Friday, August 11, 2006

food books review

Culinary memoirs

The glories of food

Aug 10th 2006
From The Economist print edition

Books and food don't always mix well

Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany
By Bill Buford

Knopf; 318 pages; $25.95
Random House; 336 pages; £17.99

Buy it at

The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation
By David Kamp

Broadway Books; 416 pages; $26

Buy it at

Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food
By Warren Belasco

University of California Press; 396 pages; $55 and £35.95

Buy it at

HOWEVER enthusiastic and knowledgeable their authors may be, books about food are rarely as palatable as the meals they describe. Accounts of other people's eating lose a lot in the telling, while kitchen horror stories may be gripping, but fail to satisfy.

Bill Buford's “Heat” is a glorious exception. The author is a world-class wordsmith: a writer on the New Yorker and before that the founding editor of Britain's best fiction periodical, Granta. He is also a keen but (by his own admission) “fundamentally clueless” amateur cook. He lacks a sense for time and quantities; he can't plan. The food that he inflicts on his friends is burnt or raw or both.

Perhaps, he thinks, spending a bit of time with professional cooks might help. Someone less obsessive might start off taking a few cookery courses, or working in a gently paced kitchen with some indulgent tutors. Not Mr Buford. He starts off as a “kitchen slave”, the lowest of the low, in one of New York's best Italian restaurants. It helps, a bit, that it is owned by a friend, Mario Batali.

And that's what gives this book its depth. It's not just about food, and cooking, but about the culture and history that surround them, and a journey into a world where managing words comes a poor second to skills with flavours. Mr Buford also has a biographer's gift of bringing characters to life. From the humble slicers and dicers who dream one day of running their own place, to titanic personalities such as Marco Pierre White, a volatile London restaurateur, Mr Buford fills his book with people as pungent and spicy as the food. Mr White's spectacularly chaotic life is matched only by the gargantuan appetites of his New York counterpart, and one-time student, Mr Batali, who rejoices in the motto: “Wretched excess is just barely enough”.

What starts as a journalist's jape turns into a sometimes disquieting mission. Mr Buford's desire to understand the lore of meat, for instance, leads him to decamp with his long-suffering wife to a dingy Italian hill town where a temperamental butcher will sometimes (if he likes you) sell you the best meat in Italy. In the end, though, Mr Buford's book deserves to be a bestseller, and his fans will be pleased that his culinary odyssey has only begun; he finishes the book consumed by curiosity about French cooking.

Mr Buford's uninhibited joie de manger is in stark contrast to the leaden prose and patronising tone of David Kamp's history of American gastronomy. The sort of person who reads restaurant guides for fun, and sees food as a branch of fashion, may enjoy his interminable account of chefs, restaurants, dishes and fads. The diligence of the research is certainly striking: if everyone mentioned in the book buys a copy, it will do well. But for the general reader, the onslaught of names is overpowering. And whereas Mr Buford's asides are uproarious, Mr Kamp's are tiresomely cutesy.

It is a relief to turn to Warren Belasco's ingenious analysis of the way in which optimists and pessimists alike use food to illustrate their vision of the future. Malthusians think we will starve. Cornucopianists believe an age of plenty is just round the corner. One lot say food is getting cheaper and better than ever. The other insist that it is increasingly less nutritious and environmentally unsustainable to produce. As well as science fiction, he mines journalism, advertising and political propaganda for examples of false predictions, ranging from the amusing (dog-sized cows in every garden, according to Reader's Digest in 1955) to the outright foolish, all handled with a welcome mix of scepticism and tolerance.

Mr Belasco concludes by suggesting that forecasts need demystifying. “We need to be more savvy about the rhetorical conventions, false dichotomies, inappropriate analogies, questionable assumptions and dubious calculations that keep cropping up whenever the future is discussed.” Second helpings of that, please.

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