In January 2002, the middle of the journey of his life, Buford, a distinguished magazine editor, abandoned his job and his common sense with such passion as normally afflicts the reproductive appetite of men his age. Quitting The New Yorker, he bound himself as a “kitchen slave,” an unpaid trainee, to his idolized friend Mario Batali, a Dionysian chef-proprietor whose appearances as Molto Mario on the Food Network have made him a national celebrity and his restaurant, Babbo, a shrine. But Babbo is more than an obligatory tourist destination with its ovate proprietor on display at the bar, a life-size Humpty Dumpty in orange pigtail, knee-length pantaloons, and kitchen clogs.
Babbo is a fine restaurant with a bold and often brilliant menu that reflects Batali’s passionate commitment to the traditional cuisines of Tuscany. In living memory New York has not seen Batali’s equal, nor is it likely that such a bubbling ferment of genius, taste, enthusiasm, steely resolve, and Rabelaisian appetite will soon come this way again. This book, actually a collection of linked essays, began as a New Yorker assignment to profile Batali. But Buford wanted to be his subject’s clone, not simply his Boswell. In this book he volunteers to work without pay for Batali in New York and later apprentices himself to the Tuscan cook who taught Batali the art of pasta. Heat is the story of a one-sided culinary love affair pursued with only occasional, restrained sniping by Buford at Batali’s unequal response.
Babbo’s kitchen, which Buford entered as an unpaid “slave” in January 2002, was a fiery hell, as Buford describes it, cramped, hot, and dangerous with knives flashing and greasy flames shooting from stovetop to ceiling. Frantic cooks worked the grill and over the boiling pasta pots, responding to shouted orders from a temperamental chef, terrifying and terrified lest an undercooked chop be served to the New York Times critic who, having awarded Babbo three stars, might drop in unannounced to reconsider her verdict and sink the place with all its crew. Or still worse, that Batali himself, who had turned the kitchen over to his staff before Buford signed on, might arrive in the midst of the hectic dinner service and find something to complain about. This happened one busy night when Batali intercepted on their way to the dining room an undercooked tenderloin of pork and an overcooked rabbit that Buford himself had prepared and for which Batali fired him from his hard-earned post at the grill. To become a “grill guy” Buford had begun as the prep cook’s helper, arriving early to chop celery, cube carrots, disassemble ducks, and so on which the line cooks needed for the evening service. Self-deprecating as he presents himself in his book, he is an avid observer and quick to master the essential techniques. Soon he moves on to work the flaming grill, to which he was reinstated as soon as Batali departed, and then the dangerous pasta pots. Within a year he will have mastered the entire kitchen and be ready to pursue his education in Tuscany in Batali’s footsteps.
Buford’s long hours at Babbo, extending often from early morning to midnight with a mid-afternoon break were for him a tonic. On his first day he
looked around the kitchen. The pastry chefs were beside me, two guys cutting up pineapples. In front of me was a wall of stoves, with vats of something boiling on top. Behind me two guys were making pasta. On the floor was a giant mixer, rhythmically knocking around a large mound of dough. It was seven-fifteen in the morning…. I became captivated by the kitchen’s smells. By midmorning, when many things had been prepared, they were cooked in quick succession, and the smells came, one after the other, waves of smell, like sounds in music. There was the smell of meat, and the kitchen was overwhelmed by the rich, sticky smell of wintry lamb. And then, in minutes, it would be chocolate melting in a metal bowl. Then a disturbing nonsequitur like tripe (a curious disjunction, having chocolate in your nose followed quickly by stewing cow innards). Then something ripe and fishy—octopus in a hot tub—followed by overextracted [sic] pineapple. And so they came, one after the other—huckleberries, chicken broth, the comforting chemistry of veal, pork, and milk as someone prepared a Bolognese ragù.
