Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany
As a rule, I don’t believe in coincidence. Maybe that’s why I spend so much time immersed in math–I want there to be some grounded explanation for reality. But then, just like in Repo Man, the lattice of coincidence emerges and I’m back to the power of superstition.
All of which is to say that it was not surprising that Heat was in my backpack when my friend Ellie mentioned it as an example of food porn in an e-mail exchange. (She’d been prompted, after I plied her and her husband, Ted, with a dinner of shoemaker’s chicken, to read my post about my uneasiness with foodies.) And while I probably wouldn’t refer to it as food porn it is a particular genre that I have a strange weakness for.
I realize that sounds like I’m apologizing for what is, in fact, a highly enjoyable read. Buford, who for years was the fiction editor at The New Yorker, is a fine stylist with a particular knack for drawing portraits of the characters he encounters. It’s testimony to his years in the editorial trenches that his singular skill seems to be an uncanny ability to identify larger than life personalities who allow him to tag along and, in the words of the subtile, function as slave and apprentice among other things.
The book itself is actually a familiar form: it’s a quest. What starts with a desire to understand what goes on in a commercial kitchen (because Buford’s not terribly succesful at home) leads to an ever-evolving search for the grail–the masters and sources that inspired his original subject, Mario Batali. This is classic baby-boomer stuff although the more recent versions have featured white kids from the ‘burbs tracking down indigent blues musicians and making a fortune recycling the originals. At least the originals, in this case, were all making a living of some sort already but you can see that it’s a well-trod path.
Now about those characters. I have a visceral dislike for Mario Batali, so much so that I don’t want to spend a dime in any way that might end up in his pockets. He can probably cook up a storm but he’s always struck me as the worst form of oafish frat boy and this portrait has done nothing but reinforce that impression. Sins of presentation aside, Batali comes off as a bit of a glut, though I get the sense his self-conception is more that he’s of one of the few people who understands what food adds to life.
The kitchen staff are more interesting. As are their procedures. An amateur home cook could actually pick up a bunch of tips on how to improve technique at home. Yes, it might sound like you need a flattop and industrial strength burners but you can get around that because the key secret is the book’s title–turn up the heat. That said, you’ll wonder ’til the end just how the soap opera–which I think arises in any high-pressure atmosphere–works out.
The Tuscans are most interesting and not just because for some of them Mario Batali has joined Catherine de Medici as a plunderer of their culinary heritage. These people have a love of place, heritage and food that is rare to find in the US, except in New Orleans. You may not make your own salami or break down your own pig after reading Heat but you might find yourself wanting to try.