“An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace,” by Tamar Adler, doesn’t contain a single glossy page or picture, but it will fill your head with hundreds of colorful recipes. Adler’s book contains recipes that call for dried-out meat, burnt vegetables and overcooked rice; and I promise you that it will make you want to rush to the kitchen and cook all night. Patterned after M.F.K. Fisher’s classic, “How to Cook a Wolf,” “An Everlasting Meal” makes such an eloquent appeal for how to eat well while still being a responsible consumer, that you will want to read it four times over just to hear the beauty of Adler’s words.
At its heart, “An Everlasting Meal” is a practical manual, devoid of chef-y pretenses and attempts at glamour. Within its pages, Adler deftly debunks myths and hands out utilitarian, no-nonsense advice about how to prepare and eat food with ease and economy. Informed by her years cooking in famed restaurants such as Prune and Chez Panisse, she has laid out a handbook for having an honest relationship with food, a book that is equally useful to people possessing all levels of kitchen skills.
Perhaps its most quintessential chapter is entitled “How to Catch Your Tail.” This chapter sets out a plan to use all of the “tail ends” of cooking, from parsley stems to onion skins to bones to scraps of bread. For example, mint stems can be soaked in vinegar, which can then be used to make a seasoned vinaigrette. The olive oil used to pack anchovies can be utilized to cook vegetables. Droopy wilted vegetables can be boiled and transformed into puréed soup. Most leftovers meals and sides work well in the next day’s frittata.
Adler calls to mind the vision of Plato’s snake, eating its own tail as a means to eternity and implores, “When we leave our tails trailing behind us we lose what is left of the thought we put into eating well today. Then we slither along, straight, linear things that we can be, wondering what we will make for dinner tomorrow. So we must spot our tails when we can, and gather them up, so that when we get hungry next, and our minds turn to the question of what to eat, the answer will be there waiting.”
Methods over measurements
Don’t count on seeing a lot of traditional recipes in this book, although there are enough to satisfy those who desire exact instructions. Adler has decided to focus less on measurements and ingredient lists, and more upon ideas in cooking. This means that there are hundreds of recipe ideas contained within “An Everlasting Meal.” She spins up eight ways to serve simply cooked beans in just a few paragraphs — including beans and rice, beans on toast, beans with an egg, cassoulet, sausage and bean soup, and herbed bean gratin. She adroitly shows how to transform an entire week’s purchase of vegetables in one hour, so that they will be ready to use for quick-cook meals throughout the week.
You might be shocked to see so many ideas for correcting mistakes in the kitchen, and how to use food that might otherwise be considered ruined. But this plays perfectly well with Adler’s call for resourcefulness and achieving a comfortable relationship with food in the kitchen. After all, if you know how to correct a dish that is too salty, or repurpose an overcooked grain, you are much more likely to return to the kitchen to cook again, rather than feel defeated and order out.
An intimate conversation
This probably isn’t the right book for someone who needs a full-color picture to accompany each recipe. However, this book will be a delight for those who adore well-turned phrases in food writing. For the most part, “An Everlasting Meal” reads like an intimate conversation with a treasured food buddy.
The most poignant parts of this book come when Adler speaks about one’s relationship to food. When describing what to do if one should fall out of love with cooking, she advises, “My answer is to anchor food to somewhere deep inside you, or deep in your past, or deep in the wonders of what you love … Let yourself love what you love, and see if it doesn’t lead you back to what you ate when you loved it … Tug your memories back into the kitchen with you and you’ll find yourself less separate from the idea of making food.”
This is just part of the passionate call of “An Everlasting Meal” to return to a deep-seated relationship to cooking, which in turn, will help return us all to better eating.
Whether you are looking for stellar food writing, pragmatic recipes for eating well, or tidbits of wisdom on how to eat with grace, “An Everlasting Meal” will deliver.
Zester Daily contributor Wendy Petty lives in the Rocky Mountains, where she is a forager, photographer and wild foods consultant. She writes about her adventures with mountain food on her blog, Hunger and Thirst.
Photo: “An Everlasting Meal” by Tamar Adler. Credit: Wendy Petty