Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Art Of The Memoir

I've just finished Bob Spitz' memoir The Saucier's Apprentice, which, I have to say, has been a real relief from Breadlines Knee Deep In Wheat and Food Banks And The Welfare Crisis. The only crisis in Apprentice are bad cooking schools and a broken heart--neither of which are particularly world-in-peril stuff.

The book can be described fairly simply: person reaches a point in their life that requires a re-evaluation of said life. Person realizes that one of the things they really like to do is cook. Person pursues an education in cooking that also enables them to re-evaluate their life. Cut to narratively elegant wrap-up. Ba-da-boom, satisfying read.
And don't get me wrong, The Saucier's Apprentice is a satisfying read. Spitz expresses just enough self-reflection and exposes enough personal angst to make him a sympathetic character (although I did want to smack him a few times). He writes well about his experience as a dilettante ADD-like cook-wannabe travelling around France and Italy attending various cooking schools. When he confronts a problem with a school experience, he is careful to differentiate between whether the problem is one with the school, or if it's a problem with what he needs from a school. That is to say, if the teaching is okay, but simply not teaching him what he wants/needs to know, or if the actual instruction is less than advertised or less than satisfactory for a paying student. This is an important distinction....
There are some very nice info chunks in the book; why to pursue both Italian and French cooking (because together they form the two pillars of modern cuisine), how the approaches differ (French is more disciplined, Italian more expansive), and he includes some of the best recipes he learned while on the road. Of course, what he can't tell us are the techniques he learned. Knife skills are not a topic that communicates best through writing.... About halfway through the read, I came across his description of working with a Michelin-starred chef, who taught him how to make an omelet. I'd previously read a version in the Best Food Writing series, so it was a treat to come across it again. And it's an excellent piece of writing, describing how the chef challenges him, and when he sees Spitz' failure, quickly drops his "great chef" persona and becomes a journeyman cook again, teaching a technique that must be got right, for a result that is simply perfect.
But the actual technique (involving striking one's wrist three times boom boom boom to fold and finish the omelet) is not something that can be communicated on the page. It is the practice that teaches. Here we can only get Spitz' reaction to the teaching, how exhausted he becomes with the repetition necessary to acquire the skill, and how it feels to see his final, perfect omelet be taken away from him and sent to a customer.
This is common to all of the books in this genre; we can only experience the learned skill vicariously, through the narrator's reaction to learning. We don't become better at using a knife while reading about Julia Child honing her knife skills in My Life In France. Our sauce-making ability is not improved by reading The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry. What instead we share is the narrator’s internal journey, and it is how this journey resonates with our own journey that makes a memoir of this type matter or not to us.
And I have to say, I love these books. I'm not in the position to pack up and leave for France tomorrow (if, indeed, ever). But the desire is there, and a good writer (like Julia Child, Bob Spitz, Kathleen Flinn, or Julie Powell) gives me hope that I could still make the transition from mediocre cook to decent one.

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