Readers may notice in this Faulknerian passage Buford’s tendency to run on, a distraction that will increase as the story progresses:
…Soon I was a member of a team of cooks, closed away in this back room, people’s knives knocking against cutting boards in the same rhythmic, rocking way, mine as well: no windows, no natural light: no connection to the outside world: no idea, even, what the weather might be; only one phone, the number unlisted; unreachable—a great comfort, surrounded by these intense associations of festive meals.
Here Buford might be describing the primary ecstasy, sealed off, as in love songs, from the world, unreachable: who cares if it’s cold outside? As for the phone, let it ring. Not since M.F.K. Fisher’s youthful account of dinner in Dijon with her new lover where she recalled every nuanced dish with the same erotic intensity as the lovemaking that was going on simultaneously and unmentioned in her head, have I read such sultry descriptions as Buford’s of food.
The hyper-literary Buford is of course conscious of this synesthesia. He thinks
of Mrs. Waters’s seduction of Tom Jones…where “passions and appetites” blur and Mrs. Waters’s soft sighs commingle with Tom’s energetic consumption of a vast piece of roast beef. Food has always had erotic associations, and I suspect that cooking with love is an inversion of a different principle: cooking to be loved. The premise of a romantic meal is that by stimulating and satisfying one appetite another will be analogously stimulated as well…. Fresh pasta cooked in butter, Mario once told me, illustrating how these things seem to conjoin, “swells like a woman aroused.” Marjoram, he said on another occasion, has the oily perfume of a woman’s body: “it is the sexiest of the herbs.” Lidia [Bastianich, the mother of Mario’s partner and a well known chef/ proprietor herself] was more explicit. “What else do you put in another person’s body?” she asked me rhetorically when I met her for lunch one day. “Do you understand?”1
By March 2003 Buford was ready. He had been making pasta for some time at Babbo and now wanted to see for himself how Mario had learned his technique in Italy:
…I don’t want to diminish the importance of my time at the Babbo pasta station—I will remember it for the rest of my life—if only for what I now know about linguine and shellfish, but in essential ways I was very far removed from the real thing.
The reference to linguine and shellfish strikes a rare off-note, for what he learned from Batali at Babbo was only what anyone who has ever prepared this simple dish would have observed at once: that the flavor is not in the clams, which are desiccated by the time they have opened in a hot pan, but from the clam liquor that flavors the garlic- and chili-scented olive oil in which the noodles are tossed until well coated and then sprinkled lightly with flat parsley. Batali adds a touch of white wine, pancetta, and butter as if for clams casino, a rich combination, which adds heft, appropriate to Batali’s unctuous, unforgettable Bolognese ragù but not to a clam sauce which should be an edible sea breeze. He also uses New Zealand cockles (Austrovenus) rather than the more intense manila clams (Venerupis).
In Porretta, a hilltown near Florence on the road from Bologna, Buford apprenticed himself in the spring of 2003 to Betta Valdiserri. It was from Betta that Batali had learned the subtleties of pasta when he apprenticed at her restaurant, La Volta, in 1989 and whose menu he partly reproduced at Pó, the hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Greenwich Village whose success encouraged Batali to open the much larger Babbo. Betta, now resentful of Batali’s prosperity, offers to teach Buford to make tortellini but only if he promises not to share the knowledge with the ungrateful Batali. Buford agrees and the lessons which will take months begin. Tortellini are tiny twists of fresh pasta filled usually with a mixture of pork, chicken, prosciutto, and mortadella, which is itself a mildly spiced pork-filled sausage, then bound by eggs, tempered with parmigiano, and flavored with a bit of nutmeg, a standard item often served in chicken broth on many Italian-American menus. They are easy to make by hand. But they take time and most commercial tortellini are made now by machine. For Buford, however, Betta’s filling was an epiphany:
The smell…was powerful. What was it? The Bolognese meats? The combination of the raw and the cured? I stuck my head in a bowl and my mind said: pizza toppings and eggnog and a barbecue on the Fourth of July. It was all my holidays in one…a taste I knew I would encounter nowhere else in the world. An urban medieval perfume, I concluded. This, I wanted to believe, was the fragrance of a Bologna kitchen, learned by someone in Betta’s family….
