Heat (An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany)….Bill Buford

Mario Batali's New York City restaurant, Babbo, where Buford spent nearly two years working in the kitchen.

What a great, great way to kick off Food Month!

In 2002, writer Bill Buford decided he wanted to see if he had what it took to cook professionally. Rather than going to cooking school, Buford talked his friend Mario Batali (of the orange clogs) into letting him work in the kitchen of his 3-star New York City Italian restaurant, Babbo, and Batali agreed. Thus would begin a journey that would take Buford from the kitchens of New York to the countryside of Italy, in search of the elusive secrets of good cooking.

Buford writes of the stress of working in a high-pressure kitchen, first as a prep cook, then at the grill, and then a brief stint at the pasta station, each with its own challenges and lessons. What Buford thought he knew about cooking was thrown out the window as he learned on-the-job knife skills, how to plate professionally, and how a kitchen works. He expertly chronicles the rise to fame of Batali, from unknown California chef to Food Network superstar. On Batali’s advice, Buford spends months abroad in Italy, learning first-hand from cooks who have been making pasta and butchering cattle for generations, using recipes and techniques passed down to them from family members. Throughout his journey, Buford learns a new appreciation for food and cooking as he hones his craft from the experts.

Bill Buford, author of "Heat"

I loved this book, start to finish. It was very illuminating to read about what really goes on back behind the kitchen doors at a restaurant. I had no idea it would be so complicated to run a kitchen, how many people are involved (and how crazy some of them are!)¬†and the long hours they work to make success happen. What appears to happen so naturally to us as diners takes a lot of coordination, talent, and personal sacrifice ūüôā¬†His descriptions of the food throughout the book were so detailed. I could see almost every dish and wanted to eat many of them myself, or at least try to cook them. Sometimes I was laughing out loud. Buford’s description of Batali creating an over-the-top multi-course tasting menu for visiting chefs (jokingly remarking that they are going to serve him so much food that “we’re going to kill him”) was hilarious, as was the story of Batali slaving away for renowned British chef Marco Pierre White in a small British pub, shoving a shellfish reduction through a tea strainer to reduce it. I also loved the parts when Buford was in Italy, seeing how pasta is made by hand, or how cows are butchered, and the people he meets there, not to mention how differently people¬†eat in other countries than we do here in the US.

¬†In the end, Heat wasn’t so much about food as it was about the people who cook it and why/how they do what they do. It was fascinating. Even though I’m a picky eater and probably wouldn’t have eaten stuff like sweetbreads and sausage made with the pig’s intestines for casing, everything sounded delicious. Buford’s love for all things food definitely showed through in this book, and I wish there was more.¬†

Grade: A+

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Wrapping Up True Crime Month….Kicking off Food Month

I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed True Crime Month. Out of five books I read, two were outstanding (Devil in the White City and Killer Colt), two were better than okay (Confessions of a Jewel Thief and The Poisoner’s Handbook), and one sucked (Sex on the Moon). That’s a pretty great month of reading, if you ask me! If anything, I realized that criminals do some pretty dumb things, and they almost always get caught.

I’ve read some other great True Crime books on the blog before True Crime Month, and wanted to give those a shout-out in case any readers out there want to pick up some great reads. Check them out on the sidebar.

Okay! We’re moving right along to my other favorite subject (besides reading)…FOOD!!! I have some great food reads lined up for February.

Julie and Julia, Julie Powell

Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain

Bones, Blood and Butter, Gabrielle Hamilton

Heat, Bill Buford

The Making of a Chef, Michael Ruhlman

Killer Colt: Murder, Disgrace, and the Making of an American Legend….Harold Schechter

Woodcut illustration appearing in a newspaper of the time depicting the gruesome discovery of Samuel Adams' body in a crate by the docks.

September 17, 1841. An argument breaks out in a second floor office of the Granite Building in New York City. A hatchet is raised and connects with the head of a man named Samuel Adams, smashing into his skull and killing him. His body is stuffed into a wooden packing crate, dragged down a flight of stairs, and is carried by horsecart to a waiting steamer bound for New Orleans. The killer returns to the office and cleans up the mess, thinking he has removed all of the evidence and gotten away scot-free.

He is wrong.

