Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Heat (Bill Buford)

It’s not exactly a secret that I enjoy books about food. And I rarely tire of them. However, sometimes I read too many of them in a row and I begin to take them for granted. As a friend recently said, you kind of take it for granted if you eat out a lot---the same way you may take a homemade meal for granted, that is, until you’re on a two-week trip serpentining across the country and find yourself in South Dakota, sadly ordering a cheeseburger without the burger to a shocked waiter, in desperate need of a vegetable. And your husband (then husband-in-training) has to take you to a fancy Italian restaurant the next night because you can’t stop crying about how horrible the food has been lately (did I mention he still married me? That’s true love.). And all you can talk about during the fancy meal is how great the vegetables are.

If you are the type of person who believes that Olive Garden equals Italian food, you may have a lot to learn. I don’t profess to be an expert. I’ve had my fair share of frustrating evenings with fresh pasta making disasters in a small galley kitchen (collapsed flour volcanoes, unsturdy giant raviolis). But when it’s not a disaster, it’s divine, with the right texture and elasticity making it worth the trouble.*

I was lucky. I learned to make pasta from someone who learned in Italy, and someone who very much enjoyed entertaining his friends with great homecooked meals. And I was glad to discover in Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as a Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford that the method I learned for making fresh pasta was the “correct” method he learns in Italy. Flour and eggs. Nothing else.

Heat begins like many other foodie books, the uninitiated (similar to Michael Ruhlman) taking on the “back of the house” in the kitchen. But the first thing that makes this book stand out is that Buford isn’t in just any kitchen. He’s in Mario Batali’s kitchen, and Mario Batali is one heckuva interesting man: perverse (but somehow in a charming way), larger than life (both in body and in presence), exacting in his food, and the center of attention, and he can probably drink each and every one of you under the table.

And if working in Mario’s kitchen isn’t enough to make a great book, Buford then goes to Italy, to really learn the food, and to learn from those who taught Mario himself. He learns pasta from an older Italian woman; he becomes an apprentice to a butcher in a small Tuscan mountain town (a place that would make me cry as much as South Dakota, as Buford often refers to the lack of vegetables and the “brownness” of the food in the meat-loving region). And this isn’t any ordinary butcher. He’s a butcher with giant hands, a giant voice that signs arias loudly to the crowd and quotes Dante with full force, one who makes what he wants, because he can, because he doesn’t consider himself a businessman, but instead an artisan, and because he wants to continue the traditions of the ways things have always been done.

While reading this book, I subconsciously began cooking a lot more Italian food from scratch (although, really, it shouldn’t have been subconscious, if I had only been paying attention). Last weekend I made lasagna, something I rarely do, and the day before that I made batches of a homemade vegetarian ragu.

So if a book presents an uncensored look at Batali, takes you to Italy, and makes you cook great food, what more could you ask for?

*I have to admit that I didn’t make fresh pasta in that tiny galley kitchen again when we lived in Madison once I had discovered RP’s pasta, a small local business that makes excellent fresh pasta. If there are any Madisonians reading who haven’t tried this pasta, you must! Also, I have heard that the owner of RP’s has recently opened a restaurant, so I would recommend trying that as well.

Next book up: Mendeleyev’s Dream: The Quest for the Elements by Paul Strathern


Anonymous said...

Hey I know Dmitri. We talked about him in freshman science at San Eli. We did at least a couple of weeks on the periodic table. And old Dmitri got credit for setting it up so's there was room for elements that hadn't been isolated or identified yet. Some of the kids from south of the border actually had the table memorized in Spanish, which turned out not to be much different from English.

Anonymous said...

My husband bolted down a pasta machine to ironing board -- I think he got that from Alton Brown. He makes yummy homemade pasta.

I'll have to read this book and then send it to him. He'll love it.

(Hey! It's Lee Anne.)

Ashley said...

Hey, was that me that said that about eating out too often? I think it was :)