September 05, 2012

How to Feed the Birds: A Review of "An Everlasting Meal"

When I was in highschool, I dug out a bunch of Dad's awesome old t-shirts, and wore them all over the place. My favorite was a white ringer shirt with blue binding on the sleeves and collar (this was probably the first expression of my love affair with royal blue). It had in a bubbly 1970's type-face, across the chest, the words "I'm for the birds!" It was for some sort of bird preservation thing in Contra Costa County, and I really had no idea why my father had it since he's never been much of an advocate for nature, though he is a dedicated appreciator. I wore it all the time; I simply loved it.

I was thinking about that shirt this morning, sitting at the breakfast table, where three lovely ears of corn have been sitting for a week, wilting away. They are now fit only for the birds. As I mentioned before, I'm not doing much cooking these days. For breakfast, I cut an avocado in half and doused it with olive oil and tarragon vinegar, and crushed it into some crostini. That is the most I've cooked in 2 weeks.

Tarragon Vinegar? Crostini? Are you kidding me? The voice in my head is thinking I'm self-righteous foodie, trying to sound non-chalant and self-effacing -- but really bragging about my awesomeness. I will be the first to admit that I am a food snob, and I have a ridiculous collection of jams, mustards, sauces, spices, vinegars, and the like. I even have 6 kinds of salt. But I am not bragging. I'm sharing with you a little revelation in the form of a cookbook: An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, by Tamar Adler.

An Everlasting Meal is not a cookbook in a strict sense. It has perhaps 30 written-out-with-an-ingredient-list-and-all recipes. It is mostly a narrative of Ms. Alder's life in the kitchen--and by that I mean quite literally her daily life in the kitchen. She begins from the most basic principles and expounds upon them with poetic flair, real passion, and a quiet grace.  "Chapter One: How to Boil Water" is not a pedantic description of how to boil water, but a delightful exposition of one of the easiest, healthiest, and most overlooked, ways to cook vegetables, starches, fish, and even meats.

Her keywords -- "Economy and Grace" -- seem to me the very best guides for a cook, no matter what his/her income, household size, pace of life. (Frankly, they're pretty good guides for the Christian life in its entirety.) She has lots of marvelous little sayings:
" A hot oven is the rightful domain of a capable cook."
"Beat two of three eggs in a bowl, adding a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of heavy cream if you want. This is not a trick, but an expression of the fact that things taste good with cream added."
"A perfect way to flatter cabbage is to boil it."
"Beans need salt. There is a myth that adding salt to beans keeps them crunchy and unlovable. Not cooking beans for long enough keeps them crunchy, and undersalting them is a leading culprit in their being unlovable."
"One of the best desserts if fruit. Fruit is a chance for cook and eater to make a final pact to end a meal together."

The chapter that really changed the way I think about my food and home cooking was the third: "How to Stride Ahead." In this chapter she takes us to the market, helps us shop a little bit, and then describes what how she preps her vegetables right when she comes home, saying:
"Our desire to eat fresh vegetables has left us with an idea that vegetables are only good if they're cooked just before being eaten. But many vegetable dishes are created over time...
Here's what I do, and I think it works well: Each week I buy whole bunched of the leafiest, stemmiest vegetables I can find. Then I scrub off their dirt, trim off their leaves, cut off their stems, peel what needs peeling, and cook them all at once.
By the time I've finished, I've drawn a map of the weeks meals and created the beginnings of a succession of them."
She then takes us through the prep work for each of the vegetables, and suggests uses in menus, pointing out that cooked vegetables are just as versatile, and keep longer, than fresh ones. And frankly, often taste better in dishes. What sounds better? A frittata with slow roasted tomatoes, sauteed onions, and a smattering of fresh herbs, or a frittata with raw tomatoes, raw onions, and (well) a smattering of fresh herbs. The later is surely good -- especially in the summer when veggies are so fresh and good -- but the former is clearly more ideal.

Which brings me back to, well, me. And my dad's t-shirt. Lord knows, after standing all day long on my feet, serving dish after dish, making a few myself, and generally thinking about food but being exhausted: the last thing I want is to cook. I want to eat something quick and flavorful and nourishing. And small. So I've started relying on my vinegars and oils and spices. The aforementioned tarragon vinegar was made with some old wine, some white vinegar, and some homegrown-but-unruly tarragon sprigs. This weekend's project is slow roasted tomatoes, picked in this peak-of-season, and preserved in oil, which I will eat on everything for the next two months. Feed the birds. We can't live on buttered pasta forever.


  1. Just commenting on the T shirt, it was mine, not Dad's & it was from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, where they were embarked on a project to rear Peregrine Falcons & release them into the wild.

  2. My roommate has been lamenting the fact that she's so busy and has no time to cook, so I urged her to read An Everlasting Meal, which she's just checked out from the library. I hope it changes her life as much as it does mine--I make vegetable broth from scratch! I buy veggies discounted that are at the end of their usable life, because I know I can and will use them. I boil water: at the very least, I will want tea, right? Thank you, Tamar Adler, for helping me stride ahead.

    And Mrs. Perry, that is an awesome footnote to the T-shirt story! :-D

  3. Finally finished reading this book last night. I loved it. What appealed to me most was her sense of economy - her way of using everything was inspiring.

    1. Yes! And I loved that using meant more than just industry and efficiency: it meant cherishing every bit of something.