Harold Schechter’s amazing book, Killer Colt, follows the quite different lives of two brothers, John Caldwell Colt and his brother, the famous Samuel Colt, inventor of the Colt repeating pistol. Both boys were born into a well-to-do family that falls on hard times. Their mother and sisters die young, and although his father remarries, the boys are left to find their ways in the world. John hires Samuel Adams to print his famous book on bookkeeping (which goes through 42 editions!), but the two come to blows that fateful night in September over an unpaid bill. Were it not for the astute observations of Colt’s neighbor, Asa Wheeler, who witnessed Colt’s actions through the keyhole of the door, the crime may have gone undiscovered. Colt’s subsequent arrest leads to the Trial of the Century, as the jury struggles to convict him of either manslaughter based on self-defense, or premeditated murder.

Schechter’s book starts slow with the introduction of the Colt boys and their sad childhoods, but builds momentum as the crime is perpetrated and the trial begins. He suggests that this was the first American trial to be influenced by the ‘penny press’,¬†which were¬†smaller newspapers geared more towards average Americans. These early versions of The Enquirer¬†splashed inflammatory and/or graphic¬†illustrations on the front page and carried lurid stories¬†and scathing editorials about the trial. This¬†was unheard of at the time and caused an uproar throughout¬†the country (and this was before photography!).¬†Men and women¬†lined up by the hundreds to get seats in the courtroom to watch the trial unfold. They were exposed to graphic forms of evidence (the decomposed head of the victim was brought in as evidence one day) and dramatic episodes, as Sam Colt¬†demonstrated his patented pistol right in front of the judge’s bench¬†as evidence to help clear his brother. Besides inflaming public opinion, these papers had a direct impact on the trial itself. The widespread dissemination of information (and misinformation) about the trial made it difficult to seat an impartial jury. It was a trial unlike any other.

This book was so refreshing to read after all the bullshit fluff of Sex on the Moon. It was impeccably researched, well written and absorbing. Schechter did such a great job of getting into the minds and hearts of both of the Colt boys, and his coverage of the media circus that the trial became was entertaining and compelling. You can certainly see where the public’s love of dramatic¬†murder trials first¬†began!

If you love a good courtroom drama, this is one for the books. Check it out. Book number 3 for the NonFiction Non Memoir Reading Challenge!

Grade: A

If It Ain’t Good, Don’t Finish It

Life is too short to drag oneself through a really lousy book. That’s how I roll.

When I first selected Ben Mezrich’s Sex on the Moon at the library three weeks ago, I was somewhat excited to read it, having enjoyed his more famous book, The Accidental Billionaires (and the movie it inspired). Although The Accidental Billionaires¬†was fun and¬†compulsively readable, it wasn’t what I would consider pure nonfiction. If you’re wondering what I mean by that, here’s an example:¬†both The Accidental Billionaires AND Sex on the Moon begin with the following disclaimer:

¬†“Details of settings and descriptions have been changed to protect identities; certain names, individuals’ characterizations, physical descriptions, and histories have been altered to protect privacy, in some cases at the characters’ own request. I do employ the technique of re-created dialogue.”¬†

It was nice to know at the start of the book, before I got emotionally involved with any of the characters or formed opinions about their actions, that some of it would be made up. It was almost reassuring, in a way.

For some reason, I was okay with this in The Accidental Billionaires, mostly because I was already somewhat familiar with the main characters and all the drama surrounding the founding of Facebook. Plus he didn’t change the names of most of the main characters in Billionaires, so I¬†had a frame of reference.¬†¬†I could look them up on Wikipedia if I wanted to. Mezrich described them just as they were. Even though I ended up not liking any of Mezrich’s characters in Billionaires, the collaboration of all of these unlikeable characters resulted in something that had an impact on my life.

Unfortunately for Sex on the Moon,¬†I had no frame of reference. I knew nothing about the¬†premise of¬†the book or any of the characters. Google searches of character names either turned up nothing, or turned up their real names and pictures of people who¬†looked nothing¬† like they were described. The sense of unreality heightened as Mezrich populated NASA’s premier research center with supermodel-gorgeous engineering students, making me wonder if NASA picked interns for its selective program based on pictures rather than SAT scores. No one drove anything worse than¬†a BMW.¬†Interns could seemingly wander in and out of high security areas with ease, no questions asked. And it didn’t help that I hated the main character, Thad Roberts, a dumb-ass, thrill-seeking NASA intern who stole moon rocks as a way to impress his girlfriend and make people think he was cool. Never mind that he was married when he had the girlfriend, betrayed nearly everyone who trusted him personally and professionally, and wrecked any chance at what looked like a promising career with NASA. How can you root for a¬† guy like that? Who wants to spend 300 pages watching someone flush their life down the drain for some chick? Plus Mezrich weirdly intersperses the chapters with excerpts of hyperdramatic love letters Roberts apparently sent to his girlfriend while serving time in jail (which were all returned to him unopened–it was nice to see someone had some common sense. It was the most realistic part of the book). And in the end, I just couldn’t care. It was like some¬†stupid fraternity prank gone horribly wrong.

