Outlaw Cook – A Book Review

John Thorne is a brilliant food writer whom, I am ashamed to say, I only discovered recently. His website hasn’t been updated in years, but, there is plenty to discover and I have the luxury of reading his work at my pace, instead of waiting for each new thing to appear!

The first book I discovered was Outlaw Cook, a collection of essays, biographical notes, history lessons and recipes. What a treasure!

Outlaw Cook by John Thorne Essays on food and cooking, with recipes

This is my kind of food writing. I found this book at Brattle Book Shop, in Boston, and when I read the description inside the front flap I knew I had to get to know this writer:

…the opening pages of Outlaw Cook evoke the slow time of childhood summers in Maine, where he first learned to taste…and the years as a college dropout , where hunger and solitude transformed an indifferent meal maker into an outlaw cook.
The rest of the book shares his struggle to keep his kitchen a private place, and his consequent culinary rebellion – against food writers who keep filling his head with the chatter of instruction…

Wow. I can identify with this sentiment. That is exactly what I want this blog to be, not a set of instructions but a cornucopia of inspirations.

His essay on the Plowman’s Lunch is simply the best piece of food writing I have ever read. (You can read an excerpt here on Google Books)

History lesson, cookbook, and philosophical journey all rolled into one. Bread and cheese and onion and ale. Four simple, basic ingredients that can be expressed in unlimited ways.

On their own, in their “raw” state, a hearty meal with carbs, protein, vitamins and flavor. But think about how these ingredients can be transformed (yes, I watch too much Chopped), just for starters:

  • Saute the onions and make a grilled cheese sandwich
  • Put the ale in a pot and make a Plowman’s Onion Soup (we’ll be doing this together soon!)
  • Bake the onion in the bread and swap the Cheddar for Brie, the ale for wine
  • Cheese and Onion Pie!

The creative mind reels.

The last chapter is as much a treasure trove as the first, entitled “The Culinary Scene”, it discusses a food community that was current in the late ’80s/early 90s (when this book was published) as well as books from the 50s and 60s. Books I may never have learned of, but will be ordering from Amazon soon!


UPDATE: I just finished reading the second book, Pot on the Fire. It’s just as good, entertaining and informative. Next up: Serious Pig


With an appetite for accuracy to match his appreciation of food at its purest (an issue of form as well as content), John Thorne tracks down the origins of dishes that have captured his heart and imagination along with his palate.
The book focuses mainly in three regional food-ways: New England’s pioneer and Atlantic coast cooking, with a focus on Maine (in a section titled “Here”); Louisiana’s Cajun tradition (in the section “There”); and Texas’s cowboy heritage of chili, barbecue and cornbread (in “Everywhere,” which includes brief looks at hamburgers, white bread and other all-American inventions).
Besides recipes, the reader will find thoughtful, informed and opinionated disquisitions on such as jambalaya, chili (16 recipes chart its development, the first from an 1880 cookbook) and a global survey of dishes made with rice and beans.

One thought on “Outlaw Cook – A Book Review”

  1. "Suppose our minds could be just float, drift, soar weightlessly. Would we have a different musical sense?"Bach, for instance? "For example, I went to a scientific conference in Russia in 2001 with a number of German ethologists who studied human nature by filming hundreds of hours of normal people in various situations for evidence about common facial expressions, body language, and so fohSo.&qurt;tailer did something cool. That can't be right.

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