It’s one thing for a vegetarian to go off the wagon on occasion. It’s another thing for a vegetarian to suddenly decide to cook a shoulder of beef. On Saturday, I did just that. I walked up to a stand at my farmer’s market that I had never before visited and bought the joint of a cow.
And I was not alone in my unorthodox behavior. Later in the afternoon, when I met members of the Inwood CSA for our first book club gathering, a woman who had not eaten gluten for a long time confessed that days earlier she had been moved to eat a forbidden croissant.
What led us to these transgressions? It was Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace (Scribner).
Modeled after M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf (published in 1942, about how to live well on wartime food rations), Adler’s book offers chapters such as “How to Teach an Egg to Fly,” “How to be Tender,” and “How to Drink to Saints.” Like its inspiration, An Everlasting Meal focuses on a subject often forgotten by foodies today, the economy of cooking. She explains why buying a whole chicken at a farmers market—at often three times the price of one in a supermarket—is money worth spending. “Good meat only seems so expensive,” she writes, “because we eat meat like children taking bites out of the middles of sandwiches and throwing the rest away.” In one example, she recommends a recipe that yields four meals of eight servings each from just one leg of lamb.
The book tells what to do the moment you return from the market, or in the case of my book group, from our weekly CSA pick-up with bags full of in-season vegetables that need to be cooked or cleaned or prepped or stored right away.
Adler also includes practical, sensible advice on how to use stale bread or old green beans or browned leaves of lettuce. She tells how to make a meal when your cupboards are bare, when what you’ve cooked is burned or just plan dull, when you’ve left a fish to linger too long (her recipe calls for “fish, strong-flavored by design or by miscalculation”), or when you’ve become embittered about cooking. In this latter case, the best solution may be to read Hemingway.
And in this way, the book’s most lasting charms emerge. Adler describes the meditative pleasures of shelling peas, the power of a bitter bite to cure a broken heart, how boiled potatoes need parsley because that way you “will feel more present when you eat them.” She even challenges the French philosopher Diderot, refuting his argument that an egg could topple all the world’s theologies: “A gently but sincerely cooked egg tells us all we need to know about divinity,” Adler writes. “It hinges not on the question of how the egg began, but how the egg will end. A good egg, cooked deliberately, gives us a glimpse of the greater forces at play.”
She suggests cornichons for when you—or your food—need cheering up, extrapolates from travels to Laos, Africa, and Italy, recommends reading Pablo Neruda on artichokes, and compares flavor to lasting love: “When you know the taste of a fresh bean, you taste in dried ones the invisible mark all true loves bear: a memory of what it was we first fell in love with.”
It may have been her pragmatic argument for making a good piece of meat stretch far that inspired me to buy a shoulder joint for the first time, or it may have been my desire to meet the challenge of slow-cooking a maligned cut into something tender and tasty and splendid. But it was probably her moral questioning about the consumption of animals that actually challenged me, as she confronted straight away in the opening of her chapter “How to be Tender,” the question of “whether eating meat is an evolutionary inevitability or an ontological crime.” Isn’t that the question I’ve been grappling with since childhood, when the baby cow that came running to me each morning to be bottle-fed ended up on my plate?