Bill Buford's Heat
It was my girl Wednesday who convinced me that I should drop everything and read Bill Buford’s Heat, a writer’s story of quitting his office job to learn about cooking. I just finished it on my flight home, a bit less excited about it than I was when I started it last week, but with much more respect for the author.
Heat starts strong, with riveting stories of working the line at Babbo. I could read a whole book about Mario Batali’s kitchen antics, especially his digging through the garbage to come up with Babbo’s nightly specials. It’s hilarious, and despite the garbage bit, has convinced me that this is a restaurant I should try. It’s not like I’ve never been fed from the garbage before, isn’t that right, Mom?
From Babbo, Buford goes to Italy to learn pasta and butchery, nearly convincing me that I should quit my job and run off to Europe. Italian food really has a bum rap in New York, and that becomes so apparent when you read about Buford’s and Batali’s experiences. Maybe the bum rap comes from me specifically, since I can’t name an Italian restaurant I like in the whole city. Buford portrays real Italian food as simple, beautiful, and delicious, the work of generations. That’s not a vibe I’ve ever felt here, but I’m hoping to correct that situation sometime soon.
During his butcher training, Buford makes an intriguing point about vegetarians: They are on firmer ideological ground than most meat eaters. At least vegetarians know what meat is, Buford writes. For the most part, they are arguing against an industry they have learned unfortunate facts about. Buford’s problem is with modern carnivores who separate themselves as much as possible from the original animal, the boneless skinless crowd. They crave hamburgers without the cow ever crossing their minds. I’ve written about this problem before, and I make reasonable efforts to buy meat that’s been minimally processed, hoping to one day have a firm understanding of the different parts of cows and pigs and other animals.
Buford’s writing is engaging and funny, but I found the story dragged a little towards the end, after the Babbo parts. Buford goes back and forth to Italy, and it starts to sound like boasting. Also, I was annoyed over and over by his ludicrously long hyphenated adjectival phrases. I’ve never seen a writer use such a conspicuous tactic so often—it often shows up more than once on a single page. One or two sentences such as “There is the pasta-water-in-your-sauce lesson, along with the your-sauce-is-only-a-condiment” or “Carlo made his I-can’t-believe-he’s-doing-this-at-lunch-again face….” is more than enough for an entire book. But Buford uses this construction over and over again, with phrases like “I-get-along-with-everyone attitude” and “gruff, barely audible, I’ve-lived-through-so-much-I’m-surprised-I’m-alive voice.” I can just imagine the argument between him and his editor. I would have tried to change every last one of them.
Hyphens aside, this book represents kitchen work more accurately than anything else I’ve read, and it is fascinating to learn about the Italian artisans Buford studies under.