Just finished Bill Buford’s “Heat,” a book I’m surprisingly late to given my love of its subjects. Heat is actually 3 books in one, and I enjoyed them all.
It begins as a window on the New York restaurant scene and lifestyle, at least the part of it in orbit around the great Mario Batali. At some point… so deftly as not to be noticed… It becomes a deeply examined treatise on the history, protagonists, and characters of the Italian cooking tradition, from the Etruscans to the present day.
In the end, though, Heat is the story of one man’s journey from objective observer to impassioned insider; from burnt-fingered novice to professional Cook, from wide-eyed Tuscan pilgrim to chronicler of the faithful. Bill Buford’s personal details provide a spine for this story that keeps it grounded and consistently engaging through a pendulum arc between the outsized characters of New York’s claustrophobic kitchens, and the outsized characters of Tuscanys ancient countryside.
A few highlights for me, starting with an observation about why food is so fascinating:
I’ve often thought that food is a concentrated messenger of a culture, compacted into the necessity of our having to eat to survive, and I felt this powerfully as I read these mementos from another generation and listened to Armandino’s children talk about the eccentric-seeming recipes of their grandmother, who had learned them in the back room of a food store in Seattle from her mother, who, in turn, had learned them from her mother in a house in a village in Abruzzo.
On the magic of the peasant dish, polenta, a staple of my grandmother’s table growing up:
The chef had bought her cornmeal from an artisanal miller in Piemonte, and the polenta she made was a revelation—each grain swollen from the slow simmering and yet still rough, even gravelly, against the roof of my mouth. For a moment, it put me in mind of risotto. But risotto is cooked in broth and finished with butter and cheese, and tastes of the rice and everything else you’ve added. These crunchy stone-ground corn grains tasted only of themselves: an intense, sweet, highly extracted cornness. In an instant, I had a glimpse of the European diet at a juncture of radical change. For one generation, dinner had been gray, as it had been since the beginning of time; for the next generation, dinner was crunchy, sweet, and golden.
Mario’s recipe for pasta, given the dearth of truly great free-range eggs that are essential for it in Italy:
At Babbo, Mario compensated for his being unable to find a reliable supply of half-wild, genuinely small-farm eggs by tripling up on the yolks he could get: for every pound of flour (call it four etti), he’d use three eggs, plus eight yolks, not to mention salt, a dribble of olive oil, and a little bit of water.
On prosciutto, and the price of “progress:”
The truth is, there is only one kind of prosciutto, and it is made in the winter, by hand and not in a factory, and aged for two years. These new varieties are not good. They do not smell sweet. They are bad.” What the Maestro was describing was the familiar, sad history of animal husbandry since World War II, an Italian history, but also a European and American one. In the event, I don’t know if supermarkets are to blame—they’re too easy a target and, like bad newspapers, wouldn’t exist if people didn’t want them. But something, somehow (call it, once again, the twentieth century) went badly wrong, almost everywhere, as though great stretches of the globe had been inexplicably afflicted by a gastronomic amnesia and forgot that beef came from a cow, an animal that, like all animals, needed to be treated well.
And finally, a reflection on the impermanence of great cooking traditions:
Miriam, who can’t get a pastina to roll out the dough, no longer makes handmade pasta. When her daughter takes over, will she roll it out by hand? In Tuscany, you can’t get the 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.
Needless to say, I really enjoyed this book. Get it here.