A Conversation with Tamar Adler

March 24, 2012 · 17 comments

photograph by Dan Kim

It seems to me that when you occupy the vast universe of writing about anything having to do with food and eating, the consumer world — hell-bent upon labeling you for quick and easy intellectual consumption — will stick you into one of two camps. There’s the recipe camp, with its headnotes and process instructions, its ingredients lists and precision-driven weights and measures. And then there’s the narrative camp, inhabited by apparent devil-may-careists who write about food and the more fluid process and practice of cooking that comes with instinct and comfort; this camp is nearly always pigeonholed as being too advanced for the beginner cook, or not right for the mom-with-three-kids-and-two-jobs who just wants to be told how to make that freezer-to-table casserole, or, just too esoteric for the average American with little time, less money, and not a whole lot of interest in standing in the kitchen after a hard day at work. Naturally, it’s precisely these people who would best benefit from understanding how to cook instinctively.

It’s ironic that, in a world where many people can’t boil an egg, we’re bombarded with malls crammed with cookware stores, and television shows that let us perch, vicariously, on the shoulders of restaurant chefs clawing each other’s eyes out so as not to get “chopped.” The intensely personal, wildly sensual act of cooking has been commoditized, and its very essence — comprised of instinct, grace, economy and what Alice Waters calls malleability — diluted to a sound bite. Which is why, more than ever, we need Tamar Adler, former cook at Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune, Waters’ iconic Chez Panisse,  heir apparent to M.F.K. Fisher and author of the remarkable An Everlasting Meal which, says Waters, approaches cooking as a narrative that begins not with a list of ingredients or a tutorial on cutting an onion, but with a way of thinking.  Indeed.

I was delighted and honored to speak recently with Adler.

For as long as I can remember — at least as far back as the late 1980s, when North Point Press (and Jack Shoemaker) reissued all of M.F.K. Fisher’s work in those lovely little jacketed paperbacks that made her writing widely available again — readers have been drawing comparisons to her work. To be sure, there is a lot of glorious writing out there; still, few have evoked the same kind of nearly emotional and physical response that Fisher’s work does, until now. When I read An Everlasting Meal, it left me breathless and hungry, and I found myself highlighting it like a complete lunatic. Tell me how you came to write it — what motivated you to impart this message of cooking with instinct and simplicity? 

I had felt [since I read M.F.K. Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf] like somebody had to breathe life back into Fisher’s messages, which were, very simply, that cooking wasn’t something that made life harder, but something that made life easier. And that at its very worst, life could be improved by paying attention to the fact that not only are we born with appetites, but we’re born with an ability to satisfy those appetites. It’s easy to forget this when things are hard, and amid the noise of life; it was particularly difficult when Fisher wrote the book in 1942, during an actual war. And I started to feel, even in my mid-twenties, that today, when there are all sorts of wars — both internal and external — that we have allowed those truths about our appetites and our potential to satisfy them to become inverted. I started to feel as though our appetites were simply a longing and need that was becoming harder and harder to meet. But I didn’t have the actual technical ability to write this book until I began to cook professionally; I didn’t know exactly what it was I wanted to say.

How to Cook a Wolf obviously uses wartime cooking as its lens; people were literally trying to figure out how to feed themselves and their families on rations. This need to learn how to feed ourselves didn’t seem to me to be explicit until I worked at Chez Panisse, when I realized that there was a missing skill set that wasn’t being talked about. Food is so polarized into fancy/elaborate and cheap/poor/bad/easy. Somebody needed to step between those poles and say that cooking and eating well are not hard to accomplish, and they are what makes life easier.

In an interview you did a little while ago with my friend Kurt Michael Friese, you talked about the professionalization of cooking — the fact that we’re living in an environment now where we either don’t cook at all, or we don’t have any interest in it. We think of food as fuel, or conversely, that we’re all supposed to be chefs. I’ve often said that the last thing the world needs is another cookware catalog trying to convince us that we really must have that home foamer when most of us can’t even make a basic stock. So there seems to be an enormous gap between what home cooks think we should be able to do, and what we really ought to be doing to feed ourselves and our families real food that’s simple, honest, and direct. Do you think this is a cultural thing? 

I draw misinformed and under-informed conclusions all the time, so that’s my caveat; anything I say is bound to be at least narrow in scope. I do think a lot about whether there is a particularly American quality to the over-aestheticization of food. And I do think that we are made to feel as if to be good citizens, we must be consumers. We are surrounded by this message, and it seems like this fact has infused most of American life. There is an overemphasis on the newness and aesthetic perfection. In European cultures there is a sense of value to things being old; you walk around every day and see buildings that have been there since the Middle Ages and a good amount of government money goes to their upkeep. In terms of culinary tradition, you go to any Italian household and the best possible chicken dish is one that one’s grandmother or mother made. This is the opposite of what the very best chicken dish would be in an American household; here, the best dish would be a completely different one, and that simple difference between the “best” being a replication versus the “best” being a new creation is, I think, certainly one of the factors in our rather perverse understanding of what cooking is.

As I was reading An Everlasting Meal, I found that there were certain ingredients and processes that bubble to the surface as bedrocks of simple, graceful cooking, and even a simple, graceful and tender sort of life. From a culinary standpoint, you talk about the simplicity of noodles, rice, cheese, good eggs, bread, broth, bacon. But what made me smile is when you talked about your cookware, which is old and dinged. And your single knife. We can talk about the fact that it is a societal, cultural, distinctly American construct to want newer and flashier things. How do we actually get people away from the concept of excess — in the kitchen and in life — and away from the idea of more as being preferable.

