Two Great Books to Chew On

This season, two first-rate journalists offer important books about food—both as riveting as novels, and both passionate journeys of the heart. Bill Buford’s “Heat” and Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” build their arguments from a base of intensely personal reporting to a high pitch of urgency.

Pollan is a gardener, a cook and an uncommonly graceful explainer of natural science; this is the book he was born to write. He walks us through four meals that delineate the battlefield of dinner. A McDonald’s meal in his car at 60mph leads into the disastrous monoculture of corn, which contains less energy than the fuel required to produce it: “It’s too bad we can’t simply drink the petroleum directly.” Pollan draws a straight line from agricultural subsidies to our obesity epidemic. (We’re “a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthily.”) And he visits the overcrowded feedlots and antibiotic-ridden factory farms that raised his cheeseburger: “Eating it, I had to remind myself there was an actual cow involved.”

At Whole Foods, Pollan wonders if “industrial organic” is an oxymoron. He coins the term “Supermarket Pastoral” to identify the seductive “literary form” used to imply a connection to the earth that Big Organic makes more tenuous every day. Such thoughts limit his enjoyment of the meal he buys. He works at an artisanal, organically perfect closed-loop farm in Virginia (with “cows eating grasses that had themselves eaten the sun”), and the dinner he later cooks involves a chicken he’s helped kill. “In a way, the most morally troubling thing about killing chickens is that after a while it is no longer morally troubling.” Finally, Pollan becomes a vegetarian just long enough to examine the reasoning of animal-rights activists (with perfect-pitch irony), then takes us along as he feeds off the land. As hunter/gatherer, he makes, at last, the richest, most satisfying meal.

Buford, a New Yorker writer and sometime cook, muscles his way into the kitchen of Mario Batali’s three-star Manhattan restaurant Babbo. He renders the place’s fiery intensity—and nuttiness—but finds cooking there “far removed from the real thing.” Batali is just the rock-star poster on the wall, while Buford brings an obsessive’s passion to exploring why making Italian food matters. He eats grouse with the over-the-top London restaurateur Marco Pierre White, a Batali mentor. He seeks out Batali’s teacher, Betta, in an Italian hill town, and isn’t allowed to touch ingredients for 10 days. Most memorably, he learns to handle meat from butcher Dario Cecchini (and his teacher, “the Maestro”) in Tuscany. Dario, Buford writes, didn’t want to be seen as a butcher, but as “an artist, whose subject was loss.” Near the book’s end, Buford comes to a similarly bittersweet conclusion: “Food made by hand is an act of defiance and runs contrary to everything in our modernity. Find it; eat it; it will go.”