In the past several weeks, I’ve been immersed in memoirs about food. First, I read Judith Jones’s The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, and I’m currently reaching the end of Bill Buford’s Heat. The two books are quite different, but they share one common element with each other and with the food writing I tend to enjoy in general–they’re written by enthusiastic amateurs, not celebrated chefs.

Jones’s book is a snapshot of the New York-Paris publishing intelligentsia of the postwar/midcentury era, but told in the context of her love of cooking. It starts with the typical Upper East Side, Spence- and Bennington-educated Nice Young Lady who travels to Paris with a Suitable Companion to Find Herself. I was sort of rolling my eyes at the setup, until Jones Finds Herself in the markets and bistros of Paris, opening illegal restaurants in the grand apartments of absentee countesses, and road-tripping around the country to sample odd foods at rural restaruants (she really, really likes organ meats). She carried her food obsession back to New York, where she became an editor at Knopf (and still is, according to the book jacket, although she must be at least 80 by now), first to handle the English translations of French writers, but soon as the leading cookbook editor of the past 50 years. In her time there, she has published the defining cookbooks of Julia Child, Marion Cunningham, Lidia Bastianich, Edna Lewis, Marcella Hazan, James Beard, and pretty much every other cooking celebrity you’ve heard of. Many of these contacts came her way through her personal quests to master certain cuisines (French, Middle Eastern, Italian) or single recipes (bread–this lady loves her some bread). The final section of the book is devoted to sort of a diary of recipes from her childhood (spaghetti and cheese) through her later years on her farm in Vermont (stuffed and fried milkweed pods).

Heat is quite different. Bill Buford is the New Yorker‘s principal food writer (much of this book appeared as several long features in the magazine over the past few years) and became obsessed both with restaruant culture and rustic Italian cooking. Over the course of about four years, his interest took him on several stints as a line cook at Babbo (which sound truly horrifying) and a number of apprenticeships at out-of-the-way restaurants and a butcher shop in Tuscany. I’m taking several things away from this–first I have no interest, ever, in working at a restaurant (I don’t like being screamed at). Second I really want to master a Bolognese ragu (meat paste!). Third I’m not interested in making fresh pasta (too stressful). Fourth I’m totally interested in making a three-hour polenta (apparently the standard 30-minute recipe is a big fat lie). Fifth Mario Batali is even crazier than he appears on TV. Also? Two of the best things about Italian cuisine–corn and tomatoes–are totally American. I already knew that, but I like to have it reinforced. Woo!

Advertisements