Reading: Heat by Bill Buford

After twenty-three years of being a magazine editor, married to another magazine editor, Bill Buford apparently greeted the new millenium by having a mid-life crisis. His resumé includes both co-founding GRANTA and editing fiction for the New Yorker, but this is just work. Throughout Heat, his book on cooking under pressure, he ironically refers to this high-flying media career as his day job. Determined to quit all that and learn how to cook, he becomes an unpaid trainee in the kitchen of Babbo, Mario Batali's heralded Italian spot in the Village.

Where George Plimpton, long considered the inventor of this sort of experiential writing-by-doing, might be content to spend a solitary afternoon stirring a pot in the kitchens of a four-star restaurant before whipping up a piece about what life is like as a celebrity chef, Buford takes participatory journalism to a whole new level. He finagles to write a profile of Batali, he suggests, largely in order to foster a relationship with the man, since he has already set for himself the goal of quitting his job at the New Yorker to go and slave and toil at Babbo, and he doesn't know quite how else to manage it. Given the number of New York waiters who would crumble with excitement to have their words read by the fiction editor of the New Yorker, all desperate to a man (or woman) to quit their days jobs, Buford's seems a bizarre quest, at least by the standards of today's New York society.

But Buford is plainly not much concerned by those standards; mid-way through the adventure he even convinces his wife to quit her own well-paid editor's position and return to Italy with him, so he can learn to butcher meat. His world becomes arcane cuts of loin, unknown outside of the Tuscan hills. (When he returns, eager and breathless, to discuss his discoveries with Batali, he is like a Shaolin monk bringing back from the monastery crazy kung-fu unknown to the master who sent him there: Batali just looks at him blankly and says "Bill, I have no idea what you are talking about!")

Except for the proof of the book I was holding in my hands, there is little to suggest Buford entered into his contract with cookery with journalistic intent. Here and there, he reminds us that he took a note, wrote something down. He reads a lot, but his taste tends mostly to medieval cookery memoirs written in forgotten dialects. At one point he leaves Italy in the middle of butchering the hindquarters of a cow in order to fly back to New York for some vague, unspecified commitment relating to his former life, but that is about the sum total of his efforts to hang on to a Manhattan civilization that had thought he was thriving in it. If this is journalism, let us call it radical immersion journalism.

We should perhaps be unsurprised that Buford has written only two books, since he seems essentially unsatisfied to do anything less than make a complete career of something before writing about it. In his first book, Among the Thugs, he spends unhealthy amounts of time with Britain's semi-professional football hooligans. In this chilling, pop-culture expression of Elias Canetti's classic Crowds and Power, Buford, seduced and revolted by the endless violence and his own attraction to it, ponders whether he has crossed the line between observer and participant, and then, while being beaten half to death by the Italian police, discovers that it doesn't really matter which side of the line he thinks he's on if others see him as part of the mob.

Cooking professionally, we learn in Heat, is almost as violent as stomping on the skull of a hapless opposing football fan. There is no room to move in the infernal sweltering greasy sauna that the typical New York restaurant kitchen resembles. Orders for complicated dishes rain down unceasingly, like the hellfire of a Baghdad bombing run. Power and hierarchy are expressed through abuse and torment. Cooking is done under conditions of such stress and exhaustion that, like great athletes working at full capacity, successful cooks must cease thinking altogether, falling back on years of repetitive training to let instinct, or robotics, take control. Plant your feet, don't move, swivel at the hips. Know where your shit is at all times. Don't yield a square centimeter of your slick and fat-coated perforated rubber floor mat to your equally frazzled co-workers. Fire it! From this, we learn, great food can emerge. But it must be cooked with love.

After a year, Buford thinks he has begun to get the hang of it, but his obsession is unsatisfied. He retraces the trail taken by Mario Batali, learning pasta-making in some nowhere in northern Italy. Not content to have toiled in Dante's Inferno, he apprentices himself to the world's most famous butcher, Dario Cecchini, a maniac who quotes Dante's Inferno at exhausting length, drunk, at midday, from the podium of his butcher's shop floor. "Midway through the road of life, I found myself in a dark wood, on a lost road," being the opening line with which Cecchini greets the questing, middle-aged Buford upon his arrival.

The appeal of Italy is that no matter how fabulous, no matter how Babbo, no matter how Batali, the very best New York has to offer is still a simulacrum, a valiant effort to recreate a culinary experience that ultimately can never exist away from the land that birthed it. I've been reading a lot about wine lately, with an eye to a project of my own, and Buford's efforts to comprehend the essence of the Italian ideal read like descriptions of that elusive wine-making concept of terroir, the idea that the identity of a wine and the experience of drinking it are inextricably linked to the minerals and conditions in the land from which the grapes spring, so that in its aroma one scents the crumbling limestone earth of a particular southward facing vineyard, feels the breath of the Mistral rustling the hairs on the back of one's neck just as the grape leaves were rustled, senses in the first sip the impossible but undeniable influence of the ancient fig trees in the adjacent orchard.

