Wednesday, November 28, 2007
A lifetime of quirky culinary pursuits
John Thorne's newsletter celebrates Simple Cooking
John Thorne's pickle soup was inspired by one he found in the Polish section of a supermarket. (Jonathan Wiggs / Globe Staff)
"It became a favorite lunch," he says. Then the soup disappeared from the market. Thorne searched for recipes but found nothing, so he headed to his kitchen to replicate it. That took two tries, until he got exactly what he was looking for - a hearty bowl he considers "much better than the soup from the jar."
Thorne doesn't let anything go. He has turned these often quirky culinary pursuits into a modest living. For almost 25 years, the chubby and shy homebody with the bushy white beard has published Simple Cooking, a humbly erudite newsletter with essays and recipes that celebrate the obscure and seemingly mundane. A cult-like following of 2,000 readers has stuck with him for two decades. His writing, much done with his wife, Matt Lewis Thorne, has been collected into five books. His latest, "Mouth Wide Open: A Cook and His Appetite," probably his most accessible volume, has just come out.
Thorne pads around his monastically tidy, cookbook-filled apartment in stocking feet, wearing suspenders and trifocals. Before he starts cooking, he offers a glass of buttermilk with black pepper and chopped fresh chives, what 19th-century haymakers would have gulped down in the fields. Since Thorne discovered it, he drinks it for breakfast accompanied by cinnamon-flavored peanut butter on Wasa crackers.
When he and Matt rented this apartment - the 64-year-old Thorne has
never owned a house - they pulled out metal cabinets and an electric stove and
replaced them with an antique Swedish dresser and a gas range. "It's just
an old Magic Chef," says Thorne, "but I know it." For the soup
he grates half sour pickles, slices scallions and garlic with a fancy Japanese
knife, and boils
That simple premise is what has kept readers returning to his writing.
Over the years it has been gumbo one day, a meticulously researched cod and
potato dish another, or Texas-style brisket smoked with local hardwood in his
former backyard in
Ten years later, after finishing
In 1976 he published the first of many pamphlets, which were all
hand-copied and bound. They began with a sprawling conversation about onion
soup. English muffins, pizza, and chowder followed. After six years, then New
York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton praised him in a column. His
subscription list shot up from a couple of hundred to thousands. The essays
morphed into the Simple Cooking newsletter, broader in scope but still personal
and homemade. Thorne's writing often begins with a recipe from one of his
books, then, he says, he follows his whims. Pepper pot soup from
He and Matt married in 1990. She's a former pastry chef and general
manager at Dean & DeLuca.
They lived for a while in
When the simmering pot is ready, we sit down with plenty of rye bread, soft cheese, German beer, and tons of butter. The soup is spicy and hearty, a new take on the ploughman's lunch. "Long lunches at the kitchen table are a pleasure," says Thorne. "I really would hate to have a real job."
A few weeks later, he e-mails a photograph, along with another recipe for the soup. He's revised it. "Honestly, I thought this was very, very delicious," he writes.
He's probably good for one more revision before he moves on to the next thing.
Simple Cooking costs $25 a year for five issues; go to outlawcook.com
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
4 large Yukon Gold or Yellow Finn potatoes (skins intact)
1 large carrot, chopped
2 Tablespoons butter
1 bunch scallions, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
4 sprigs fresh dill (leaves only), chopped
4 half-sour pickles, chopped
1 cup pickling liquid from the jar of half-sours
salt and pepper, to taste
1. In a pot just large enough to accommodate them in a single layer, fit the potatoes and carrots. Add enough cold water to just cover them. Bring to a boil, cover with the lid, and cook for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the potatoes can be easily pierced with a skewer.
2. In a soup pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the scallions, garlic, and mustard seeds. Cook gently, stirring often, for 5 minutes or until the garlic is soft and fragrant but not colored.
3. With a slotted spoon, transfer the carrots to the scallion mixture; set aside.
4. Remove the potatoes from their cooking liquid (set the liquid aside). When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, slip off their skins. Quarter the potatoes and return them to the potato water. Sprinkle with dill. With the edge of a wooden spoon, chop and mash the potatoes. There should be lots of potato chunks, none very large.
5. Tip the potato mixture into the carrot mixture. Add the pickles and pickling liquid. Bring to a simmer, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.
6. If the soup is too thick for your taste, add a little more pickling liquid, or milk or water. Taste for seasoning, add salt and plenty of pepper.
— Adapted from John Thorne