Book Review: The Art of Simple Food

Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food is not just a cookbook.

It is also a primer of essential culinary techniques, with basic recipes for the neophyte to memorize and expand upon creatively.

It is also a guide to building up a pantry with basic items which will allow one to cook good, simple food from any fresh, seasonal ingredients available; it also gives a ground-up lesson on the most simple, basic kitchen tools needed to cook well and easily.

It is also Waters’ personal food philosophy and lifestyle manifesto, which boils down to these admonitions emblazoned on the back cover of the book:

Eat locally and sustainably; Eat seasonally; Shop at farmers’ markets; Plant a garden; Conserve, compost and recycle; Cook simply; Cook together; Eat together; and Remember food is precious.

The Art of Simple Food is a literary distillation of the Slow Food Movement, and embodies everything that is beautiful about the worldwide food revolution. Before even opening the book, this aesthetic adherence to the principles of simplicity in food are evident (and not just because the word, “simple” features in the title.) The hardcover book features no shiny dust jacket, nor any flashy food porn photographic illustrations. Instead, the spine is bound in sundried tomato-colored fabric, with the embossed, turmeric-hued boards of the cover finished to a smooth matte embellished only by the title, subtitle and author in a classic, somewhat Victorian font, and an elegant black and grey line drawing of a market basket brimming with bread and produce.

These detailed drawings continue to the end papers and are sprinkled liberally throughout the text, illustrating techniques, ingredients and concepts while also lending an air of old copper engravings and woodcuts of botanical subjects common a century and a half ago.

This artistic harkening back towards a golden age of food, farming and cookery continues throughout the text of the book, where Waters waxes rhapsodic on the superior nature of truly fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs, and the nearly divine provenance of a newly laid chicken egg. Her writing is luminous with poetic word choice which is very turn of the century, but what most stood out to me was her somewhat neo-luddite tendency to eschew the use of any electrical kitchen appliances in her cookery, preferring instead to use whisks, wooden spoons, box graters, and a mortar and pestle to take the place of mixers and food processors.

The Art of Simple Food is a truly wonderful cookbook, and an important one, but the truth is, I probably would never buy it for myself. (I was sent a review copy by the publisher.)

This is because, as I read it, I felt like Waters was preaching to the choir. It was at that moment I realized that I am not the true audience for this cookbook; I am already doing my best to live by her admonitions and I sing the same sorts of tunes Waters does on an every day basis. I don’t need lessons on how to shop at farmers’ markets, how to make a pate sucre, and how to roast a whole chicken or how to make a vinaigrette. I can do these things with my eyes closed, barefoot in the snow with one hand tied behind my back. That is just who I am. And Waters was not writing for me.

But while I would not buy this book for myself, what I plan on doing is buying several copies of it as gifts for my friends and family who are interested in learning to cook simple things that taste good, or who used to cook simply, but have fallen into the rut of using convenience foods and the microwave too often for their health, or for those who have forgotten, or worse, never known what good, fresh food tastes like.

It is for these people Waters is writing, and I think she does a very good of job of gently easing them into a different lifestyle, one where food is not just fuel for our bodies to be wolfed down quickly and without thought between jobs or on the road to another meeting. She takes readers by the hand and helps them slow down, and realize that food is much more than that–it feeds not only our bodies, but our soul, and it has the capacity to lift us up and bring us together. It not only can bring health (or disease) to the body, it can bring wholeness to the mind and heart as well.

As she leads her reader along this winding path towards treating food as a precious gift instead of a worthless commodity, Waters writes in a clear, distinctive voice which reminded me of none other than Julia Child. She has the same clarity in her explanations of technique and a very similar ability to describe the cooking process in a visceral way which not only teaches the neophyte cook to use every sense while they cook, but also makes serious cooking seem unstuffy, easy and yes, even fun.

Consider this passage, a sidebar to her basic instructions on how to make risotto:

Listen to the sounds the risotto makes as it cooks. The crackling sizzle of the rice tells you it’s time to add the wine, which makes a gratifying whoosh; and the bloop-bloop of the bubbles popping signals it’s time to add more broth.

