Tamar Adler is the Brooklyn, NY,-based author of An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. Tamar will speak at the UVM Food Systems Summit Conference on June 27. In anticipation of her visit to UVM, we asked her about her culinary influences.
Tamar Adler: Interestingly, my brother and I are both professional cooks, though neither of us went to culinary school. We both learned to cook from our mother, first, and really by first learning to taste. A developmental psychologist by training, our mother is an amazing cook. She fed us wonderful food our whole childhoods.
Her mother—our grandmother—is of the generation that held that many dishes were improved by the addition of a can of Campbell’s soup. In reaction, my mother taught herself how to cook. So we grew up eating more like European families than the American one we are. She liked to have ingredients on hand, so both my brother and I had to learn how to caramelize onions. It was one of our chores. By the time I realized I wanted to cook for a living, it was a short path.
I did a lot of experimenting in college, with many disastrous results, but I always felt all right about it because I felt like cooking was something I could do. When I grew up and had an apartment, I spent all my free time cooking. My boyfriend was very patient as I experimented. He ate the same thing again and again and again in my attempts to get it right. For example, I went through a phase of trying to make the perfect red sauce. When I decided I’d gotten it, I moved on to pissaladière (a Niçoise pizza made with yeasted dough and topped with caramelized onions, anchovies, Niçoise olives, and fresh thyme).
UVM: What inspired you to write about cooking?
TA: I was an editor at Harper’s magazine. The boyfriend I put through the endless rounds of red sauce said I should write about food. At the time, I was resistant because I wanted to change the world. I had worked as a policy analyst at a Quaker organization. Harper’s also felt productive, but writing about food didn’t.
I went from being an editor to being a chef and I still didn’t write about food. I was convinced for a while that I couldn’t write about food. It seemed too detached and intellectual to write about something that is an expression of the living, organic world. Even though I loved reading cookbooks, I felt like my place in the grand scheme was using my hands and feeding people. So I opened a restaurant in Georgia, then I went to Chez Panisse.
But then, part of me had always wanted to revise the messages of How to Cook a Wolf, by M.F.K. Fisher. When I was in California, I felt like something was really getting lost in the conversation about cooking. My greatest objection to the industry of cooking tips and shortcuts is it implies that cooking is hard, even though it often is not. My second objection is that it doesn’t take into account that people love poetry and want to be transformed. The whole “eat cheap” movement in 2008-2009, after the bubble burst, felt disrespectful. It had the same quality Fisher was responding to during the “eat cheap” literature of her era—those messages like “tighten your belt” and “make do.” That doesn’t take into account how much we need to be uplifted, held, and cherished.
That’s what inspired me to write An Everlasting Meal. I thought, “I really do know how to explain it in a way that is approachable, and respectful of readers.” And I thought I should write a book about cooking as something to be enjoyed and relished. And definitely, “eat from your cupboards, but you can do that in a way that’s beautiful and deep and traditional and poetic.”
UVM: Are there any particular ingredients that have been exciting you recently?
TA: I always get excited about eggs in the spring because chickens here really do stop laying in the winter. I have this really wonderful, strange relationship with my neighbor—an utterly bizarre character you’d only encounter in New York City or in an incredibly tiny little town. He’s always at home and we always trade things. So when I can tomatoes, I write him and give him tomatoes. I once did a big fundraiser for Alice Waters and I had special charcuterie made. At 2am the night of the event, I sent him a text message, and he came right over for leftover charcuterie. His parents raise chickens on their farm in New Jersey, and they lay the most delicious eggs. They arrive in my kitchen by the ones and twos. So we’ll trade any amount of anything. Last week he gave me one egg, two morel mushrooms, and this other massive mushroom called pheasant’s back. He’s the last person you’d ever expect to go foraging—he wears a leather jacket and has a little goatee. I cooked the pheasant’s back mushroom that night and it was so good. They really retain their structure, so you can cook them and they’re really meaty. They’re kind of like what portabellas are supposed to be. The morels were also great.