Saturday, May 09, 2009

Kitchen Legends

Bill Buford's Heat is much better than I thought it would be. He describes two food legends: Mario Batali and Dario Cecchini. If I hadn't seen Mario on TV so often that I got tired of him, I would think the book was pure fiction.

Even despite some external evidence, I have a funny feeling that maybe Buford really did invent Dario, the butcher of Panzano, a tiny Tuscan town of 900 people and "two butchers, two cafes, two bars, four family-run food stores..., two restaurants, two hotels, and (uncharacteristically) three bakers." A town of rivalries and loyalties. (p. 220)

Yes, sounds like fiction. Dario was trying "to stop time" and preserve some semi-made-up version of his local culinary past. Somehow Buford manages to relate to figures with a sort of cult status, while at the same time warning the reader of their limitations. And of course he also contributes to their legend just by writing about them.

Buford's apprenticeship as a butcher in Tuscany -- in which he reveals the contradictions in Dario's determination to revive medieval recipes in strange new forms -- is colorful in the extreme. His equally colorful tales of life as a volunteer cook in Mario's kitchen portray both the appeal and the downside of Mario and his legendary personality.

Humor makes the book most enjoyable. For example, the characterization of Tuscan food as very brown:
"The local crostini, for instance, with every available millimeter smeared with chicken liver pate, were a brown food...(Dario once took me to an eleven-course banquet honoring the famous bean of Sorana: beans with veal head, beans with tuna roe, beans with porchetta, beans with shrimp, a torta of beans -- a three-hour celebration of brown on brown, ending with a plate of biscotti and a glass of vin santo, another brownly brown variation.) The soppressata, the sausages, the famous Fiorentina: all brown without so much as a speck of color. ... There was one local pasta, called pici, thick, like giant earthworms, which was similar to a pasta the Etruscans had made, although it was a mystery why it hadn't disappeared along with the rest of their civilization: it was inedible if boiled for less than twenty minutes. It was at least chewable if cooked for longer, when it changed color, not to brown, admittedly, but to beige, although the custom was to dress it with the local ragu, which was very brown: a brown-and-beige food. [And on and on]" (p. 243-244)
Polenta is the subject of an entire chapter. Buford learns to make polenta. He searches for its history and the meaning it has for Italians, he mentions literary and historical references to it, and he describes the kitchen politics around its presence in Mario's restaurant kitchen. All in the context of his own direct, painful experiences. As he stirs a pot of boiling cornmeal, his first experience actually making polenta alone, he explains its chemistry.
"My polenta, meanwhile had changed: it was different to the touch (sticky) and to look at (almost shiny). Starch, which is the principal component of all grains, breaks down at high temperatures... when the granules are then able to bond with water. This was why the water I'd added at the outset needed to be hot: to prevent the temperature from dropping and postponing this stage -- the break-it-down-and-bond-it-back stage. The process is called 'gelatinizing,' when the cereal granules swell and become more wetly viscous. When I'd begun, I'd been stirring the polenta with a whisk with a long handle. But as granules bonded with the water, the polenta expanded and, creeping up the length of the whisk, was encroaching on the handle." (p. 154)
Simultaneously, as he explains the cooking process taking place at the end of his whisk, and as he begins to feel he "had to be in the polenta" -- sort of a zen experience -- he provides a description of the circumstances of this stirring, in an institutional kitchen in Nashville where Mario's staff are preparing a banquet. He also has a long description of a tall Italian chef who was watching him and making him uneasy. I admire Buford's writing skill, which enables him to focus the reader's attention on all of these elements at once.

Into his narrative, Buford manages to weave New York gossip, food chemistry, restaurant kitchen relationships, food prep secrets, how-to lessons on things like kneading pasta, macroeconomics, and even the history of when pasta began to be made with eggs. Did Catherine de Medici really bring every element of Italian Renaissance food from Italy to France, and thus launch French gourmet cooking as we and all our ancestors have recognized it for almost 500 years? Yes. And no. The question weaves through the book along with many other themes, but somehow the book feels like a seamless whole.

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