Outlaw Cook by John Thorne
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Rather than a single, cohesive memoir, story or thesis, Outlaw Cook is a series of essays, divided into sections by a joining theme. The first part, Learning To Cook, had both an autobiographical and thematic arc, describing how Thorne developed his relationship with food and hunger. It was thus a disappointment when the following sections - Made To Taste and The Baker's Apprentice - diverged into an unordered discussion of various cuisines. The final section - The Culinary Scene - is a bit of a puzzlement with book reviews, but a couple of the pieces here are quite intriguing: the one on Martha Stewart and Cuisine Mecanique, the closing essay. It's an eminently appropriate ending and a perfect summation for the whole book.
Thorne has a distinct way of looking and writing about cooking, centered on a very primal philosophy of its uses. Even when not addressing his primary viewpoint, every essay in the book reflects this thesis. At times, he takes the whole thing to a pretentious degree ... which is ironic when the book argues vehemently against such pretention in the culinary field. Still, whether or not you agree with him as a reader, his discussion will make you think about your attitude towards cooking ... and why you hold it. (I came to the conclusion that my philosophy is almost entirely the polar opposite of his, which might color this review.)
Thorne's discussion of the history and physics of food is absorbing, though, and he takes a deep look at the cultural roots of each dish he considers. There are recipes a-plenty throughout this book, but it's not really a cookbook ... and Thorne would be the first person to tell you to be suspicious of recipes, so they are intended to be jumping-off points / inspiration. (Hand in hand with this, they were too simple for me - I noted only a few.) It's easy to see why Alton Brown was electrified by his point of view - I originally found out about this book from "I'm Just Here For The Food" - even though he took it in a completely different direction.
Even though I don't agree with a lot of this book, it makes for an interesting, thought-provoking read.
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