Food: An American revolution

A new wave of maverick food writers in the States is bucking the trend towards ever-faster foods and increasingly vacuous TV chefs. Michael Bateman applauds their inspired reinvention of a native cuisine that has gone stale
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The Independent Culture
IS THERE ANY dessert more typical of America's Deep South than pecan pie? Probably not. So the idea that any self-respecting American would consider pecan pie tastier made with British golden syrup rather than good old American corn syrup would be laughable, were it not such a heresy.

But such is the surprising claim made by John Thorne, the author of Outlaw Cook, an original and provocative book about food published here this month. He is a maverick food writer who has emerged as a major authority in the US following the publication of Outlaw Cook there. He won a Julia Child Cookbook Award for literary food writing, along with such acclaim as "more a novel than a cookbook", and "reading him on bread is like reading Proust on love".

John Thorne is a manifestation of the peculiarly North American trend in food writing - the cerebral. Harold McGee was first to blaze this trail with his mould-breaking, encyclopaedic On Food and Cooking: the Science and Lore of the Kitchen (published here in 1986), followed by Margaret Visser's Much Depends on Dinner (1989), an intellectual analysis of nine basic constituents of an ordinary meal (rice, chicken and so on).

In late 1998, another American food blockbuster arrived here, Jeffrey Steingarten's The Man Who Ate Everything - a collection of exhaustively researched pieces by American Vogue's food editor, a trained lawyer who seasons his scholarship with much humour.

Nothing is too much effort for Steingarten, whether he's following the Montignac diet from beginning to end, trekking the back-streets of Morocco at the side of the high priestess of Am-erican cooking, Paula Wolfert, or tak- ing theories of chip-frying to such extremes that he once got a friend to smuggle Austrian horse-fat into the US for research purposes. Unfortunate- ly, she forgot to store it in dry ice and after the first experiment, Steingarten's wife refused to let him go on. "Laugh and the whole world laughs with you," she warned. "Fry and you fry alone."

But while the extrovert Steingarten takes himself on energetic excursions into the actual food world, John Thorne explores the subject no less exhaustively via the works of other writers. In fact, he is a self-effacing, reclusive character who recoils from publicity, and is best known to the loyal band of subscribers to his esoteric bi-monthly newsletter on food matters, Simple Cooking, in whose pages this self-taught cook meditates on the nature of cooking.

He also shares his assessments of the reputations of established food au- thorities - some of which, like that of Martha Stuart, Queen Bee of American entertaining, dissolve under the spotlight of his scrutiny.

John Thorne is clearly impatient with those who don't share his passions. He has no time for the lazy modern cookery writer who extols the virtues of the microwave, catering for people who resent having to cook, "an activity strewn with annoyances ... having to think, smell, taste and pay attention to what you're doing".

These folk don't want to do the work of cooking, yet at the same time do want to lock into "the great nostalgia of a cuisine invoking an absent mother cook who once laid her hand on the body of the world and worked it into food for us". Hence the ever- increas- ing production of cookbooks, bought to satisfy some need, but never used in the kitchen. What they all promise, says Thorne, is the fantasy of a way back into Mother Cook's lap. "She's long gone, that lady," he warns.

"Our cuisine has become a Borges fable or an Escher print, a universe crammed with cookbook writers all passing the same recipes around and around. And each time one passes through their hands, they manage to find a way to make it faster and fast- er, leaner and leaner, until everything fuses together in a little black box (the microwave). You put in a piece of fish on a clean plate, and a minute later you take it out cooked and eat it. You can call that progress if you want, but you certainly can't call it Mummy."

Thorne's own meticulous approach to food is at the farthest opposite of this spectrum. It is well illustrated in his investigative search for Mother Cook's perfect pecan pie.

"Perfect pecan pie," he begins. "The very phrase causes the tongue to quiver with pleasurable expectation."

However, he has never found one exactly to his taste, he admits. They are dense, chewy and chockful of pecans; or custard-soft, the nuts few and large; or dark, with deep notes of molasses; or silky, light and faintly caramel, with just enough sugar to offset the clean, rich flavour of the pecans.

It is easy to be seduced by other people's notions of the perfect pie, he says, and never to realise your own. Thorne's own sticking-point is that he doesn't like corn syrup, which most New Orleans cooks consider the essential base for a perfect pecan pie. His research (over a period of many years, it should be added) has gradually unravelled a fascinating story.

A chance discovery in a book of Mary Randolph's old recipes (author of The Virginia House-Wife, printed in 1824) revealed that early versions of a sim- ilar pie used a delicious "amber syrup" from the West Indies, which predated corn syrup by many years. So-called traditional pecan pies didn't appear before the 1920s. Indeed, it is only in the 1950s that it became recognised as "a grand old Southern dessert".

The bit now firmly between his teeth, Thorne searched the old Southern cookbooks and stumbled upon the certain antecedent of pecan pie, "chess pie" - evidently the cheese or curd pie of the 17th-century English kitchen.

This got Thorne thinking about the brown sugars which must have been used before cheap modern process- ing techniques debased their flavours. In his pursuit of such intensity of flavour he pinpointed a Barbados brown, a Guyanan demerara and a soft, sweet, clean Malawi muscovado.

And then he discovered Tate & Lyle's Golden Syrup - on his local grocer's shelf, in fact. "Thick as molasses, with a delicate flavour and a luscious, tongue-coating texture," it possessed the very qualities Mary Randolph commended.

"At last I had a focus around which my perfect pecan pie could take shape. The taste of sugar without its mouth-deadening sweetness. The rich, thick syrupy texture of molasses without its coarse pungency. Lyle's Golden Syrup, in combination with natural raw cane muscovado, gave me the perfect match to the suave, rich taste of pecan. I had my pie." Here is his recipe.

JOHN THORNE'S PECAN PIE

200g/7oz full-flavoured brown sugar (eg muscovado)

3 eggs

14 teaspoon salt

200ml/7fl oz Tate & Lyle's Golden Syrup

230g/8oz broken pecan nuts

2 tablespoons premium dark rum

a 23cm/9in unbaked shortcrust pie shell

55g/2oz butter

whipped cream for topping

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C/Gas Mark 4. In a large saucepan, heat the sugar, golden syrup, rum and butter to boiling point. Stirring constantly and scraping back any foam that clings to the side of the pan, let this mixture boil for about a minute. Remove from the heat and let cool while you beat the eggs until creamy in a separate bowl.

When the boiled syrup has cooled, beat in the eggs, salt and the broken pecan nuts. Pour into the unbaked pie shell. Bake for about 50 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the pie comes out clean. Cool on a rack, and serve at room temperature with plenty of unsweetened whipped cream.

IOS READER BOOK OFFER

John Thorne's book Outlaw Cook (pounds 16, Prospect Books) is available to readers of The Independent on Sunday at the very modest price of pounds 12 (postage and packing included). To obtain your copy, make a cheque out to Prospect Books and send it to Allaleigh House, Blackawton, Totnes, Devon TQ9 7DL. Alternatively, telephone 01803 712 269 with your credit-card details

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