Archive for April, 2007|Monthly archive page

Bill Buford’s Heat: Every amateur’s dream come true

Heat coverAfter a wait of many months, I was finally able to lay my hands on a copy of Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany. You may have read excerpts from this book in the New Yorker – there was one about Buford’s attempts to learn pasta-making, and another about his cooking and eating a whole hog. If you do remember those pieces, the rest of the book is much more fun.

I confess to a fascination with completely useless bits of information, and anybody who can explain what a “hotel pan” is, and do so in an amusing manner, is already a winner in my books. Kitchen jargon apart, this book is a mine of colorful characters. Mario Batali, known to food TV junkies as Iron Chef Batali, is one of them. The world of professional cooking seems to abound in such characters – Batali, for example, drinks wine by the case. Marco Pierre White, one of the foremost experts of French cooking, has thrown customers out of his restaurant for daring to order meat cooked the wrong way (the “right way” being what White thinks it is, of course). Other endearing and equally eccentric characters include a taciturn master butcher (known simply as the Maestro), a Tuscan bull (who is briefly suspected of being a homosexual for being bashful about getting it on with four cows), and Frankie, the terrifying sous-chef at Babbo (my favorite quote, “You’re doing this because you know we will fucking lose our fucking three stars if we start serving fucking instant [polenta], and if we lose our fucking three stars I lose my fucking job.”).

Heat is more than a book about food and the people who cook it. Buford writes of how
interns and “Latins” fit into the hierarchy of a typical New York restaurant, how women cooks deal with the macho environment of a restaurant kitchen (one female sous-chef wonders if she is expected to go and look at a hooker dining at the restaurant because every one of her male colleagues has done so), how you need a special “slave visa” if you wish to, well, be an unpaid kitchen slave in Italy. He effortlessly takes us from New York City to obscure European villages, and back again, stopping to quickly explain how some recipe is still adhered to centuries after someone came up with it, or how someone else came along to give another age-old recipe a little twist.

In some ways, Heat is also a lamentation for the old ways of cooking, and living.

 

“In Tuscany, you can’t get [chianina] meat at the heart of the region’s cooking, so Dario and the Maestro found a small farm that reproduces the intensity of flavor they grew up with. How long will that taste memory last? The Maestro will die. Dario will die. I will die. The memory will die. Food made by hand is an act of defiance and runs contrary to everything in our modernity. Find it; eat it; it will go. It has been around for millennia. Now it is evanescent, like a season.”

 

 

Despite his seriousness about the business of food, Buford is laugh out loud funny. He has a wonderful knack for self-deprecatory humor, and even though you’re supposed to feel sorry for him, or cringe, you can’t help laughing at how he ate hundreds of cubes of carrots (not all come out as perfect cubes), or how he burnt his fingers by throwing in ribs into some very hot oil (it didn’t occur to him to use a pair of tongs), or how he was made to walk around the kitchen holding a fish in a pair of tongs (because he’d failed to get fish off the grill).

My only grouse is not with the book, but with myself. For lovely as it was, reading Heat, to me, felt a bit like being insensate and having someone else describe sights, smells and sounds. I am a vegetarian, have been one all my life. Usually, this poses no greater handicap than being restricted to three or fewer menu items to choose from. But Buford’s book posed an unexpected challenge. How does a vegetarian imagine what it feels like to prepare, cook, and eat meat? The typical ½ hour cooking show on television does not treat meat with the same reverence (despite all the “ooh, the flavor is just lovely!” declarations) as Buford does. And most of my close friends are also vegetarian, so I’ve never observed anyone eating say, spare ribs.

Most of the terms baffle me – take “spare ribs” for instance. Why are they spare? It’s not as if the cow or pig (btw, are ribs species specific? They shouldn’t be, but who knows) said, “Here, I’ve a couple of ribs to spare. Take ‘em! No, really, I insist.” Here’s another – what is a “gamey” taste? There are other terms that I had no idea were related to meat, until I read Buford – sweet meat is one (pigs’ balls to those as clueless as I used to be. When I found that out, I said a small prayer of thanks that the Empress of Blandings is the Empress and not the Emperor!). And if I allow myself to think about them for more than a few minutes, the bits I do understand disgust me. After reading about ‘mutant’ ribs which are too malformed to look pretty on a dinner plate, assorted slimy creatures cooked in their own blood, etc., I came away with the impression that meat eaters will eat anything, including rotten food. One recipe involves “aging” meat over many days. Marco White describes how he experimented with different aging periods, from one day to twenty one days. He pithily concludes that the bird aged for twenty-one days was not good. No kidding.

Over exposure to some aspects of food and cooking has turned us into jades. The only country I can speak for is the US – here food has been reduced to sport (which is surely amongst the lowest forms of television…OK, an inch or two above Jerry Springer, but they are close enough to be first cousins). When “television personalities” (not chefs) are “edutaining” an audience whose idea of a family meal probably involves a bucket of chicken from the nearest KFC, what else can one do but get orgasmic over garlic (“Bam! Bam!”)? Come to think of it, it’s not just food. The idea that anyone with a mouth and a willingness to express themselves is an ‘expert’ is all pervasive. While this is an empowering notion, it puts a damper on day-dreaming. If you’re already a master chef, an excellent judge of singing talent, cricket guru, or whatever, what’s left to console yourself with during those soul-crushingly boring meetings most of us spend our lives attending?

“Heat” reminds you that there is such a thing as a true expert, and that becoming one is very hard. Every amateur, of cooking or of something else, dreams of quitting his day job someday and of spending the rest of his life overcoming such challenges. Buford’s account holds out hope by the bucketful for such dreamers. Even if you aren’t that ambitious, it’s one heck of a ride to merely observe genius in action.

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