Read Time: 5 Minutes
Summer Reading Progression
The most painful obligatory summer reading list I have had to endure was the one sent to me the summer before my freshman year at college. Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent for English, Swann’s Way in French (that was going to be part of my major) and one other that I have blessedly obliterated from memory. Back then, you had to write a long, penetrating essay on the meaning of the book, which added to the misery. But now, without any essays demanded, I love looking through summer reading suggestions that I get from my local book store, Old Town Books, or The New York Times and even some food websites. My post Christmas reading follows a much stricter rule, whose only demand is that I don’t have to work hard for my enjoyment. Summer reading is different, and a little bit more disciplined. I search for a bit of history, a dab of satire, a perspective on cooking and something totally escapist too – although this summer my escapist adventure has been The Money Heist on Netflix. For more suggestions, from the books featured in these posts, you might find some additional good reads that might otherwise have escaped your notice.
My Current Bedside Pile
The most disappointing, despite being highly recommended by others in the food nethersphere, is Cooking With Fernet Branca. Too much overdeveloped British snark over too many pages. But I persist slowly, convinced that I must be missing something. For my history section, I have been reading Guns, Germs And Steel after it was mentioned in the Italian Lockdown post by the Italy Insider. It is very wordy, but the author’s theories about why certain societies advanced over the millenia and others did not, is fascinating. And how we feed ourselves plays a big part. Societies that transitioned from hunting and foraging for food to farming instead, advanced to more sophisticated levels. Superior weaponry, methods of transport and resistance to pathogens are the actors that have determined “civilization” — not Eurasian ingenuity. But as we say now, “It’s complicated.” This book will take me all summer to digest.
But the real treat has been the new book by Bill Buford, Dirt, and my rereading his first one, Heat. He is a most talented ruminative writer – his two-decade experience as an editor at The New Yorker probably helped. We went many times to Lyon, and so his immersion in living and working in kitchens in Lyonnaise restaurants was fun and familiar to both the Resident Wine Maniac and myself. (Most of the time, we read very different books from each other). You will enjoy Buford’s memories of Michel Richard in Washington DC. Having baked and learned from the Lenotre books on pastry, I was surprised to find out that Michel Richard practically wrote them when he worked for Lenotre. Buford’s friendships (some more hard-earned than others) in French restaurants are just fascinating. He documents his own fears in not supporting victims of abuse in these kitchens.
We Owe It All To Catherine
Bill Buford is fascinated with Catherine De Medici. In part, both books are circuitous journeys into the history and myths about this fourteen-year-old princess and her part in laying the groundwork of French cuisine as we know it today. Catherine was married to the King of France in the 16th century but had been raised in the heart of the Italian Renaissance. And it was only after she was a middle aged Regent that she imprinted her enviable style on France. She redesigned Chenonceau, the beautiful palace of her late husband’s mistress, and commissioned (now almost all destroyed) some major buildings done in the Italian vernacular of the period. And she used this same power to create incredible feasts and entertainments to help consolidate the power of the French monarchy – which was otherwise a bit shaky. Bill Buford notes in several passages, the palpable antipathy between French and Italian cooks. But this fascination with Catherine and his research encompassing the two countries’ culinary development unfold in a most entertaining way. I was quite sympathetic to his discussion on the difference between Italian and French coffee.
You will be drawn into both Heat and Dirt with Bill Buford’s immersion into frenetic restaurant kitchens and his solitary hikes to visit rarely sought food destinations. And he takes you on his literary and culinary hikes through old books on French and Italian cooking. I was very touched by his inclusion of personal cookbooks he collects, some from flea markets in France and others from eBay, recipe notebooks from grandmothers to their daughters and granddaughters, to one in particular – an imprisoned French soldier in World War II who had written detailed recipes of his favorite dishes as he remembered them.
In Heat, you get a strong whiff of Mario Battali’s predatory behavior, and in Dirt, there are some reflections on the women in restaurant kitchens who invite comparison to his experiences in Italy. Buford’s stage was at La Mere Brazier. And perhaps you’ll find, as I did, that his writing became sharper, more focused, in his second book. I also had to use my calculator to figure out how much wine was drunk at certain meals in both books, and although math is not my strong point (number of drinks in bottles, magnums jeroboams etc) Buford did strain my credulity. But his Italian sojourn does not end with his work in the now-defunct Babbo but with a wildly weird and now famous butcher in Tuscany, Dario Cecchini. If you missed seeing the episode on Chef’s Table, at least take a look at his website. I particularly admired Dario’s press section.
There are no recipes in either book, but Buford’s digression on how to really make polenta has altered how I do it at home. Even though you probably are not going to pop the skins off your peas, you may learn a few new things from his semester at the Bocuse Cooking School and hard-won expertise in the restaurant kitchens in Lyon.
Consider any time you spend with Bill Buford on your summer reading list to be time well spent.