One telling way to get inside another food culture is quite literally to get inside a person—a chef, a cook, a food producer, even a knowledgeable diner or consumer—who is inside that culture. Not to be too obscure about it, I’m thinking of several profiles I’ve come across in recent reading that illuminate Italian food. One in particular is New Yorker writer Jane Kramer’s profile of Chef Massimo Bottura, which appeared in The New Yorker five years ago and is included in The Reporter’s Kitchen, Kramer’s recent collection of essays, all dealing with food one way or another. (The book, published this year by St. Martin’s Press, is available on line or in bookstores: https://www.amazon.com/Reporters-Kitchen-Essays-Jane-Kramer/dp/1250074371/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1522695930&sr=1-1&keywords=reporter%27s+kitchen+kramer)
Like many long-time New Yorker writers, Kramer is gifted at crafting the personal profile, which she uses over and over again, to great effect, illustrating points that might eventually circle back to the thesis of the article. Or might not. But the profile is almost always entertaining, and almost always, like the best of the genre, gives the reader a sense of being there, of knowing the person, and of knowing the writer’s own response.
I want to excerpt something from this Bottura profile to illustrate, but I hardly know where to begin, it is so full of illuminations. Let’s try this:
“The first time I heard Bottura ‘thinking,’ I wondered if he was angry—or worse, bored. I was wrong. I got used to Bottura’s shouts. I began to think of them as bardic. I would wait for him to jump up from the breakfast table. . . grab his cell phone, disappear into the library, . . . and, with the music blasting, begin to shout. I would watch him brake his motorcycle in the middle of a busy Modena street, dig for his phone, and, to the accompaniment of honking horns, begin to shout. I learned a lot about food, listening to Bottura think, though I would happily have skipped the night he punched a number into his phone and yelled, ‘Senti questa!’—‘Listen to this!’—while driving a Mercedes at perilous speed down the autostrada to Reggio Emilia. . . . That was unsettling, given that I had hoped to get to Modena alive that night.”
Or this, describing Bottura’s home town of Modena: “Bottura says that when he opened [his Modena restaurant] Francescana the local borghesi–few of whom actually thought to eat there—were instantly suspicious, convinced that no one could cook better than the way they had always cooked, meaning exactly the way their mothers and grandmothers, and all the mothers before them, had. This of course could be said of anywhere in Italy, a country so resistant to culinary experiment that grown men will refuse to eat their wives’ cooking and go ‘home’ for lunch instead.”
Not just a profile of a chef, but a brilliantly brief profile of a place, a town, indeed of an entire country.