While her onomatopoeic description is certainly droll, it is also a perfect description of what making a risotto sounds like. This sort of earthy, lightly humorous prose really helps loosen up a new cook in the kitchen, giving them something concrete to grab onto as they sail the uncharted seas of a new recipe. It is almost as good as having a seasoned cook standing close by, whispering advice into your ear.

In short, while I would never buy this for myself, The Art of Simple Cooking is an altogether lovely cookbook, worthy of a place in every budding locavore’s and newbie cook’s kitchen shelf where it can easily be referred to again and again. It is also a book worth curling up beside a warm fireplace to read while autumn’s evenings grow longer and cooler, while in the kitchen a soufflee rises in the oven and a tart cools on the counter.

I predict that it will become a favorite cookbook to give and receive in the coming gift-giving holiday season.

16 Comments

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  1. Well, I know what you mean about preaching to the choir, but I bought it anyhow and am happy I did. I bought it because, although I don’t “need it” (yes I know all the basics she is discussing), I like her philosophy and her voice.

    Some cookbooks I buy to be cooking guides or teach me techniques, some to be travelogues, some to be a debate partner with, some for the pretty, pretty pictures, some for the writing alone.

    I bought this for its organization and its writing. I really like the organization of the book. It makes it easy to dip in to find things. And even though I know the lessons, the techniques, and the basics, there are still things in here that surprise me and that I will try making this winter (grilled squid? I always stir-fry it or make a thai salad with it; poached kumquats? I usually eat them out of hand). But even for the stuff I “know” – I like dipping into the book to refresh my imagination (hmmm…what to do with left over roast chicken aside from my typical 3-4 favorite things…).

    Anyhow, I think it’s a nice book even if you are already part of her world. I think it’s a great “object” too – maroon and mustard color, nice little sketches of food here and there.

    Of course all of this may just be a rationalization for my unending cookbook habit!

    Comment by Diane — October 29, 2007 #

  2. I should look at this book. While I agree with (most of*) the ideals listed, often books like this rube me the wrong way. Food was not better a century ago, not for most of us. Most of us were either eking a living out on the farm, worried about late spring famine & bad weather, or crowded into polluted cities where fresh produce wasn’t available unless you were well-off – and income inequality was very high in 1880. I consider the availability of labor-saving devices a tremendous boon, and the same goes for labor-saving food if you can afford it. I approve heartily of that fact that, for most of us, if you have a clue about what you’re doing you can eat a reasonably healthy diet for a reasonable price. Think about how much fresher, more varied, and potentially organic produce is now as compared to just 15 years ago.

    I consider slow food a luxury for many. Many people don’t have the time to prep everything by hand, or spend a couple hours making dinner. Or even an hour.**

    (I’m not saying that the modern food economy is all positive. The pressure and incentives to eat badly and live unhealthily are tremendous. Fried crud is cheaper are more easily available than fresh yummies, and that those who need it the most – the poor – have the least access to the cornucopia that the modern economy makes possible. My preferred retirement job is to teach people how to eat well with the resources they have. I don’t like food designed to ship well rather than taste good. And don’t even get me started on OECD farming subsidies.)

    So normally I wouldn’t look at the book. But your descriptions of cooking methodology sound great. I just happen to have book store credit burning a hole in my pocket…

    Your local curmudgeon,
    Harry

    * I’ve seen two studies that indicate it’s more energy efficient to bring food to people via a supermarket, than people to food via a farmer’s market.

    ** After work I have about an hour with my child before it’s time to get ready for bed. I’d rather spend the time with zir than to spend that hour cooking. So if we’re to have dinner together it must be something quick, bought, or leftover.

    Comment by Harry — October 29, 2007 #

  3. Harry: This book isn’t really a slow food primer – it’s more a cookbook on how to do some simple basic weeknight meals. Good wholesome food. How to make some basic sauces, roast a chicken, cook some basic, fresh vegetable side dishes. How to grill meat and tell if its done. So while one can read it for the philosophy. Once can also use it as a basic reference.

    What is does NOT do is offer “shortcuts” for the cook in terms of using processed or packaged foods. That’s a key thing in her world view. Instead it focuses on cooking fresh ingredients simply. I cook this way every night so I know it’s possible to do this easily, quickly and not make yourself all nutty in the process.

    Anyhow, you may want get it from the library and check it out. That way if it’s not to your taste, you haven’t sunk a lot of $ into the investigation.

