A couple weeks ago, the friend who turned me on to Laurie Colwin back in the 1990s — who’s now a professional caterer — sent me a Facebook message thanking me for a tip regarding compound butter and asked me, as a side note, if I’d ever read Tamar Adler. I said I sort of recognized the name, but, no, I hadn’t read her. “Oh, you should,” she told me. I did not think twice, and special ordered a copy from the local bookstore. My friend advised, Adler’s “more precious than LC in tone, but ultimately a valuable read.” And so I rushed to pick up the book when it arrived downtown, and carried it home excitedly.
Tragically, my problem with Tamar Adler began the moment I opened the book and saw that the introduction was written by Alice Waters. Alice Waters is a flashing red light to me, a sign that I need to hold back and be careful. She writes, among other things, “[Adler’s] prose is exquisitely crafted, beautiful and clear-eyed and open, in the thoughtful spirit of M.F.K. Fisher.”
Well, ok. Does she have the wry sense of humor that Fisher displayed so well in her Alphabet for Gourmets and How to Cook a Wolf? Because a great writer, to me, isn’t just one who knows how to make a nice sentence, but one who knows how to use tone to good effect; who won’t earnestly hector me into doing something good or well but who will nudge good-humoredly, assuring me that yes, this might seem crazy, that some detail or other would appear to be inconsequential, but, trust me, it’s worthwhile.
Tamar Adler is of the earnest, hectoring type of food writers. I would write her off entirely but for one thing: a lot of what she says makes good sense, and I know this because a lot of her technique is identical to my own kitchen system, and I know empirically that it WORKS.
Here’s what I like about her so far: she states what’s always been obvious to me, which is that boiling food, not steaming it, is the way to go, when cooking food in water. She says, “Boiling has a bad name, and steaming a good one, but I categorically prefer boiling.” Me, too, lady. Because anyone with any sense would. People who insist on steaming their vegetables, and as a result serve broccoli that wants to pick a fight with you or Brussels sprouts that have identity problems and think they’re in cole slaw, are insisting on eating food that hasn’t been cooked properly.
So we’re in agreement about boiling food.
But then she gets on about eggs. (This is chapter two, folks.) It is here that I really begin to part ways with Ms. Adler. “Eggs should be laid by chickens that have as much of a say in it as any of us about our egg laying does.” Huh? You mean, I should only consume eggs laid by chickens who decided that they were going to go off the Pill and start letting those eggs do their thing naturally? This is insane. It’s obviously preferable to eat eggs that aren’t chockablock with weird chemical additives from whatever the birds eat, but really, most people are just going to eat the best eggs they can afford, period. Let them be happy with that. Because some eggs, from whatever grey cardboard box you see at the store, are better than no eggs at all. (And, incidentally, has anyone ever talked about why it is that the fancy-schmancy organic free range eggs are inevitably packed in clear, plastic boxes, surely less environmentally correct than the paper boxes less expensive eggs come in?)
Adler wants us to make our own mayonnaise, all the time, end of story. “The degrading of mayonnaise from a wonderful condiment for cooked vegetable or sandwiches to an indistinguishable layer of fat has been radical and violent.” My god! And then: “Mayonnaise is a food best made at home and almost never made at home. This has robbed us of something that is both healthy and an absolute joy to eat with gusto.” Well, look. Homemade mayonnaise is good, but it’s just not THAT good. And it spoils so quickly, it’s just not practical for most households to make it. (I’m going to let go her use of “healthy” when she should have said “healthful” — this is a bugaboo of mine that I realize shows me at my pedantic worst, but really, I’d’ve expected better from a writer like Adler. Similarly, I’m going to let it go that her book misspells “Seussian,” even though, really, some editor ought to’ve caught that.) Not only Adler want everyone to make their own mayonnaise, she wants everyone to make it by hand, because using metal blades of a food processor to do it makes the mandatory “good olive oil” bitter.
There are things Adler says about mayonnaise that make sense to me. For example, a few weeks ago, I made mayonnaise (using the evil metal-bladed food processor), in a moment of real desperation, and I did think to use some of the leftovers as a pasta sauce — as Adler suggests we do, even with mayonnaises that don’t quite work. What this says to me is that she shares with me a basic reluctance to throw food away, a desire to use things up as much as is humanly possible.
Let me see how my reaction to Adler evolves as I meander through the book.