Between the reading that I am doing in preparation for my courses and for my various conversations, I have been finding spaces to read a fantastic little book by Bill Buford called Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany (Anchor Canada, 2007). The book is much what the subtitle advertizes it to be, and it is written with the same sense of humour that the subtitle advertizes also. What appeals to me most about the book, however, is Buford’s obvious passion for food, bordering on obsession, as he recognizes himself at one point in the narrative. It is among my most firmly held beliefs that food, whether in the garden or in the kitchen or on the table, should be approached with a kind of fierce frivolity. Food should be both serious and celebratory, simultaneously. Buford’s book has this sense about it.
At one point, relatively late in the book, after Buford has already narrated his experiences in one of New York’s most renowned Italian kitchens, in one of Italy’s most obscure pasta restaurants, and in one of the world’s most famous butcher shops, he pauses to reflect on how his understanding of food has changed. He notes that what he keeps finding in good food is a disregard for commercial success, an insistent respect for tradition, a determination to do things with the hands: a collection of qualities that he describes as “smallness”. He contrasts the idea of smallness explicitly to that of slowness, the approach to food advocated by the slow movement, not because he necessarily disagrees with the principles of the slow movement, but because he finds the metaphor of slowness inadequate in some ways. He notes, with ample justification, that some very good foods are prepared very quickly, and suggests that smallness perhaps describes better the ideal approach to food.
I too have always been dissatisfied with the metaphor of slowness to describe a proper approach to food, but Buford’s idea of smallness is not much better to me, since, as his own narrative describes on several occasions, good food is sometimes made on a grand scale. Buford’s book does provide, however, a criterion for good food that is perhaps more satisfactory than either smallness or slowness. Relatively early in the book, he relates how many of those working with him in the Italian restaurant would talk about food that is “made with love.” This, to me, is the place where we should begin to talk about good food. Food made with love, a love both for the food itself and for the people who will eat it, does indeed describe well what distinguishes what is produced in a fast food restaurant or a factory farm from what is prepared in the home table and in the artisan shop. It is this love that appreciates food at the proper speed, whether slow or fast, food in the proper proportion, whether small or large, and food in the proper style, whether traditional or innovative. It is this love that insists on only the best.
We need to teach people, not to eat small for the sake of smallness or to eat slowly for the sake of slowness, though smallness and slowness might be a result of this teaching. We need to teach people to love their food enough to have it grown and raised well, to have it cooked and prepared well, to have it eaten and appreciated fully. I am an advocate of this kind of love.