Thursday, May 31, 2012

Book Review: An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler

I didn't have to read far to know that I would like An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. I just had to get to the subtitle, "Cooking with Economy and Grace" and I was already ready to tell people about it. Because truly, if we could all learn to cook with economy and grace this world would be a better, happier, more peaceful place. As it is we're often cooking with McConomy and Rat Race (yup, it took me a whole minute to come up with that). Even if we haven't descended to the depths of McConomy, we're often cooking with either economy or grace, and struggling to combine the two. Adler argues (though she would never use such a word) that the two go hand in hand. In fact, in her way she seems to argue that economy cannot thrive well without grace and visa versa. I would have to agree. To a large extent, to cook without economy is to cook with lots of waste or to cook as a vehicle to show off our excess, neither of which is extremely graceful. And to cook cheaply without a little grace can be summed up in one word: shortening, or two words: industrial farming, or maybe three words: boxed mac & cheese. Anyway, you get the idea.

Adler's book combines philosophy, memory, prose, and cooking. Her philosophy on cooking (and if I had to pin this book down to a genre, I think philosophy might just be it) is that one meal should run seamlessly into the next: today's chicken will be tomorrow's fried rice will be the next day's soup. It was all terribly romantic. 

In fact, if I was to choose my largest criticism of the book, that romanticism might be it. The prose was perfumed, her descriptions of using leftovers might as well have swept the sea breeze through my hair. Yet there was little humor and not so much as a nod toward those days when you're rushing home and everyone's tired and whining and the last thing anyone's in the graceful mood for is a nice hearty appetizer of bean broth (with or without a generous dose of good olive oil and a squeeze of lemon). You know those days. Don't we all? So it would have been nice to at least have a hat tipped to them occasionally.

I had three other problems with the book. The first is a little personal. Adler has no kids and as near as I can ascertain no husband either. That's okay; I'm not saying she must have a family to offer valuable food advice. However, it meant that the only thing you get about cooking for a group (or cooking around other individuals' tastes, for that matter) was a wee bit about hosting dinner parties. Also, it meant no comforting jokes about your husband's pickiness, which is something I always appreciate in a book about food (yeah, I might have to be the one to write that one). 

My second problem with the book is a cross between a critique and praise. There was so much good advice that it was tough to take it all in. It was quite poetic and although she offers a fair number of recipes, they don't come to us in the neat categorical way they would in a typical cookbook. This isn't inherently a problem--at least it's not a problem I'm sure has a simple solution in a book like this--but it did make it a little hard to find a recipe you wanted when you wanted it. 

My final problem was that for every cooking woe, she pronounced a good drizzle of olive oil and a squirt of lemon. I like olive oil and lemon as much as the next guy and truly there's a lot that a little fat or a little acid really can cure, but I thought it was a little over-prescribed. 

Now on to what I liked best about this book: Despite my skepticism about a few of Adler's methods (she begins the book by suggesting that to begin dinner, you get a pot of water on to boil and then scrounge around and find some things to put in it--vegetables, meat, "ends" and that all these things will surely come together into a marvelous whole--see I told you, romantic).. yes, anyway, despite my skepticism I decided to give several of them a whirl. They worked really beautifully. I took some of her advice on "striding ahead" and prepared nearly a week's worth of vegetables from what I had languishing in my refrigerator. They tasted delicious hot that first day, but were also very good on sandwiches throughout the rest of the week or as snacks. This is just as Adler promised it would be and I'll be darned if she wasn't right on. The boiling water method of dinner preparation is still waiting for me to try (though in all fairness, the months I spent living in The Netherlands, there was plenty of vegetable boiling on the natives' part and it always came out perfectly delicious and flavorful and not a bit like the boiled vegetables we tend to remember our great aunts pushing on us), but she also has great ideas on how to eat food we normally expect to be hot cold or with a different sort of spin. She was masterful at taking things you'd normally throw out and adding them to bread, rice, or carb of choice and producing dinner or lunch

The part I was most excited about was her chapter on "ends." Ends are the bits of food we normally discard--the ends of vegetables, the green vegetable tops (as in carrot tops), the stems of herbs, bones, etc. Adler has many ideas for how to use them and I have to admit that they are perfectly graceful (and by nature terribly economic). You end up feeling that you will never discard a parsley stem again (though you probably will, but maybe not quite as many).

She also has a chapter on salvaging the foods you messed up. In addition to that, she dedicates an entire appendix to the fixing of burned/mushed/undercooked/oversalted foods that would otherwise end up in your trash compactor. That's economy, of course. And if the redemption of imperfect food doesn't equal grace, I don't know what does.

In short, it was a great read on food, economy, and grace. I've bookmarked a booty load of recipes and plan to dedicate a couple of posts this week to a few of the things I gleaned from her wisdom.


  1. Love your thoughts on this. For a few weeks after reading the book I did kind of drown in olive oil; she just makes it sound so magical.

  2. Well written, balanced review. I'm in the middle of the book and agree with all your points on this. I probably would have appreciated the book much more if I read it 15 years ago.



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