Here Buford sounds more like Don Giovanni in hot pursuit than a careful reporter describing a familiar filling for pasta.
Buford, still in his operatic mode, writes that Betta refused to reveal the ultimate tortellini mystery—the final assembly of pasta and filling—until she was sure that Buford had kept his promise not to tell Batali what Betta had taught him so far: to make the dough as thin as possible. To prove himself a man of his word Buford would have to return to New York and make another trip to Porretta, his third. If Betta had not heard in the meantime that Batali had added tortellini to Babbo’s menu she would tell the rest of the secret to Buford. Satisfied at last that he was a man of honor worthy of her confidence she revealed to him upon his return to Porretta how to take a tiny square of pasta nearly as thin as air and place it atop his little finger, and then
pack the puny square with the largest amount of filling possible and fold it corner to corner, to form a miniature but bulging triangle. You next tip the top part of the triangle forward…and then (the crucial step) pull the other two corners forward…. You then press it all together to form a ring. When you turn the pasta over, you’ll be astonished by what you created: a belly button. (What can I say? It’s wildly erotic.)
So far Buford has presented himself, accurately one assumes, as mildly eccentric but with the epiphany at Betta’s one wonders if “mildly” is any longer the right adjective to describe Buford’s increasingly quixotic travels. Having been introduced to the mystery of the tortellino, Buford tells his more than patient wife in New York that they must now return to Italy. “Tortellini,” he tells her,
was only one dish and I’d become convinced that there were culinary secrets—an attitude, a touch, the thing that Mario was always saying that you can learn only “over there”—that I needed to discover. That was why we had to go back,
he insisted, so that he could enter the service of another Tuscan master, Dario Cecchini, said to be the greatest butcher in Italy.
Readers interested in the provenance of Tuscan beef (the best Tuscan beef now comes from a small farm in Spain), its nomenclature (the Tuscan names for the musculature of farm animals are unique), and the disassembly and recombination of animal parts as sausage for the Tuscan market will be fascinated, as I was, by what Buford learned from Dario.
Readers will also notice that his obsession with the arcana of Tuscan cooking has become manic. Unless Buford wants to open a butcher shop in Tuscany, for there is no other place on earth where Dario’s lessons can be profitably applied, what he learns from Dario is of only academic interest. The onset of this mania troubles Buford, but he can no longer help himself. Batali
said that if you want to master Italian cooking you should learn the language and work in Italy and I’d thought: I can do that too…. Then I got it into my head that I should undergo a miniversion of Mario’s own culinary education…. My wife, long-sufferingly, had quietly identified in me the traits commonly described as an obsessive’s (mania, a lack of perspective, an inability to observe limits)—but hadn’t been evident to me, even when I had woken up in New York and knew I had to go back,
to Dario. “Did I need to come back? Of course not…. But Dario had trusted me with a blade…. How could I stop?”
Finally back in New York he tells Batali one night at dinner what he learned about the various cuts from Dario:
I jabbered away about the girello, speculated on what could be done with the sottofesa, enumerated the miracles that can be performed on a shank…. “Please,” Mario said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Between his trips to Dario, Buford writes, “I was home and wanted a pig,” so he ordered one from the Greenmarket in lower Manhattan, slung it across the front of his scooter, and with his wife in back carried the 225-pound carcass to his home several blocks away. A 225-pound pig transported on a scooter through busy Manhattan in broad daylight is a rare sight, perhaps never seen before or since, but Buford seems oblivious to the spectacle. Now thinking seriously of opening a Tuscan butcher shop in Manhattan, he wrestles the carcass into the elevator of his apartment house, stuffs it into his kitchen, and for a week dismantles it muscle by muscle, then decides against the butcher shop. Nor does he accept Batali’s offer to set him up in a restaurant. He may have become a cook but he is still a writer. He decides instead to “cross the Alps and learn what happened next. I have to go France,” where the earthy cooking of Italy migrated in the time of Catherine de’ Medici and became haute cuisine.
