If you Can’t Stand the Heat

Bill Buford hurts my head. That’s really my first thought when I try to size up the book Heat, An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany.

He hurts my head because he may well be obsessive-compulsive, and the book is really the literary equivalent of a man obsessed, grabbing the reader by the hand and dragging them off on some wild goose chase in search of knowledge that no one cares about. Well, except Bill Buford.

I’m guessing that most people picked this book up because of Buford’s links to celebrity chef Mario Batali. Buford convinces the chef to give him what is basically an apprenticeship (Bill works for free to learn the ropes) in his flagship restaurant Babbo, and the writer documents his journey through the back of house. There are a few dirt-digging scenes to keep the Batali fans amused; one describes Batali digging through the garbage bin and pulling up celery tops and peelings, insisting they can be used for a soup; but the story is ultimately about Buford himself.

In his quest to know what Mario knows, he heads off to Italy to learn pasta-making from the woman who taught Batali. He researches everything there is to know about pasta and even tracks down someone at Italy’s Museum of Pasta to find out when egg was first used in the dough. The curator there doesn’t know, nor does the professor at the University of Bologna who is an authority on the medieval kitchen. By poring over old texts and cookbooks, Buford pinpoints the first use of egg to be in the late 17th century. But the real question is, why? Who cares?

Great portions of the book are taken up with these obsessions. When he’s done with pasta, Buford drags his poor wife not once but twice to a remote village in Tuscany so he can apprentice with an Italian butcher. Whole sections of the book are devoted to the cutting up of cows. Even the melodramatic Dante-quoting butcher doesn’t make up for the fact that a large portion of Heat is actually quite boring.

To be fair, I can’t say with complete honesty that the book is boring, because I stopped reading about halfway into the butchering chapters. It wasn’t a vegetarian squeamishness, just frustration. I honestly don’t care that the particular term for a particular cut of meat goes by a different name in different parts of Tuscany, or Italy or anywhere else in the world. I don’t care much about engine mechanics either, though, so I likely wouldn’t pick up a book on that subject unless I had been led to believe by book reviewers that it was actually interesting.

While I’m not generally one to ohh and ahh over celebrity chefs, the chapters about Batali’s life, as well as those of his mentor, Marco Pierre White, are the most interesting in the book. Even Buford’s experiences in the kitchen are an enjoyable read. Where he loses me is the obsession to recreate Batali’s education and training and the detail of those experiences. I would have enjoyed this better as two separate works, or at the very least with fewer obsessive ramblings. I don’t know whether to blame Buford himself for this or to point the finger at his editor – a good smack-down might have been exactly what Heat needed.