“If the stove explodes, just know that I really liked your book.”
I was trying to light a finicky burner on my old O’Keefe & Merritt as food writer, chef and fermenter Thom Eagle looked on from the laptop balanced on my microwave oven. He was in his home in Margate, on the southeast coast of England, and I was in my kitchen in Eagle Rock. We were cooking together — him directing while I chopped and sautéed — making an intercontinental lunch while we talked about his new book, “First, Catch: Study of a Spring Meal.”
Already published in England, Eagle’s debut has been lauded as a “Best Food Book of the Year” by the Times of London and won the Fortnum & Mason Debut Food Book Award. In “First, Catch,” the former chef of London’s Little Duck — the Picklery unpacks the philosophical and culinary implications of preparing a spring lunch. The simple menu — pickles, cured sea trout, potatoes, sprouting broccoli, sweet and sour celery and a rabbit ragu — acts as a springboard for a series of culinary explorations: the science of fermentation; 17 ways to describe boiling water; cooking fish in fire; the charms of wild and domestic celeries; and the lives and deaths of rabbits.
There are no recipes. Missing too are the ingredients of the usual self-aggrandizing memoir or glossy restaurant tie-in. Instead it is a contemplation of cooking and eating, a return to the great tradition of food writing inspired by M.F.K. Fisher’s “The Gastronomical Me.”
“They say that food writing is important because it’s actually about human stories or it’s about history,” said Eagle, “or it’s about culture, or it’s about religion. And I would sort of reverse that and say, ‘Well, actually, those things are important because they’re about food.’ Food is itself really important. So rather than have this sort of memoir-style food book, I wanted to have something that was really very focused on the physical process of cooking, rather than all the cultural baggage.”
For my lunch, we were making braised bitter greens on toast with a fried egg and a blood orange salad with fennel, red onion and olives. I wasn’t given a recipe or a shopping list. I was just supposed to look for something that I might want to eat. Like the title says: “First, catch.”
“Recipes are lies, if generally useful ones,” Eagle writes. I asked him what he meant by that. “I’m being slightly tongue in cheek, but the whole setup has got a fundamental flaw to it, and there’s only so far you can go in a set of useful instructions on how to cook something. A lot of it will depend on peculiarities of your own equipment, like if you got an old stove that might explode at any moment.” He laughed. “There is only one recipe, really: Prepare your ingredients, and cook them until done.”
The day before our session, I went to the South Pasadena Farmer’s Market. I regularly shop there, but after reading Eagle’s book, I saw its abundant mounds of produce differently. Instead of buying the usual things to cook in the usual way, I found myself considering the possibilities of the food, the potential not just to make something tasty, but to provide pleasure to my friends and family. You might call it holistic grocery shopping.
I returned with spigarello — a kind of wild broccoli — and the blood oranges and fennel. I’m not sure the ingredients mattered; Eagle is more interested in how to think about cooking and what it means to prepare a meal. “I put these notes together not as a practical guide,” he said, “but to remind myself, as much as anyone, of all that comes out of a meal as well as all that goes into it. Or, to put it another way, to demonstrate to my own satisfaction that there is so much more to food than just the cooking of it.”
In my kitchen, the spigarello was chopped, the stove was lighted, the water boiling. “Chuck the stems in for a minute and then add the leaves,” Eagle instructed. “And then maybe slice up some garlic.”
I asked him how much garlic I should use. “There’s a convention in Italian recipe writing with things like oil for frying or breadcrumbs,” he replied. “Instead of an amount, it just says, q.b. or quanto basta — that amount that is enough. It’s the Italian shrug of the recipe.”
I added an extra clove.
What we were cooking was not fancy; it won’t appear in any annual best-dishes roundup. Amid our modern clamor for new restaurants, singular sensations and Instagram-worthy plating, it feels like a revelation to be reminded of the simple pleasures of a meal shared with friends. “A lot of chefs forget that people actually have to eat their food, instead of just gaze at it adoringly,” Eagle said. “When you get into older food writing, there is much more of an awareness that this is a whole meal that has to hang together … and it has to make sense as a meal rather than just a collection of slightly showoff-y recipes.”
Eagle had recently acquired “The French Menu Cookbook,” by Richard Olney, “which is great because it’s a series of things that go well together. He’s got recipes that you could never put in a normal cookbook, like strawberries and Beaujolais — which is literally just putting strawberries in Beaujolais. If you had a recipe for that in a cookbook, people wouldn’t think much of it, but as part of a meal it makes perfect sense.”
While the greens simmered, I worked on the salad. Eagle suddenly got an idea. “You could keep the water from the greens and cook some pasta in it. Pasta and spigarello is lovely.”
I looked at the laptop. “I just chucked the water.”
He shrugged. “It’s your lunch.”
I realized this could be Eagle’s mantra, among others. It’s your lunch. Use that amount that is enough. Cook until done. But this is no mere collection of Ted Talk aphorisms. Eagle writes with a wit and sharpness that can turn a chapter on fermenting pickles into a riff on death and decay while still making it seem like something you would like to put in your mouth. “First, Catch” is an erudite rumination on “the most banal and the most animalistic of human activities,” preparing a simple meal in your own kitchen, and it’s as fun as cooking at its best, even when the author himself isn’t Skyping in.
Across the Atlantic, Eagle went off in search of a cocktail while I sat down to an early lunch.
Smith is a Los Angeles author. His most recent books are “Blown” and “Naked at Lunch: A Reluctant Nudist’s Adventures in the Clothing-Optional World.”
Grove Press: 226 pages, $25