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)

 

By

Jonathan Levitt,

Globe Correspondent

 


NORTHAMPTON - John Thorne is making pickle soup for lunch. The dish was inspired by a jar of soup he found in the Polish section at the supermarket. It all started a few years ago when he brought the jar home and polished it off with rye bread and beer.

"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 Yukon gold potatoes in their skins. "I don't pretend to teach cooking," says the food writer, who has no formal training. "I set an example for what may be enjoyed about being in the kitchen."

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 Maine. While his methods may be obsessive, the food he offers is simple, economical, everyday home cooking for people who love the kitchen.

Born in Quincy, Thorne spent his childhood as an Army brat, living in Hawaii, Texas, and Japan, always returning to Maine to spend summers at his grandparents' cottage on Long Island in Casco Bay. He started cooking in the early 1960s, when he dropped out of Amherst College and wrote poetry, getting by on chicken gizzards and kasha on Manhattan's Lower East Side, and foraging, clamming, and crabbing at the Maine cottage.

Ten years later, after finishing Amherst, and after a job teaching English in the Berkshires, he moved to Jamaica Plain to write a novel. Eventually he turned to food. "I realized that I could maybe make a living writing from home if I wrote about food or maybe sex. But I had more to say about food."

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 Philadelphia leads Thorne quickly to menudo in the Southwest.

He and Matt married in 1990. She's a former pastry chef and general manager at Dean & DeLuca. They lived for a while in Castine, Maine, then moved even farther Down East to the fishing village of Steuben, before heading for Northampton. "I knew it was time to leave [Maine] when I started looking at the 50-pound bags of potatoes with dread rather than anticipation," he says. Matt works managing the periodical collection at the public library in Northampton. Three mornings a week, Thorne rises early to make bread in the wood-burning oven at Hungry Ghost Bread, a nearby bakery.

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

 

Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company


 

 

 

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

 

 

Polish soup

 

Serves 4

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

Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company