    Comment by Diane — October 29, 2007 #

  4. Diane says “This book [i]s more a cookbook on how to do some simple basic weeknight meals.”

    It’s sounding better all the time.

    Comment by Harry — October 29, 2007 #

  5. Thanks for this review. So much of the discussion around Alice Waters seem to polarize between reverence (“food goddess, culinary mother of us all”) and disdain (“hippy dippy prima donna”) without really assessing what she continues to contribute to the way we cook and think about food. I like that you take the time to do so.

    although I enjoyed leafing through the book (it just feels nice), I just returned my copy to the library this morning thinking, with some surprise, “I’m not going to buy this one.” Your review helped me identify exactly why that is. With the exception of a few intriguing recipes (there are always a few, right?), the book didn’t inspire me much or teach me much, but at the same time I admired and agreed with it principles. It’s just I’m there already . . . but if I had an eighteen year old heading off to college or a first apartment, I’d make there was copy of this in his/her suitcase.

    Comment by Maria — October 29, 2007 #

  6. Harry:

    I’d have to imagine there are a number of assumptions about distance embedded in that efficiency argument. Of the two farmers’ markets I go to, one of them is the same distance from my house as the regular supermarket I go to (a Trader Joe’s); the other is farther, but I get there via public transit (it’s very deliberately situated next to a light-rail station.) And all of the food there is local, of course, so it hasn’t travelled nearly as far as the food at the supermarket. So at least locally that doesn’t seem to jibe with my experience.

    (And fresh food doesn’t have to be slow — tomatoes and basil from the garden can be a fresh pasta sauce in the time it takes to boil the water to cook the pasta.)

    Comment by Andrea — October 29, 2007 #

  7. Andrea – As you say, details vary by locality. Produce in Davenport Iowa farmers’ markets are grown practically next door. Produce in DC farmers’ markets come from 150 miles away or more. What the studies did was collect data nationally and crunch numbers.

    In general, the supermarket model is a hub-and-spoke model while the farmer’s market one is a point-to-point model. Hub-and-spoke is more efficient, involving fewer road miles.

    In my area the local produce isn’t very local (grouse, grouse). Worse, not all “farmer’s” markets are really that, you gotta check. And many supermarket chains (including Harris Teeter and Safeway) are following Whole Paycheck’s lead in marking food origins. You can knowingly buy local at your supermarket.

    Understand, I agree that there’s plenty not to like about supermarkets. Commercial agribusiness breeds easy to harvest, easy to transport produce and to heck with what it tastes like. (Red Delicious apples used to taste like apples, not styrofoam.) Their chemical use is A Bad Thing. The system encourages monoculture and raspberries flown from Chile in the dead of winter. Bleck, bleck, bleck.

    So there’s a lot to be said for real farmers’ markets. It’s just that energy efficiency might not be one of them. That’s OK – they have many other positive attributes.

    Comment by Harry — October 29, 2007 #

  8. Andrea – As you say, details vary by locality. Produce in Davenport Iowa farmers’ markets are grown practically next door. Produce in DC farmers’ markets come from 150 miles away or more. What the studies did was collect data nationally and crunch numbers.

    In general, the supermarket model is a hub-and-spoke model while the farmer’s market one is a point-to-point model. Hub-and-spoke is more efficient, involving fewer road miles.

    In my area the local produce isn’t very local (grouse, grouse). Worse, not all “farmer’s” markets are really that, you gotta check. And many supermarket chains (including Harris Teeter and Safeway) are following Whole Paycheck’s lead in marking food origins. You can knowingly buy local at your supermarket.

    Understand, I agree that there’s plenty not to like about supermarkets. Commercial agribusiness breeds easy to harvest, easy to transport produce and to heck with what it tastes like. (Red Delicious apples used to taste like apples, not styrofoam.) Their chemical use is A Bad Thing. The system encourages monoculture and raspberries flown from Chile in the dead of winter. Bleck, bleck, bleck.

    So there’s a lot to be said for real farmers’ markets. It’s just that energy efficiency might not be one of them. That’s OK – they have many other positive attributes.

    (Can I have sauteed onion and garlic in my tomato sauce, please.)

