Full Disclosure: A free advance copy of this book was offered to me by a publicist. I accepted with the understanding that my acceptance did not constitute a promise to post a review of the book, positive or otherwise.)
Have you taken a good look at the Food or Cooking section of your local bookstore lately? If your local watering hole for the written word is anything like mine, it looks like the Food Network invasion is in its final stages. There's nothing but celebrity chefs as far as the eye can see and, let's face it, no one knows how to market a celebrity chef like the Food Network. Barely managing to hold their own under the glossy tsunami of on-air personalities like Nigella Lawson, Paula Deen, and Rachel Ray are the acknowledged masters of their craft; the Thomas Kellars, Alice Waters, and Suzanne Goins. Even more forlorn are the few available works by acknowledged literary giants like M. F. K. Fisher and James Beard gathering dust on the bottom shelves. These days, if you aren't either a Food Network host or featured on some show on the Food Network, your book needs to fight for every inch of available shelf space.
Then there are the numerous cookbooks, the DIY guides of the cooking world. Replete with luscious photos and the breezy style of shallow prose that's become disturbingly common in this genre, they're effortlessly interchangeable and just as easily discarded. Even Food Network's celebrity chefs sometimes have trouble keeping afloat as publishing houses continue to release wave after wave of these sure-fire money makers.
Craving substance amidst the insubstantial, I'd forgotten how engaging modern food writing could be until I cracked John Thorne's latest book, Mouth Wide Open. Thorne's writing exudes a thoughtful earthiness that invites the reader to join in the author's own musings into, and experimentation with, a meandering assortment of foods and dishes. What rapidly becomes clear is that this is a man who's as far from a celebrity chef or on-air personality as one can possibly get. Instead, he cooks and eats just like the rest of us, using recipes as rough guidelines, making changes influenced by preference, and substituting ingredients based on availability.
Weighing in at a respectable 410 pages, each chapter is a self-contained small plate of unpretentious common sense covering Thorne's detailed exploration of a particular dish or foodstuff. Some of his essays are broad in nature, taking the reader with him on a journey that begins with one dish, yet culminates in a recipe for a totally different, connected dish. Others are narrowly focused as the author searches for the correct combination of ingredients and methods to create culinary satisfaction. For example, his article on Philadelphia Pepper Pot begins with a description of a first encounter with the titular dish, briefly contemplates settling for a "wicked good" canned offering by Campbell's Soup, then wanders off as Thorne tries to create his own rendition only to find himself making Tex-Mex Posole. By the end of the chapter, Thorne is unabashedly up to his elbows in Mexican Menudo, leaving his audience craving all three forms of stewed tripe.
In contrast, his essay on the pungent allure of Bagna Caôda is myopically detailed as the author traces the evolution of the dish, examining changes in the ratio and composition of the ingredients through history while he searches for the recipe just right for him. In the end, Thorne provides several different formulas for creating Bagna Caôda, and encourages his readers to experiment in order to discover their own. The resulting book is an enthralling portrait of Thorne's love for food, assembled as a collage from multiple individual inquiries.
Tragically, Mouth Wide Open is destined to be lost in the sea of mediocrity flooding a genre awash with celebrity hype, media darlings, and cookie cutter cookbooks. Despite his decades as a food writer, critical acclaim for his previous works, and the book's own merits, Mouth Wide Open will undoubtedly be consigned to the same crammed corner where you'll find the tomes of other great culinary authors. Give it a few more years and even that small foothold may be lost.
Bottom Line: John Thorne's prose in Mouth Wide Open is a true delicacy in a genre that no longer seems to value the artistry in a well-turned phrase. With an asking price of $26 USD, it's a real bargain for any food fan who's been craving something meatier to chew on than the mass-produced offerings currently available. Go out and get a copy. Now. Seriously. I'll be busy hunting down his other books.
Mouth Wide Open is available on Tuesday, November 27, 2007, according to the major online booksellers. A press release I received from the publisher lists Tuesday, December 4th, 2007, as the official release date, so call your local bookstore to make sure they have it in stock before heading in to get your copy.
- Outlaw Cook - John Thorne's website, blog, and newsletter.
- Farrar, Straus, and Giroux - The publishers of Mouth Wide Open.