“First, Catch: Study of a Spring Meal” isn’t about fishing. Nor is it a cookbook, exactly. Thom Eagle is an English chef and fermenter who prefers to think of recipes as repositories of ideas and “a record of social and emotional histories” rather than ironclad instructions.
Eagle’s first book is more akin to the food writings of M.F.K. Fisher than a star chef’s typical volume of restaurant dishes boiled down for the home cook. In two dozen short chapters linked like little sausages, he serves up a bounty of fresh, often tart opinions about food and cooking as he takes us on an informative tour through the myriad things that go into an ambitious, multi-course early spring meal.
By things, I don’t just mean ingredients or steps. Eagle’s approach to food is more fundamental and wide-ranging than that. This is a chef who likes to consider the many stages of boiling water, from calm ripple to volcanic eruption, and the provenance of the onions, celery, carrots, and rabbits that go into his stews. “There is so much more to food than just the cooking of it,” he writes.
Like Samin Nosrat’s popular “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” (2017), Eagle breaks down food preparation into basic elements. For him, salt is paramount. “If I could give one piece of advice to apprentice cooks it would be not to fear salt,” he writes. “Seasoning, if anything, separates us from other beasts, changing feed to food and letting us take a deep and lasting pleasure in the business of fuelling our gross cells.”
Eagle reminds us that before refrigeration and sterilization, curing with salt was how perishable edibles were safely preserved. Although no longer necessary, curing, fermenting, and pickling remain building blocks of flavor in many cuisines, particularly those of Korea, China, and Japan.
Even more elemental than salt is water, “the beginning of things.” Eagle writes: “We, the surface of this planet, and almost everything we feed ourselves with, are mostly made of water; the elemental act of cooking is chiefly the act of moving water from one place to another.” He argues that the essential decision about how to cook anything, including fish, meats, and vegetables, is whether to do it with water (boiling vegetables, stewing meat, rehydrating rice and pasta) or without (roasting, curing, and drying to remove moisture).
Eagle is a natural teacher; his enthusiasm and broad view of food preparation is both instructive and inspiring. Clearly no stranger to the written word – he majored in American literature at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England – Eagle's prose, while conversational in tone, is as crafted and layered as his cuisine.
Never bland, it is also brightly seasoned with strong opinions. Eagle has a fondness for anchovies and the bitter flavors of Italian olives and espresso, and thinks “vinegar is perversely under-rated in the British kitchen.” He laments what industrialized chicken farming does to both the environment and the animals. Rabbit, on the other hand, “is almost a byproduct of vegetable farming, perhaps one of the most sustainable things we can eat and certainly one of the most sustainable meats alongside pigeon and deer.”
A longtime former vegetarian, Eagle retains a special affinity for vegetables. But he came to believe that “to seek out and buy meat farmed with respect for the health and wellbeing of animal, human and environment might have a wider effect than to opt out altogether.” Without using the word, he is clearly a proponent of responsible eating. It’s important, he writes, “to think about the things we cook and the lives they lead before they end up splayed on our chopping boards, in our fruit bowls, or lurking semi-frozen at the back of our fridges.”
Readers should be warned that while Eagle’s instructions for dicing vegetables are among the clearest I’ve seen, his description of butchering rabbits is not for the squeamish and is unlikely to woo any vegetarians.
Does it matter that several of the dishes on his menu – including rabbit ragù enriched by a broth of blanched pig trotters, and chocolate pudding thickened with beef blood rather than eggs – are things I would not be drawn to eat, never mind cook? Not at all. Eagle’s aim is not for us to slavishly follow his every move. But in criticizing what he calls uneducated palates – “A taste that is refined in the sense of narrow is nothing to be proud of” – he fails to give personal preferences their due.
“First, Catch” takes some of the mystery out of cooking, but also saucily reminds us that even the elaborate meal Eagle walks us through is, after all, “only food.” Rare among food writing, this book is bound to change the way you think about your next meal.
A longtime contributor to the Monitor, Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.