    Comment by Harry — October 29, 2007 #

  9. This sounds like the type of cookbook I’m looking for. The only snag is that I’m vegetarian, so I was wondering if there are a few main dishes that aren’t meat based in the book, or if the veggies are all relegated to side dishes?

    Thanks!

    Comment by Grant — October 30, 2007 #

  10. Diane–I agree–it is a beautiful book, and while I may never have bought it for myself, I am happy to have it. That said, I know several people who are getting copies of it for Generic Winter Holiday prezzies.

    As for the undying cookbook habit–I understand. I have WAY too many cookbooks….more than can live in my kitchen, even though I had them build in to the wall two huge bookcases.

    Harry–here in Athens, all the food at the farmers market is from very close to here–twenty to thirty miles at most.

    The cookbook is full of easy, quick recipes, especially if you ignore Waters’ native neo-luddite streak and use some power tools to speed stuff up. (What exactly is wrong with a Cuisinart, or a Sumeet–I mean, really?)

    Grant–I don’t have the book in front of me, but I will look before the evening is out and post again to answer you.

    Comment by Barbara — November 2, 2007 #

  11. Well, I am late, Grant, but I did look at the book tonight, and it does seem to have a lot of vegetarian recipes that can be used as main dishes, primarily pastas, soups and stews.

    I suggest you look at it in a bookstore or library before buying it, however, since only you know exactly what sort of book you need.

    She also has a lot of really good salad recipes–but then, salads have always been one of her beloved foods.

    Comment by Barbara — November 3, 2007 #

  12. Harry brings up a very good point about how inefficient the farmer’s market is. I live in Southern California, and California enjoys a bounty of goods that most other states envy (its pretty ridiculous for Waters to assume that others who live out of state can enjoy the same bounty). But, at the same time, those farmers markets are mostly open when we’re all working. To go to a decent farmers market, I need to drive for around 30 minutes (when there’s no traffic) early Saturday morning. And, from talking to the farmers, many of these goods are coming from northern california which is like a four or five hour dive.

    Comment by dana — December 10, 2007 #

  13. The inefficiency of farmer’s markets depends on where you live, Dana.

    Harry may be correct about them when he is talking about big urban markets, but here in small-town America–where a lot of Americans live, btw–and in rural America–farmers markets are not as inefficient as flying produce in from Mexico or China and then trucking it across the US.

    Here in Athens, our farmers for our market come from only about fifty miles away at the farthest–and we have a market on Saturday as well as one on Wednesday.

    Here, local food DOES make more sense than non-local food, and it brings more money into a small community and it provides jobs in a struggling Appalachian economy. So–local food is not “one size fits all.”

    Just because it is not a perfect solution for large urban areas does not mean farmers markets don’t work elsewhere. Don’t make that assumption.

    Comment by Barbara — December 10, 2007 #

  14. [...] Can’t afford that cooking school? Then try Alice Waters’ latest cookbook, The Art of Simple Food, which Barbara at Tigers and Strawberries says is an “altogether lovely cookbook, worthy of a place in every budding locavore’s and newbie cook’s kitchen shelf where it can easily be referred to again and again.” ($20.99 on Amazon, unless you, like Barbara, are lucky enough to sent a copy from the publisher. For the record, I was not). [...]

    Pingback by Last minute holiday gift guide for foodies, eaters, and folks who appreciate the fine scent of bacon incense « The Cleaner Plate Club — December 12, 2007 #

  15. [...] Tigers & Strawberries [...]

    Pingback by P3 Downloads » Blog Archive » Famine-Bad Credit — February 2, 2008 #

  16. I agree that there may be reasons to support local food such as supporting the local economy, but to be honest, I’ve never been obsessed about the whole food miles thing. The peer-reviewed research has shown the weakness of the food miles concept, where many times you’re actually creating a smaller carbon footprint when you ship something far, far away like a thousand miles compared to growing something local.

    Some places have more challenging growing conditions, where those poorer conditions might force farmers to use energy-consuming factors such as feed, fertilzer, etc.. than growing something something further away but in a more abundant enviornment. And, once you start factoring in, growing something local might actually cause more damage to the environment than something distant but efficient even if you have to ship it.

    By the way, Barbara, have you had a chance to read the biography of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse yet. If its not too late, my recommendation would be to stay away from it.

    Comment by dana — April 26, 2008 #

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