative is sprinkled with recipes. Much of the book’s appeal is to thumb its pages and stop when some dish spanks your imagination: a greens gratin, ribollita, white Bolognese; or to just envision — since the recipe isn’t given — digging into the “Palestinian salad made only with preserved lemons, roughly puréed, and eaten cold with warm pita bread.”
Simplicity is a leitmotif — “Some of our best eating hasn’t been our most foreign or expensive or elaborate, but quite plain and quite familiar” — and an appealingly upbeat one. This is not a pauper’s cookbook, not by a mile; there is no sense of privation, but of discovery and dexterousness. There are stocks, soups, and spreads — potions! — made from the tail end of nearly everything; roasted vegetables, grits, anchovies, capers, olives, and lots of salads; canning and pickling (“[I]t is nice to have a clove of pickled garlic in a Bloody Mary” or in a glass of harsh vodka after a steaming in NYC’s Russian Baths). There are tricks for saving having made a hash of things when you didn’t want hash. “There is no such thing as a burnt onion,” though the same can’t be said of garlic.
There are times when Adler is a little possessive of this simplicity, as if she were the rare bird that bathed in its waters: “Our culture frowns on cooking in water.” Bah, untrue — pasta, rice, potatoes, New England boiled dinner. “We must also dig out potatoes, whose vegetal aptitude we undervalue.” No way. “Cabbages do not grow underground but they are terribly neglected.” Not if my supermarket’s shelf speaks the truth, though truth be told, it’s fun to dispute with Adler in marginalia.
And if occasionally she is runic — “Lower the water to a simmer and add an unmeasured teaspoon of vinegar” — or downright moony (“Fried rosemary looks like one imagines rosemary would in the realm of ideas”), her voice is almost always fresh and smart: “Omelets…are especially good at making less dramatic meals from restaurant leftovers, which are usually so strongly seasoned that eating them untransformed the next day can feel like meeting someone at breakfast table in full makeup.”
Fresh, smart, but still modest, which makes her rare outburst have such bite. Of the oppressive emphasis placed on dinner party perfection (you know who you are): “I find the assumption not just strange but noxious, in its effectiveness at keeping us from gathering people around tables.” For, in the last instance, this is a book about conviviality, a lingering over food, either for its company or the company of people around the table, of finding inventive ways — maybe a dessert of barely sweet dark chocolate, “as severe and gratifying as coffee,” pressed between heated pieces of baguette — to excuse opening another bottle of wine.