I read nonfiction because I like true stories, about real people and real things that happened, so I was disappointed in this book on many levels. Although it’s undisputed that¬†Roberts stole the moon rocks and served many years of jail time, the rest of¬†the book is¬†fluff.¬†Many reviews out there suggested that Mezrich is now¬†writing more¬†with the Hollywood screen in mind than real fact, so I suspect we’ll see this one at our local movie theater before too long. Maybe someone should suggest to Mezrich that his real calling lies in screenwriting rather than nonfiction. It would save many of us hours we’ll never get back.

Grade: Unfinished.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America….Erik Larson

The Ferris Wheel, invented just for the 1893 World's Fair

February 24, 1893: The¬†city of Chicago, IL¬†surprisingly wins the ballot to host the 1893 World’s Fair over New York and Washington. The best and brightest of America’s architects descend on the town to plan the most awe inspiring spectacle the country, and the world, have ever seen, with the clock ticking until Opening Day. The pressure is on to outdo the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, which¬†introduced¬†the amazing Eiffel Tower, and to put Chicago on the map as an up-and-coming Midwestern city. Meanwhile,¬†a blue eyed, charming physician arrives in town with a keen interest in the young ladies who will flock unaccompanied to the fair from their boring hometowns, eager for new experiences. And a downtrodden newspaperman will delusionally envision for himself¬† the favor of Chicago’s mayor and a better life.

All of these stories are masterfully woven together in Erik Larson’s amazing tale, The Devil in the White City. This is the story of Daniel Burnham, visionary architect and mastermind of the Fair, who brought together some of the most famous architects of the day to build what would come to be called the White City, so named because all of the buildings were painted white (spray paint was invented at the fair just for this purpose!). Utilizing neoclassical design, these men raised one of the most awe-inspiring settings for the fair anyone could ever imagine, all in a two year time frame. They would battle time, the elements, financial panics,¬†and each other during the building of the fair, but would somehow manage to create something unforgettable.

HH Holmes, serial killer at the Chicago World's Fair

It is also the story of HH Holmes, America’s first serial killer, who used the lure of the fair and the big city to his advantage. Women would leave their homes to come to the city for a new start, a job, or for excitement. They were taken in by the suave, good-looking Holmes, who wooed them with flattery, gifts and from what it sounds like, groping, only to end up luring them to their deaths. He built a hotel specifically designed to get these women under his roof, where he could suffocate them in sealed rooms, burn their bodies in a specially made kiln in the basement, or sell their skeletons to medical schools (who were so desperate at the time for bodies that they would raid graveyards).¬†When finally convicted it was known that he killed 9 people for certain, although others have estimated the number could have been around 200.

And finally, it is the story of¬†Patrick Prendergast, an Irish immigrant who for some reason felt that if he worked hard to help re-elect Chicago’s four-term mayor, Carter Harrison, that Harrison would promote him to Corporation Counsel, even though the two had never met. Prendergast’s “work” usually involved writing delusional and scary postcards to city officials. When Carter gets re-elected and no promotion is forthcoming, Prendergast doesn’t take rejection well, and instead takes matters into his own hands.

It was fascinating to read about the Fair. Thanks to this fair, we were first introduced to Cracker Jacks, zippers, the Ferris Wheel, the hamburger, dishwashers, Hershey chocolate and Pabst Blue Ribbon (okay, maybe we could have skipped the PBR!). The concept of the midway was also introduced, although the Midway at the World’s Fair definitely differs from our modern midways. The midway was then conceived as a way for fair guests to be exposed to people from different cultures, and along the midway people could see belly dancers, camels, Eskimos, an ostrich farm, and Amazonians. The fair was also lit by electric lights on every building, making it a spectacle for night as well as the daytime. People could not even bring their own cameras without paying a fee!

I liked this book just as much as Thunderstruck, maybe a bit more. The Holmes story was so deliciously creepy I could not read it at night, and like I did in Thunderstruck when I jumped over chapters about Marconi to read about Crippen, I found myself sometimes jumping ahead a bit to read about Holmes. Not that the Fair parts of the book weren’t entertaining. It was fascinating to see how such a huge event got put together in such a short time, back before telephones, the Internet or computer drafting. The Holmes sections of the story definitely had more momentum for me.

