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In “Heat,” his first book about food, Buford — a writer at The New Yorker and the author of “Among the Thugs” — embarked on a yeoman’s journey that took him from Mario Batali’s kitchen in New York to the chilly walk-in of a Dante-spouting Tuscan butcher in an effort to learn to cook Italian cuisine.
It was so persuasive an achievement that now, when he turns his attention to France, it’s a bit hard to believe that the author is anywhere near as clueless as he presents himself. But once you get past that initial suspension of disbelief, this book may well be an even greater pleasure than its predecessor.
Moving himself, his wife and their two young boys to Lyon, Buford sets out, with characteristically self-deprecating humor, not merely to learn the techniques of French cuisine, but to understand its essence. The quest will see him consuming with Rabelaisian enthusiasm the region’s cheeses and quenelles and poulets en vessie, and playing bemused supplicant and interrogator to a cadre of beatified chefs, including — holiest of holies — Paul Bocuse himself. But most enjoyable (for us, if not for him) are the apprenticeships in which he sets out to master the five mother sauces, bake the perfect baguette and construct the same misleadingly named “duck pie” by which one year’s candidates for the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (a kind of culinary knighthood) were judged. Along the way he tangles with the bêtes noires of every Anglophone in France — the language, the bureaucracy, the arrogance — and embarks, to the great nationalistic dismay of all around him, on a quixotic investigation to prove an Italian origin theory for pot au feu and other French classics. The book’s dust jacket breathlessly proclaims it as “the definitive account of one of the world’s great culinary cultures,” but “Dirt” is something better: a delightful, highly idiosyncratic exploration of how, as Buford puts it, “a dish is arrived at not by following a set of instructions but by discovering everything about it: the behavior of its ingredients, its history and a quality that some chefs think of as its soul.”
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