Reading is seeking; it doesn’t just happen to us. We move our eyes from word to word, we move our hands to turn the pages. I’ve always treated reading like an all-encompassing quest that will never end, a riddle without an answer. But at its most basic level, books are about want. We desire to know — or at least to consume — what has been put down inside the pages. Reading is the act of satiating your own heart.
I used to read for escape. I grew up in a dusty Southwestern town where the most exciting activity on a Friday night was to cruise down the main drag in your parents’ station wagon, just to see other people your age doing the same thing. I dreamed of cities and steam tunnels and pop bulbs. They happened. So much happened. I am lucky to say that many of the things I used to read about and deeply want — girls running through the Plaza, reporters chain-smoking on a deadline, secret affairs with innominate troubadours, big sumptuous meals gobbled down with an adopted family of misfits — they all happened to me. And then this year rolled around.
This year, I read for stasis. I moved three times, changed jobs twice, had a tremendous stroke of luck that I mainly struggle to believe before I go to sleep, fell out and into love, found mice in too many cupboards. I read many books, but I kept searching for a new Bible, or at least a text that I would find soothing and steady in a period of such turbulence. In September, someone slipped me a copy of The Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler, and I felt my world slow to a crawl. Adler’s book may not be the “best” book that I read this year, but it was the one that made me feel the most sane. In day-to-day terms, that can’t be underestimated.
Adler is equally a writer and a chef, a kind of kitchen poet from the school of M.F.K. Fisher or Elizabeth David. The Everlasting Meal (subtitle: Cooking with Economy and Grace), is technically a cookbook, but there are few recipes. Instead, Adler leads the reader through a naturalistic look at one’s kitchen: starting with eggs and running through protein, produce, grains, dairy and dry goods, explaining how to wring the most life and flavor out of each ingredient. In the process, she explains how to tie your cooking life into a happy life; to understand that the most simple meals are often crafted by complex and active minds. It takes a lot of patience and stability to create a warm dish of comfort from just a few handfuls of rice, some spices, an old hunk of parmesan cheese, and the tops of radishes. But it’s all you need — in Adler’s world, less is still less. But we don’t need more.
If this is sounding kind of magical or dippy, it is only because I have trouble capturing this book without adding my own syrupy inflection. Adler’s writing is as sparse and economical as her kitchen, and the only time she veers into the mystical is when she speaks about what the vegetables may want out of a dish. (i.e. Beans “like to be soaked.”) She meditates for twelve chapters on how to live, how to eat, how to make something out of nothing. She advocates for saving every recipe no matter how bad it turns out, calling liquid cake “molten or pudding cake,” or scooping it all up into parfait glasses with whip cream. There are no mistakes. And when there truly are blunders, Adler writes, “there is the art of letting go…Being moved to surrender is an act of grace.”
This book is just what I wanted.
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