Everybody knows that the essence of Italian cooking is "fresh local ingredients, prepared simply." I just recorded sound a few weeks ago on a "web-based" cooking show sponsored by Bertolli olive oil that hammered home the conceit in six back-to-back episodes. This concept, which became the mantra of the 1980s California restaurant revolution that so attracted Batali, is now such a cliché that we even have a "fresh local ingredients" restaurant in Red Hook, the excellent Good Fork. Buford, obsessive that he is, delves much much deeper than this, right down into the dirt. The food he wants to learn to cook, the Italians tell him, should taste like the scent of moss after fresh rain, of wet twigs and crumbled lichen, of winter woodsmoke mixed with mud. (I couldn't be bothered to go back and dig out actual quotes, so I made these up, but I don't think I'm betraying the flavor of his informants' testimony). Apparently if it isn't made with something you walked out the back door of your Tuscan cottage and collected amongst the roots and stumps of the forest then we aren't really talking about food.

No wonder, then, that he visits Italy again and again, hungry for more knowledge. His marriage, he says, is tested. But what sense of terroir can one hope for cooking in an apartment in the West Village? The culinary journey Buford embarks on with such unswerving dedication is all about getting back in touch with the land, reaching out and actually harvesting, plucking herbs off of living plants that grow in ancient soils, and slaughtering beasts that have been raised with dignity. No wonder most of our meat tastes like crap, he observes, since somewhere along the way people seem to have forgotten that it actually comes from animals.

Buford is a fantastic writer, far superior on food and cooking to anyone I've yet stumbled upon in my wine researches, and Heat is a book that does much more than just make you hungry, the standard bar for food writing. He knows he is an obsessed freak and manages out of his obsessiveness to develop a nuanced, self-deprecatory voice from which flows a vein of humor as rich as a free range flan. A note of bemused apology creeps in as, for example, when he devotes an entire, long, chapter to his dogged attempt to pinpoint the exact moment when eggs became an ingredient in pasta. After apologizing he nonetheless proceeds to lead us on a culinary tour of literary Italy, from the middle ages through to the 18th century, desperately turning dusty and untranslated pages, looking for eggs. These exhaustive researches are fertile ground, and must have led to many of the most interesting factoids that are scattered throughout the book. I had forgotten, for instance, that both tomatoes and corn came from the new world--until well after Columbus polenta, scandal of scandals, was made with buckwheat. Tomatoes of course more completely dominate Italian-American cuisine than true Italian (not that such a thing exists, for like its language and political history Italy's cuisine is infinitely fragmented). But still, pizza without tomatoes?

As if he knows that he is leaving us salivating for more, Buford ends his book in classic Hollywood blockbuster fashion, dangling the threat and promise of a sequel in his very last sentence. After three hundred pages of slagging off "faggy" French cuisine and its cookery, also universally derided by his various teachers, and after reheating the old and discredited heresy that in fact France had no concept of cooking as art until Catherine de Medici brought good food with her out of Italy to the court of Paris, he (probably unintentionally) steals the ending of the seminal coming-of-age movie Breaking Away, in which an Indiana stonecutter's son obsessively takes up bicycle racing, idolizing the Italian riders of the Giro and driving his parents mad by speaking only Italian around the house. At the end of the film, when his idols come to town and realize that the eager kid riding up the hill beside them is actually a contender, they sabotage him, thrusting a bike pump into his wheel on a nasty ascent. In that cruel moment, to the relief of his father, he is instantly cured of his Italian obsession, only to fall in love with a French foreign exchange student (if I remember rightly--I must have last seen it about 28 years ago...). In the final frames he gives his father apoplexy, bursting into the living room and greeting him with a Bonjour, Papa!

On his last page, Buford plays it like this: "I saw that I'd mastered food in one tradition (I'll call it the Florentine-Tuscan-late-Renaissance tradition) up to a certain point: when Caterina became Catherine and crossed the Alps (or the Mediterranean), into France. There is still much to learn, and I may never have this opportunity again. I want to follow Catherine de Médicis. If I'm really to understand Italian cooking I need to cross the Alps and learn what happened next. I have to go to France."


mgrace said...

Gosh darn, Richard, you just keep on writing!
I lost your email address, and there is no link to it in this blog, so this will have to suffice.
I talked to Laura. She will be there at 8!
See ya!

Anonymous said...

And when are we coming to dinner?

They say it's a cold world said...

Who is "we"? You're probably invited, since I invited both the people who read this blog. Nobody seems to be RSVPing. I'm going to have to disable anonymous comments.

Anonymous said...

Have fun, guys! Wish I could be there and enjoy your excellent cuisine, too -- instead of warming up yesterdays 'linsensuppe' for the third time..