Luckily for Buford, Julia Child had been there first. Not only did she learn French cooking, she rationalized it, introduced it to the United States, and gave birth to a revolution in American taste which soon spread to all the prosperous parts of the world. Buford will find no better Virgil to lead him through French cooking, as Batali led him through Tuscany, than Julia Child, whose splendid posthumous memoir of her own culinary awakening in France, written in the last years of her long life, has just appeared.
In November 1948 Julia Child at age thirty-six and her husband, Paul, ten years older—who had met and married during the war when they both worked for the OSS in Asia—disembarked at Le Havre and set out in their American station wagon through the war-wrecked countryside for Paris where Paul was assigned to the United States Information Service. Having reached Rouen at lunchtime, Paul consulted his red Michelin and headed with Julia for a restaurant called La Couronne, in a quarter-timbered house built in 1345. In My Life in France Julia recalls, with the help of letters she wrote at the time and that were preserved by Paul, her culinary awakening that day with the precision, joy, and genial authority with which she would some twenty years later lead a revolution in American cuisine.
The century spanned by her lifetime saw many revolutions, most of them contemptible. Julia’s was magnificent, a true revolution for it overthrew existing institutions, propagated a new consciousness and a new vocabulary, and its partisans now dominate the culinary world in which their revolution occurred. A few followers may have suffered from overindulgence, but millions of others have cooked and eaten far better than they would have if Julia had stayed in Pasadena and married the banker whom her McCarthyite father would have preferred to the Democratic egghead, to use one of Julia’s favorite honorifics, aesthete Paul Child.
It was warm inside [La Couronne], and the dining room was a comfortably old-fashioned brown-and-white space, neither humble nor luxurious. At the far end was an enormous fireplace with a rotary spit, on which something was cooking that sent out heavenly aromas. We were greeted by the maître d’hôtel, a slim, middle-aged man with dark hair who carried himself with an air of gentle seriousness. Paul spoke to him, and the maître d’hôtel smiled and said something back in a familiar way, as if they were old friends. Then he led us to a nice table not far from the fireplace. The other customers were all French, and I noticed that they were treated with exactly the same courtesy as we were….
As we sat down, I heard two businessmen in gray suits at the next table asking questions of their waiter, an older, dignified man who gesticulated with a menu and answered them at length.
“What are they talking about?” I whispered to Paul.
“The waiter is telling them about the chicken they ordered,” he whispered back. “How it was raised, how it will be cooked, what side dishes they can have with it, and which wines would go with it best.”
“Wine?” I said, “At lunch?” I had never drunk much wine other than some $1.19 California Burgundy, and certainly not in the middle of the day.
In France, Paul explained, good cooking was regarded as a combination of national sport and high art, and wine was always served with lunch and dinner. “The trick is moderation,” he said.
Suddenly the dining room was filled with wonderfully intermixing aromas that I sort of recognized but couldn’t name. The first smell was something oniony—“shallots,” Paul identified it, “being sautéed in fresh butter.” (“What’s a shallot?” I asked sheepishly. “You’ll see,” he said.) Then came a warm and winy fragrance from the kitchen, which was probably a delicious sauce being reduced on the stove. This was followed by a whiff of something astringent: the salad being tossed in a big ceramic bowl with lemon, wine vinegar, olive oil, and a few shakes of salt and pepper.
My stomach gurgled with hunger.
I couldn’t help noticing that the waiters carried themselves with a quiet joy, as if their entire mission in life was to make their customers feel comfortable and well tended. One of them glided up to my elbow. Glancing at the menu, Paul asked him questions in rapid-fire French. The waiter seemed to enjoy the back-and-forth with my husband. Oh, how I itched to be in on their conversation! Instead I smiled and nodded uncomprehendingly, although I tried to absorb all that was going on around me.