I don’t think it ever works to pull people away from anything, because eventually they’ll look back at what you pulled them away from and wonder why they left it. But I do think that when people slow down, they find themselves casting about less frequently from something different or new. I’ve noticed that in the cooking classes I’ve taught, what really seems to be gravitational for people is learning how to cook simply. I’ve taught a few classes called How to Boil Water, and after each one, I’ve gotten notes from students saying “I just didn’t realize I was approaching cooking in a way that was really intimidating, and left me feeling that I knew less.” And I think that part of the reason that people keep looking for new kitchen stuff is that they need to make themselves feel like than can do it. So it makes sense to me that people listen to the media message that they need a different pot, or they need a better nonstick pan, because whatever they’re trying isn’t working. What I’ve been hearing after these classes is “I left your class feeling like I knew more, so I actually need less—I feel like I already have the tools.” That’s a very long answer to your question.

The short answer is that when people learn to cook, they don’t feel like they need as much. I do want to be wary of sounding overly austere. But for many people, this isn’t true: I’ve been in dozens of beautiful kitchens with gleaming All Clad pots and pans, and they’ve just never been used.

Of course, the flipside is this: my friend Allison just got married. I was cooking in her kitchen last night, and she has two beautiful sets of Le Creuset — beautiful Dutch ovens and gorgeous roasting dishes — and it was incredible to cook in them. I made a really simple meal of greens, and poached eggs, and all of these beautiful different colored mushrooms that I crisped, and a Meyer lemon gremolata. And it was so much fun to use all of Allison’s cute kitchen stuff. My kitchen and tools, on the other hand, are hilarious. I don’t have and I don’t want anything different because I think my food tastes the same whether I have them or not. But Allison and I were talking about all this great stuff that was really fun to use, and she made a good point when she said that it gets her really excited to cook when she comes into the kitchen and sees all these beautiful nesting terra cotta roasting dishes.

My partner is a Yankee through and through, and her favorite cookware is a nesting set of cast iron that she inherited from her aunt, who had gotten it as a wedding present in 1932. It’s the older, seasoned (literally, and not) cookware with life and legs and warmth and history to it that tends to find its way into our home. It feels to me that there’s a certain amount of tenderness involved when you cook with tools like that. And when I was reading your book, I was struck by the sense that it is very much about what I would call kind and tender cooking, and kind and tender living. Kind and tender cooking is something that those of us in the food world never seem to talk about; it’s a sort of complicated concept to harness. We talk about quantifiable things like organics, and non-GMOs, and getting real food into the mouths of those who don’t have access to it, but nobody ever talks about the fact that without kindness and tenderness, the act of cooking is purely mechanical, and can become drudgery, and a chore. How did you get to this place where the act of cooking is so naturally steeped in kindness and tenderness?

That’s a good question — I’ve had different conversations that skirt around that terminology, one of them with the wonderful writer, Jack Hitt. He and I have talked a lot about sustainable cooking — real sustainable cooking — not simply sustainably raised ingredients, but the kind of cooking that’s required if we’re going to be responsible eaters, which means using everything. Practically and inevitably, if you use all of something, you’re completely changing the impact your consumption has on the world. You become an incredibly low-impact eater if you start using your stems and peels and stale bread. And I feel — as I said about drawing people away from something — that drawing people to a good practice that would inevitably move them away from bad practices is better than saying, “to eat sustainably you need to use all of everything.” Using everything, as opposed to seeing what you have and thinking about what you’re missing is what we’re talking about as kind and tender cooking. That difference in perspective is at the heart of all kindness and tenderness — right? It’s the fact of having, versus the fact of having and thinking you still need something else.

It’s been an interesting convergence for me over the last few weeks since reading and re-reading your book: for whatever strange cosmic reason, Fergus Henderson’s work has been appearing and showing up in my life at the same time. I’ve always been very conscious of his work, although I’ve never made to his restaurant. Initially, I found, on the front end of things, the act of using all of any animal to be rather brutish and trendy. There are a lot of people out there — we both know who they are — who eat that way for those reasons alone; they’ll go out and eat certain cuts, or offal, because that’s the cool, hot thing to do, but you’d never find them bringing trotters home to make for dinner. And so I found myself instinctively pulling away from that sort of eating. But in the last few weeks, reading your book and cooking from it, I found myself pulled straight back to Fergus’s work. I heard a quote from him the other day, where he said (I’m sure I’m mangling it) “It seems particularly cruel and unkind to bonk an animal on the head and not use absolutely all of it.”

Yes, Fergus is probably the tenderest cook I can think of. He really did predate the whole trend of eating the whole of an animal, and it always seemed to me that his approach to it is deeply respectful. He refuses to let a kidney be uneaten — it’s just as good as any other part of the animal. We’re able to sustain ourselves by eating that way, and his job seems to be to make it delicious.

It was interesting to get back to that place — to revisit that way of nose-to-tail eating as a result of reading An Everlasting Meal, and coming back to it from a point that isn’t necessarily based in trend, or style, or competitive eating. And I would hope that when people read Poor Man’s Feast and they say “oh, I’m probably going to learn how to make trotters or veal cheeks” that they realize that yes, it may be about some of that, but it’s more about cooking with kindness and respect and tenderness. I haven’t really been able to verbalize that until I read your book. Up until An Everlasting Meal came out, we really had no words for it.

Well thank you — that’s a great thing to be associated with.

I think you really can’t get to that place unless you slow down and prepare food thoughtfully, whether it’s a poached egg or something more elaborate. In your interview with Kurt Friese, you mentioned binding food to tenderness rather than passion — that says it all. Thank you, Tamar Adler, for this glorious book.

Tamar Adler will be speaking on Sunday March 25th at Stone Barns Center in Pocantico Hills, New York. For more information, visit http://www.stonebarnscenter.org/wintertide-tamar-adler/