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Mouth Wide Open: A Cook and His Appetite

Mouth Wide Open: A Cook and His Appetite

by John Thorne

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Ever since his first book, Simple Cooking, and its acclaimed successors, Outlaw Cook, Serious Pig, and Pot on the Fire, John Thorne has been hailed as one of the most provocative, passionate, and accessible food writers at work today. In Mouth Wide Open, his fifth collection, he has prepared a feast for the senses and


Ever since his first book, Simple Cooking, and its acclaimed successors, Outlaw Cook, Serious Pig, and Pot on the Fire, John Thorne has been hailed as one of the most provocative, passionate, and accessible food writers at work today. In Mouth Wide Open, his fifth collection, he has prepared a feast for the senses and intellect, charting a cook's journey from ingredient to dish in illuminating essays that delve into the intimate pleasures of pistachios, the Scottish burr of real marmalade, how the Greeks made a Greek salad, the (hidden) allure of salt anchovies, and exploring the uncharted territory of improvised breakfasts and resolutely idiosyncratic midnight snacks. Most of all, his inimitable warmth, humor, and generosity of spirit inspire us to begin our own journey of discovery in the kitchen and in the age-old comfort and delight of preparing food.

Editorial Reviews

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. --Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer has worked as an editor and staff writer at Salon, Legal Affairs, and Paper magazine. Her reviews and features on books have appeared in Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, The Believer, Kirkus, and The New York Times Book Review.
Linda Kulman
John Thorne's Mouth Wide Open is a journey around his own kitchen. His exhaustive essays, most of which were previously published in his food letter, "Simple Cooking," tackle all manner of dishes, including some, like fried eggs, that might seem beneath consideration. Thorne deconstructs each recipe until he understands not just how it evolved but what each ingredient contributes. In an era marked by celebrity chefs and mundane microwavable meals, the amiable author takes pleasure in "the laying of hands on real food," a process he makes approachable to others through both his commentary and recipes. "Cooking is about doing the best with what you have...and succeeding," he writes. Thorne succeeds masterfully.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

This cornucopia of previously published pieces by James Beard Award-winning food writer Thorne, from his newsletter, "Simple Cooking," along with a few from other publications, showcases his relaxed, unfussy attitude, refreshing in this age of cookbook and food-personality overabundance. That casualness comes through on subjects from bagna cauda to pepper pot. It's all foodstuff to him, and his affection for foods of all kinds is boundless. Some of the most intriguing suggestions, reprinted from a regular feature of the newsletter, reflect an awareness that the avocado-green electric range is as legitimate as the Viking. Thorne likes to delve into the source and cultural history of individual dishes, and many spur-of-the-moment concoctions, whose recipes are given, were prepared out of a sense of what-the-heck invention and appetite. He fervently promotes his belief that in every foodie lurks a cook capable of doing wonders with prepared foods, that the opposite also holds, and that the ultimate authority on food is the person eating. (Dec.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Meet the Author

John Thorne and Matt Lewis Thorne live in Northampton, Massachusetts, where they publish the food letter Simple Cooking. Their most recent book, Pot on the Fire, won a James Beard Foundation Book Award.

John Thorne and Matt Lewis Thorne live in Northampton, Massachusetts, where they publish the food letter Simple Cooking. Their most recent book, Pot on the Fire, won a James Beard Foundation Book Award.

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