We began our lunch with a half-dozen oysters on the half-shell. I was used to bland oysters from Washington and Massachusetts, which I had never cared much for. But this platter of portugaises had a sensational briny flavor and a smooth texture that was entirely new and surprising. The oysters were served with rounds of pain de seigle, a pale rye bread with a spread of unsalted butter. Paul explained that, as with wine, the French have “crus” of butter, special regions that have individually flavored butters….
Rouen is famous for its duck dishes, but after consulting the waiter Paul had decided to order sole meunière. It arrived whole: a large, flat Dover sole that was perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top. The waiter carefully placed the platter in front of us, stepped back, and said, “Bon appétit!”
I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume. Then I lifted a forkful of fish to my mouth, took a bite, and chewed slowly. The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvelously with the browned butter…. It was a morsel of perfection.
In Pasadena, we used to have broiled mackerel for Friday dinners, codfish balls with egg sauce, “boiled” (poached) salmon on the Fourth of July, and the occasional pan-fried trout when camping in the Sierras. But at La Couronne I experienced fish, and a dining experience, of a higher order than any I’d ever had before.
When they finished their bottle of Pouilly-Fumé and their salade verte and café filtre and were ready to leave, Julia “with a flash of courage and an accent that sounded bad even to my own ear,” said to the waiter, “Mairci, monsoor.”
The waiter nodded as if it were nothing and moved off t greet some new customers. Paul and I floated out the door into the brilliant sunshine and cool air. Our first lunch together in France had been absolute perfection. It was the most exciting meal of my life.
“The sole meunière that I ate at La Couronne on my first day in France, in November 1948,” Julia writes fifty-four years later, was “a life-changing experience…an epiphany.”
When she had settled herself and Paul in Paris, Julia signed up for French lessons at Berlitz and for cooking courses at Le Cordon Bleu. For her thirty-seventh birthday Paul bought her a copy of Larousse Gastronomique. She learned quickly and by 1951 had been asked to join Le Cercle des Gourmettes, an exclusive eating club for women. Later that year she met Simone Beck, known as Simca, a fellow member, who would become her collaborator on the great book whose first volume they would complete seven years later. With a third Gourmette, Louisette Bertholle, they formed a cooking school to introduce American women to classic French cuisine. Their students provided an essential template of the readership they had in mind for their proposed book. Julia prepared the lessons meticulously by consulting the great French cookbooks: Escoffier, Larousse, Curnonsky, Pellaprat, Sainte-Ange, only to discover that these compendia disagreed about practically everything. Simca and Julia in their respective kitchens would test the various versions of classic dishes and from their results produce their own which Julia would then adapt and translate for American readers:
I liked to strip everything down to the bones; with a bit of work, I thought this book could do that, too, only on a much more comprehensive scale. I had come to cooking late in life, and knew from first-hand experience how frustrating it could be to try to learn from badly written recipes.
Thus the authors rationalized French cuisine not only for American readers but for the French themselves in the unlikely event that they might accept the conclusions of a Franco-American collaboration.
Unsure that they would find an American publisher for their vast project, they forged ahead nevertheless, convinced that their project made sense and would find its way. Eventually they landed at Houghton Mifflin, the Boston publisher whose cookbook editor saw immediately the brilliance of their achievement but whose management decided the American housewife was not ready for a serious French cookbook, thus disproving Mencken’s claim that no one ever lost a nickel underestimating the intelligence of the American public. Houghton lost a fortune. Knopf’s prescient editor, the twenty-four-year-old Judith Jones, with the grudging support of the firm’s founder, pounced upon and brilliantly edited the manuscript. She also conceived the title and remained Julia’s editor to the end. Mastering the Art of French Cooking would become one of the great publishing achievements of the twentieth century and in its category, the very greatest by far.
