Eating Out (New York Review of Books)

By Jason Epstein
Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany
by Bill Buford

Knopf, 318 pp., $25.95
My Life in France
by Julia Child, with Alex Prud’homme

Knopf, 317 pp., $25.95

For all creatures survival depends upon moderation, the outcome of millennial adjustments by trial and error to environmental limits: beasts in the wild and birds in the garden neither feed nor reproduce wantonly lest they violate a precarious equilibrium within their specialized habitats and perish. We human beings, on the other hand, whose free will exiles us from the Eden of pure instinct, lack these automatic regulators. Instead we suffer guilt, invent stern gods, pass sumptuary laws, and obey sexual taboos: when these fail we atone in gyms and twelve-point programs or visit therapists or become Buddhists struggling to impose upon ourselves the limits observed instinctively by our fellow creatures.

Unlike those myriad successful organisms for which environmental harmony is embedded in their genes, humankind, except those already facing extinction in degraded habitats, must govern by habit or struggle to contain their powerful appetites for food and sex against the seductions of a commercial culture that ruthlessly promotes these desires, often in tandem. Babbo, a three-star restaurant in Greenwich Village and the principal locale of Bill Buford’s new memoir, inspires these reflections, for it is in such venues in our culture that the confrontation of moderation with desire plays itself out most dramatically, where human beings who may have suffered during the day on treadmills to make themselves desirable to others are driven in the evening by their primal appetites. Buford’s subject is food, but its erotic counterpart, however sublimated, is seldom out of sight.