I'll get right to it: there is no part of Thom Eagle's First, Catch: Study of a Spring Meal that does not delight and enchant, inspire and amuse me. It is as near-perfect a food book as I have ever read, reading being the primary thing I do with and to the many cookbooks in my personal library. Occasionally, I will make a recipe; sometimes I will find a dish that becomes an instant classic, the page I turn to so often the book naturally cracks open to that page; rarely, however, do I put cookbooks to their most obvious use. I prefer to read them - to just travel along with the author on this particular food journey, learning much along the way. In particular, I like books about food and cooking that barely even have recipes. Books like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, or The Supper of the Lamb, and now First, Catch: Study of a Spring Meal.
Don't get me wrong: cooking is one of the most important and vital things I do, not just for the literal sustenance it provides me and my family but for the greater sustenance the act of preparing food can grant. And yes, I follow recipes, pulling them from lots of sources, including the New York Times Cooking team and magazines and even cookbooks. But to think about food, the planning for and the preparing of it is, to me, as joyful and life-giving a thing as eating the food itself, and in Thom Eagle, I have found a generous (and often hilarious) mentor and guide. It doesn't matter that I will never prepare rabbit (part of the meal Eagle bases this set of thoughts around) or the lamb so brilliantly demonstrated by Robert Farrar Capon. Instead, I will take from their books something true and good and definitively more.
Eagle recognizes that cooking is more: more than a mere assembly of materials, it is part of a larger story. As he launches into what will be several chapters devoted mostly to water, Eagle explains,
"More than that, though, we know that water is the beginning of things. Even the Judaeo-Christian God, once he had turned on the lights, started off with water, and set his breath moving across it; our ancestors started out somewhere in the depths of old oceans, and so we know that life arises out of good salt water."
Or in discussing salt and its various important uses, he invites us to consider the lessons a lengthy curing process can teach, explaining, "You have learned something that everybody used to know anyway - to put your faith in time and in salt" and inviting readers to take comfort in the slow, steady pace of the transformation, "like the hour hand slowly pushing the time away."
In fact, this concept of time and the ways we attend to it is central to this book and to my growing relationship with food and the making of it. It's in Kingsolver's insistence that we step outside the grocery store model of always-available produce and recenter ourselves in the slow rhythm of growing things; and in Capon's invitation to put our feet up on the stove and cultivate the habit of contemplation. And now, here, with Eagle urging us to watch the water come to a boil, paying attention to the different ways it behaves at each different stage or to develop an appreciation for the "certain calm rhythm that comes from doing the same thing over and over again and having the time to do it well."
Whether you are a long-time foodie or a new arrival in your own kitchen (hello, shelter-in-place cooks!), this book will bring you something. In fact, it may be the perfect companion to this odd season we are living in, a time when we cannot prepare meals for friends, gathered in laughter around our tables, but we can still hope, and thinking about and planning for those meals-to-come is a perfect way to hope.
One further encouragement: Eagle's second book, Summer's Lease, has a June pub. date (in the UK), and preordering is always one of the best ways to support our creatives. Do check out the gorgeous cover and then join me in adding this one to your queue?
The best books spark the best conversations! If you have thoughts to share, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I promise a reply.
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