Mastering the Art sold well enough at first to attract WGBH, Boston’s newborn public television station, whose managers asked Julia, now living with Paul in Cambridge, to tape three cooking demonstrations on the air. Julia agreed to try and the rest is history. Mastering the Art freed American cooks from bondage to the bland and timid faux elegance of Gourmet magazine and opened a new frontier for the millions who had learned the basics from The Joy of Cooking and were ready to move on. Mastering the Art and the fortuitous arrival of television proved that if Julia could accidentally drop a chicken on the floor, pick it up, and roast it perfectly, or bring to the table a beautifully browned and sputtering sole or a fine soufflé, so could others: that there is nothing to fear at the stove but fear itself.
As Julia’s revolution matured it was broadened and enriched by others: by Alice Waters’s emphasis on seasonal American ingredients and artisanal products and by the infusion from many sources of other, often exotic, cuisines and their authentic tastes and techniques unknown to American cooks of Julia’s generation that might have remained so if not for her. But what Julia propagated above all was more than an invigorating cosmopolitanism. She set a standard of excellence for any future American cuisine, a standard that is evident for instance in the new Gourmet compendium, published as if in atonement for past lapses by Houghton Mifflin, and most recently by the wonderful Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin, which brilliantly honors the standard of excellence set by Julia a half-century ago and embodies the vitality, authenticity, and broad embrace of her ongoing revolution.2
Julia was ninety-two and would soon die when she wrote this splendid book with the help of a grandnephew. Because Paul preserved her notes and correspondence, she and her collaborator have been able to tell a seamless story. Only once did I find an apparent inconsistency. In February 1949 she and Paul headed south to Cannes, stopping for an elaborate lunch on the way, thus unable to manage more than a simple dinner at Vienne where they spent the night. In 1949 Fernand Point, perhaps the greatest chef in France at the time, was still very much alive and cooking at La Pyramide, his famous restaurant in Vienne where Paul Bocuse and the Troisgros brothers apprenticed. It is unlikely that Paul would have arranged lunch so that he and Julia could not enjoy a proper dinner chez Point, for that would be like visiting Agra and ignoring the Taj. Or perhaps he had his reasons, but what could they have been?
June 8, 2006
I once proposed a similar hypothesis to my friend Patrick O’Connell, the great chef/proprietor of the exquisite Inn at Little Washington in Virginia. He thought for a moment, and replied in all seriousness, “No. We feed people not for love but so that they won’t eat us.” I was puzzled at first but then thought of Patrick in his kitchen night after night and understood how he might imagine himself as the sacrificial plat du jour should he fail to appease his hungry customers with burnt offerings. Cannibalism would not be such a profoundly shameful taboo if it were not also a powerful and dangerous temptation, one which, if indulged, would annihilate the species. We don’t, after all, taboo putting our hands in the fire or skewering ourselves on spikes, nor do Hindus sanctify their cows and Semitic nomads recoil from swine because beef and pork are intrinsically disgusting, but to protect an indispensable source of milk, fuel, and traction, while pigs are forest animals that cannot be herded and pastured along with sheep and goats, thus a tempting threat to tribal cohesion. Human beings are omnivores. They have eaten practically everything including dogs, rats, snakes, and one another. In pre-agricultural times, when starvation was an everyday prospect, a neighbor’s haunch must have been an irresistible temptation, as it was for castaways stranded at sea in recent times or airline passengers wrecked in the Andes, or for the protein-starved Aztecs of Tenochtitlán. I find O’Connell’s hypothesis more subtle than Buford’s predictable conflation of the two appetites. See Marvin Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches (Random House, 1974), for more on food taboos. ↩
The Gourmet Cookbook, edited by Ruth Reichl (Houghton Mifflin, 2004); Suzanne Goin with Teri Gelber, Sunday Suppers at Lucques: Seasonal Recipes from Market to Table (Knopf, 2005). ↩