So many people mentioned that they were reading Dirt by Bill Buford that I succumbed to peer pressure and downloaded the book. I’m not really a foodie, except for an unhealthy addiction to sweets, which I am trying to break. But I am a Francophile of sorts because some of my ancestors were French, so I enjoyed Buford’s adventures in Lyon. Mr. Buford is not a chef, he’s a writer, most recently for The New Yorker, but he had done some stints in Italian kitchens and he met Michel Richard, a French chef in Washington, DC.
Although he and his wife Jessica had newborn twin boys, he commuted on weekdays to Washington DC from New York City and was only available to help out with those twins on weekends. If I were Jessica, I think I might have shown him a few creative uses for pots and pans, or, even better, rolling pins, but Jessica is not faint-of-heart. She handles challenges with grace, occasionally requires better spousal behavior and shares her husband’s sense of adventure.
The two had hoped to move to Paris but ended up in Lyon because Chef Richard had connections there. With twins, now toddlers (moving to Lyon is complicated) the family decamped to Lyon. Bill worked for a while with the boulanger (bread maker) downstairs from their apartment who made bread for restaurants and people all over Lyon. Buford wondered why Bob’s bread was so much better than most bread. His search led him into the Dombes, marshes in the foothills of the French Alps and it led to the essential role “dirt” plays in the quality of food.
Buford did not pick up languages easily but fortunately Jessica did. The boys were in preschool in Lyon and also picked up French quite naturally. Bill took some time. He attended an Institute of French Cooking and did some “stages” at restaurants in Lyon. He did pick up in-depth knowledge of Lyonnaise cooking.
Bill kept wanting to find a connection between Italian cooking and Lyonnaise cooking with Italian cooking at the roots of the French cooking and he did form some interesting theories through his researches. He must have been a very charming guy because he got away with this in the chauvinistic city of Lyon. But he also learned not to speak of these theories to anyone in Lyon.
It turns out that much of the cooking in Lyon came from a few famous “meres” (mothers) whose food was so legendary that it formed the basis of a “mere” restaurant. Some “meres” left handwritten cookbooks for their offspring. Often these “mere” kitchens are now just about the exclusive domain of men.
Dirt by Bill Buford is about food and also about the historical roots of food, and about making friends in a place where newcomers are regarded with suspicion and are snubbed. Informative and enjoyable; sometimes giving in to peer pressure is a good thing. I enjoyed the book every much.