No, this is not about Marilyn Monroe in the film “Some Like It Hot.” But, it is about heat – in fact, a book entitled Heat by Bill Buford, former fiction editor at the New Yorker, a founding (I think) editor of Granta, and author of one previous nonfiction book. A gift, the book came along to Medicine Hat in my briefcase, with a tiny bit of work and it was the first thing I dove into when I got into my middle seat on the way to Calgary. The book is subtitled "An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany" and is a romp through Buford’s explorations of kitchens and kitchen learning in New York and Italy. (It has been suggested that juxtaposing this to a blog become book, Julia and Julia, would be a good idea – a woman and a man each spending time following the tutelage of famous chefs – and a butcher – of their own gender. Julia Child, on the one hand, Mario Batali, on the other. Not to mention French versus Italian. Hmmm. Maybe once I read Julia and Julia. Meanwhile, it is Billy boy Buford only.)
Heat is actually a great read. I found myself describing it as a real book – a readable book, with occasional moments of writerly beauty. Too many books on food-related topics are so chatty that they are not worth the money – too quick, both in their reading and, one suspects, in their writing. Facile, perhaps. Not this one. It brings together autobiographical reflection with food lore and travel to Italy and character sketches of famous people. Heat includes descriptions of making sausage in Italy and carrying a whole pig up into a New York apartment in order to practice butchering skills. It describes the pasta station at Babbo – and the grill – and Mario Batali’s well-known foibles. (I think I have walked past Babbo on occasion and not attached it to its famous reputation. I have to admit I am not sure I want to eat there now, having read Heat, given the depiction of Batali’s personality – generous, I admit, but pretty awful in other ways.) There are comments on the incredible sexism –and racism –of restaurant kitchens – alongside discoveries about the almost unattainable simplicity of good food. There are revelations about the incomparability of various cultural (and even regional within Italy) understandings of cuts of meat as well as a moment or two on the place of memory in cooking. Like some films in recent decades, the book ends with the promise of a sequel – perhaps on French food.
But for some reason, Heat seems to be more. When I began reading, I thought it was more or less a paean to Molto Mario, that red headed Italian/Irish man of television fame. It is, in fact, much more. It is more, even, than its subtitle, though the words deployed there are accurate. On occasion, Buford is near transcendent in his “more.” By this, I do not mean more food, or more excess like Batali’s late night magnums (and many of them), but a different more. In this book, there are gems – beautifully written sentences and occasional paragraphs. They appear unexpectedly rich amongst the lighter fare – and are worth a return visit. Here are a few bits from his depiction of pasta-making and its wonders, as he learned it from an Italian woman named Betta:
My mind empties. I thnk only of the task. Is the dough too sticky? Will it tear? Does the sheet, held between my fingers, feel right? But often I wonder what Betta would think, and, like that, I'm back in that valley with its broken-combed mountain tops and the wolves at night and the ever-present feeling that the world is so much bigger than you, and my mind becomes a jumble of associations, of aunts and a round table and laughter you can't hear anymore, and I am overcome by a feeling of loss. It is, I concluded, a side effect of this kind of food, one that's handed down from one generation to another, often in conditions of adversity, that you end up thinking of the dead, that the very stuff that sustains you tastes somehow of mortality. (p. 198)
And, here are a few sentences that particularly struck me in Buford's description of Dario, the Dante-quoting butcher of the subtitle:
His was a calling, not a trade-- he was an artisan, not a laborer -- and his 'works' were about history and self and being Tuscan and only indirectly about dinner. They amounted, ultimately, to a tortured response to grief, and the 'works' had become Dario's way of remaining in touch, physically (those giant hands), with those who are no longer with him. When you come to his shop, he didn't want you to see a butcher -- and wouldn't be able to say why -- but he knew what you would see instead: an artist, whose subject was loss. (p. 281)
I think I may start re-reading Heat on the way back from Calgary to Toronto. Like trying a recipe a second (third or fourth) time, I think I will discover more. . .
(Not persuaded? See this New York Times Review.)