Mouth Wide Open

It’s not likely that John Thorne will ever show up on the Food Network. His books — Mouth Wide Open is the fifth — have never come with lavish illustrations, and one gets the feeling he has never used the word “plate” as a verb. The online edition of Simple Cooking, the newsletter he has written and edited with his wife, Matt Lewis Thorne, for more than a quarter century, features photos of distinctly un-photogenic breakfasts, including Eggs Florentine (made in a plastic tub of Bird’s Eye Cream of Spinach from the local Stop and Shop), Five-Month-Old Croissant (an accidental breakfast he discovered in his mother’s discarded microwave) and Oatmeal with Stirred Up Crust (the result of leaving his breakfast too long on the stove). He would make a terrible endorser of products (as one essay in his last collection, Pot on the Fire, put it, he is a one knife, one pot kind of guy). He cares little for health fads, and while he likes fresh food as much as anyone, he wonders, “Are there any benighted souls who have yet to learn that sweet corn, tomatoes, green peas, and asparagus are best when just picked — ideally from one’s own garden?”

Nevertheless, if there is any contemporary food writer more viscerally connected with how food is actually prepared, more intellectually stimulating, or more pleasurable to read, I have yet to encounter his or her work.

John Thorne is an action hero in the kitchen. Armed with decades of finely honed technique and his own appetite, he hunts down the food he most wants to eat. While other writers may reminisce about recreating a dish they had at a little out of the way trattoria in Tuscany, the Thornes rarely leaves their home in Northampton Massachusetts, where they shop at Super Stop and Shop, ethnic grocery stores, farmer’s markets, and a discount outlet called Big Lots. Thorne’s tools are his massive collection of vintage cookbooks, his own food memories, and, quite often, the Internet. (In each of his books, Thorne explains in the preface that while the “I” who speaks in the pages is his own voice, due to his wife’s careful edits “the subjective self who speaks out of these pages is a larger, braver, much more interesting person than I am alone.”)

Anyone familiar with the Thornes’ newsletter (which has a small, but cultish following) or their cookbooks will know that their signature style is to present multiple recipes over the course of a long essay detailing its evolution. In “The Reviewer and the Recipe,” Thorne explains this technique. Asked to be on a panel of cookbook reviewers sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, he is astonished to discover that other reviewers test the recipes in the book. Thorne never has.

The reason, it turns out, is at the heart of what makes him such a good cook, and so much fun to read. He is fundamentally incapable of leaving well enough alone. When he reads a recipe he does not see a set of precisely calibrated instructions. “Instead, I see a dish wildly signally to me on the other side, begging to be let out.”

The principle of Simple Cooking, says Thorne, “is that one of the best ways to learn about a dish is to get a bunch of recipes arguing with one another.” One of the best illustrations of this principle in the collection is “Pepper Pot Hot,” an essay which details his attempt to recreate Philadelphia Pepper Pot, a dish served to him by Steve Stephens, a math teacher in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, over 30 years before (sadly Steve wasn’t available for consultation, having died in a motorcycle collision years before). He starts with a recipe first published in 1886 (from which he gleans that the dish’s origin in Philadelphia was probably “more fakelore than folklore”), moves on to another recipe from 1937 (from a cookbook with the fantastic subtitle What Men Like, Why They Like It, and How to Cook It), then scraps the idea of making it entirely — he dislikes the “squeakiness” of tripe — and develops an infatuation with Campbell’s Pepper Pot from a can. When he decides that, at $1.79 a can, Campbell’s is too expensive for what it is, he is lured back to the hunt:

I relate this not because I imagine it to be all that fascinating, but because it illustrates something intriguing: the complex strands of motivation that make us decide when and what to cook. I can leaf through cookbooks all day, engrossed by the recipes and the color photographs of the finished dishes…then put them down to go open a can of soup that reminds me of a dish I ate once decades ago and can now only vaguely remember. Then, because that can of soup costs fifty cents more than I think it ought to, I plunge into unknown waters, setting out to prepare a dish from a piece of offal that, in its raw state, I have so far in my life avoided having pretty much any contact with at all. How do you figure that?

How indeed? It will come as no surprise to discover that the grocery bill for the homemade pepper pot far surpasses $1.79. But the real genius of the essay is that, while adapting his new version of a remembered food that may or may not be native to Philadelphia, Thorne accidentally creates a version of the Latin American dish pozole, a fact that is pointed out to him by an astute reader. These are the kind of culinary accidents upon which world cuisine is made.

For much of his career, Thorne has described himself as a “renegade” or “outlaw” cook. Never before has the description seemed so apt. Summing up his reaction to the celebrity food world that has sprung up in the seven years since his last collection, Thorne compares himself to John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful, “looking down the decades at Eminem, Yung Joe and the Pussycat Dolls and wondering, ‘What happened?” Yet Sebastian continues to record, and while the rest of the food world competes for ratings and novelty of presentation, Thorne is a master of his own domain — the home kitchen. “I get down, mano a mano, with the onions and the potatoes,” he writes. “Real cooking takes place in real time with real food — and it is there that the lasting pleasure lies.” Reading John Thorne, one is inspired to get down, mano a mano, and create food memories of one’s own.