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Vacation Reading

I took a book with me on vacation, although I didn’t expect to do much lounging around reading (and didn’t), but the urge to stop moving and settle in with a good book was often there. When we visited towns (in New Hampshire and Maine on this trip), we always made time for strolling and poking around and typically gravitated toward the bookstore. In one of the first (Village Books in Littleton, New Hampshire), I found a copy of Heat: An Amateur Cook’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Pasta Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher on a Hilltop in Tuscany by Bill Buford. I bought it.

I was introduced to this book two years ago when The New Yorker ran a preview (“The Pasta Station”) in the September 6, 2004 issue. I still have it—and I don’t save magazines. The article enthralled me, and when I got the book, I could hardly put it down. Now, I lap this stuff up, but even so, I think Buford would inspire anyone with his own passion for cooking and his portrayal of the ambitious perfectionism of his mentor Mario Batali. After reading Heat, you might be inspired to apprentice yourself—if only the pay were better and it wasn’t such hard work—but it’s a job you could love.

As an amateur cook with no professional experience, I have always been fascinated by what goes on in restaurant kitchens, and not just the best ones. The challenges of short-order cooking are just as interesting (to me) as those of haute cuisine. I like restaurants with open kitchens that provide a glimpse of the action. I don’t learn much by watching, though. There is a vast chasm between my fumbling around in the kitchen and the professional’s confident moves. Buford draws back the curtain by sharing a lot of inside knowledge. For example, when he was assigned to the grill, he had to learn to keep track of the state of 20 or more items at once. He broke a lot of fish learning to flip them. He learned to grill meat by feel. “You cook a steak until your ‘touch’ tells you it’s there.” It’s all fun to read about, but alas, there’s no substitute for all that practice and having Mario Batali correct your mistakes.

The book I took with me was Mac OS X Internals: A Systems Approach written by the brilliant Amit Singh. I never touched it on vacation, but have dipped into its 1600 pages a few times since then. It’s an impressive achievement and a useful one, too.

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