Thursday, October 29, 2009

Heat, by Bill Buford

After the disappointing Cleaving, I set about to find a book that covered similar terrain: specifically, to see how another author handles the topic of learning butchery. I was surprised to find several books on the subject, and selected Heat for its melodious and detailed full title: Heat (An Amateur's Adventures As Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta Maker, And Apprentice To A Dante-Quoting Butcher In Tuscany).   

Fun food fact: The first American cookbook was published in 1796, titled: American Cookery, or the Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry, and Vegetables, and the Best Modes of Making Pates, Puffs, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards and Preserves and All Kinds of Cakes, from the Imperial Plumb to Plain Cake, Adapted to this Country and All Grades of Life, by Amelia Simmons: An American Orphan.

Don't you feel like you learned something, just by reading the title?

In any event, good food literature has a long tradition of being entertaining and well-written, but more important - chock full of fun food facts, and Heat is a superior example of that kind of book. Bill Buford begins by working in the New York City kitchen of Mario Batali's Babbo restaurant, and becomes so enamored learning about the making of food, that he goes off to Italy to learn pasta-making and butchery from the same people who taught Batali - not at a school, but by apprenticing to traditionally run Italian businesses.

Fun food fact: The belief that you brown the outside of meat to seal in the juices comes from a 19th-century German chemist, Justus von Liebig, and wasn't tested until 1984, when food writer and chemist Harold McGee tested the theory and confirmed it was untrue.

The book begins in Batali's kitchen, with a cast of colorful and beautifully drawn characters, even down to the invisible people who prepare much of the food, such as the Mexican pasta makers (the best pasta makers come from Puebla - probably because many, many kitchen workers come from Puebla). The labor and atmosphere is intense ... Buford learns cooking, but also describes the lengthy apprenticeships, pecking order, unwritten rules of the kitchen. The food tips he gathers along the way and shares are delightful to the home cook - I found myself repeatedly marking pages and making mental notes of things to do and not do when cooking at home.

Fun food Fact: In 1971, The Learned Confederation of the Tortellino was convened, to determine the correct preparation for a tortellino. The recipe was published three years later, and then locked in a vault in Bologna.

Eventually, Buford moves to Italy, where he apprentices first to a pasta maker, then to a butcher. In addition to learning the craft of foodmaking, he learns the culture and lore of the food he is preparing. The history as discussion of Italian foods is fascinating and augmented by a considerable amount of historical research.
Fun food fact: Dried pasta appeared in Sicily in the early 12th century, two hundred years before Marco Polo returned from China.  Fresh pasta had already been around for a thousand years by then: it was called lagunum by the Romans and laganon  by the Greeks - the word has come down to us as lasagna.

The cast of characters throughout the book is splendid, from the flamboyant and quirky Batali to the rather odd Tuscan butcher. The writing is tight and I was swept along with the stories. Buford ends with the announcement that he wants to continue his culinary journey up in France - I can't wait to join him for the trip. My passport is valid, and my bags are packed and waiting. 

Fun food fact: The reason you stuff a chicken before roasting is so that it cooks more slowly, and the fat is rendered properly before the meat is cooked.

Heat doesn't move fast - there's a lot of detail so plan to spend some time with it and savor it as you go along.  My only complaint about Heat: this book made me very, very hungry.

17 Books down, 33 more to go. 30 weeks to go! Ack! I have some catching up to do!

1 comment:

  1. You are an inspiration to me, Jessica.

    I've been toying with the idea of doing a painting a day since I haven't touched a brush in a few weeks.

    I think a project has to become a priority in our life or we won't do it. To see you engaged in your project is inspiring me.


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