I hope you’ll check this one out. Creepy yet immensely satisfying. 2nd book for the NonFiction NonMemoir reading challenge!

Grade: A

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York…Deborah Blum

Drs Alexander Gettler and Charles Norris, pioneers of forensic toxicology

I’m not known around my office for carrying around the world’s most upbeat books. While everyone else is reading lighter, fun stuff like The Help, some Janet Evanovich novel with a number in the title, or The¬†Girl with the Whatever, I’ve got my nose stuck in books about cancer, dead bodies, and now poisons. So needless to say, no one, and I mean NO ONE, was sad to see me finish The Poisoner’s Handbook. I think I managed to freak out every single coworker and my husband by carrying this book around for a week (no wonder my husband kept wanting to eat out every night! ūüôā

Had my coworkers taken a closer look at the book (the twelve word subtitle is in print so small you can barely read it up close, much less across the room), or even the book jacket, they would have realized that this is not a book about how to poison people. It’s more about the history of toxicology and forensic science, and¬†the rise¬†of its¬†importance during Prohibition. Deprived of beer, wine, and hard liquor, people would turn to bootleg liquors made in someone’s backyard for their thrill. Sadly, this wasn’t the safe stuff home breweries crank out these days. It was much worse. Some of the bootleg liquors available then contained horribly toxic¬†ingredients such as ammonia, gasoline, formaldehyde, and acetone….yet people drank it anyway.

Of course, poison wasn’t¬†just showing up on the rocks¬†in speakeasies. During the beginnings of the Great Depression, people apparently had no qualms killing off family members or friends if it meant getting insurance money, an inheritance, or decreasing the size of a large family to make ends meet. Back before today’s modern science, it was very hard to tell when/if someone had been poisoned intentionally, as no one had done any studies on how poisons act in the body or what physical signs different poisons¬†might leave behind. In 1918, Drs Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler founded the very first forensics and toxicology lab in the country at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, and dedicated their careers to studying poisons and their effects on human physiology. Their findings would later help to convict criminals, pardon the innocent, and help those who became sick from different poisons.

Blum’s book devotes a chapter to many of the different poisons Norris and Gettler came across in their careers during the early 20th century.¬†It was astounding to me that energy drinks available to everyone and some medications¬†used to contain the radioactive element radium, which would cause people’s¬†bones to crumble; and beauty creams used to contain thallium, which would eventually make people’s hair fall out. ¬†I was also horrified that one of the ways the government fought against people who drank illegally during Prohibition was to further poison the alcohol that was out there, which could and did in many cases kill or sicken people.

Blum’s book was a bit choppy in places, but it picked up steam towards the end. Although the book has a chapter devoted to each poison, the story for that particular poison was rarely resolved by the end of the chapter, sometimes coming to its conclusion two or three chapters later. The book also jumped around in time quite a bit, so you had to pay attention. There was a lot about the party politics of Prohibition and the fights Norris and Gettler had to keep their lab going and gain credibility in the legal profession, which constituted the slower parts of the book for me. It was also pretty graphic in describing the effects each of the different poisons would have on their victims, and how the forensics team would chop up human tissue to use in chemical experiments to help isolate the poisons. There were also lots of animal studies where animals were intentionally poisoned and killed to help learn about the physiology of poisons in the body. This book was not for the faint of heart!

Overall an interesting read for those not too squeamish and those who like good murder mysteries. I ended the book relieved that Prohibition was repealed and that the FDA is there for us now.

This is my first book for the NonFiction NonMemoir Challenge!!! Only 24 to go!!! ūüôā

Grade: B

More True Crime Reads!

Just in case you’re wanting more true crime reads this month, Cassandra over at Book Riot has a great post with some fantastic reads about the dead. As part of her commitment to reading more non-fiction (yay!) she’s listed¬†three books to check out:

The Girl with the Crooked Nose: A Tale of Murder, Obsession and Forensic Artistry, Ted Botha.

Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab The Body Farm, Where the Dead Do Tell Tales….Dr Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach

They sound so creepy! I will definitely check out Death’s Acre, as Dr Craig from Teasing Secrets from the Dead (review here) talked about working at the Body Farm with Dr Bass as part of her graduate training, and also the Mary Roach book, since Spook was so hilarious.