Bill Buford’s new book “Dirt” is an escape to France

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“On Sunday, the bakery belonged to Lyon.” This is how Bill Buford describes his new favorite place in the neighborhood where he moved with his family in 2008. In Dirt, the last memoirs of the former fiction editor of New Yorker, Buford moved to the gastronomic center of France to master the cuisine of the country. Soon he discovered the bakery, a local touchstone run by the beloved baker Bob, who attracts customers from all walks of life every weekend. There is a crowd walking around in search of hot food after an evening. A few hours later, the early risers wait for the buttery breakfast treats, money in hand, in a line coming out the door. These images are reminiscent of a world that feels far away in the midst of orders to stay at home: strangers crammed together, their common denominator is not a global crisis but rumbling stomachs for fresh chopsticks. That made Dirt a welcome reminder of simpler times.
Buford is not new to culinary memories. The author documented a food-rich year in Italy in his 2006 bestseller Heat, which recounted his adventures as an amateur chef in New York and then in Tuscany, trying to learn everything there was to know about Italian cuisine while living with his partner Jessica. Dirt has some of the same ingredients: Buford is out of his comfort zone and wants to try his hand in the kitchen alongside the best in the industry. But the book adds a twist in the form of two new, passionate expatriate team members: the couple’s 3-year-old twins. And as the family settles into a new routine in France, the few months that Buford originally planned to spend in Lyon have turned into five years.

The author’s point of view as a father, seeing his children immerse themselves in a foreign culture, prevents memories from getting bogged down in history and often worsens the precision of the preparation of French cuisine. Instead, his writing is filled with humor and heart. When the twins try Bob’s Chocolate bread for the first time, Buford describes the moment with joy: “They had never eaten anything like this before – and did not understand why they should eat something else. “
Culinary memories often romanticize the places where they take place, but Buford never claims that Lyon is glamorous. He is in love with the city’s granularity: walls riddled with graffiti; streets with broken stones; and of course the food, which he writes “was not great, but was always good. His admiration for Lyon, however, does not mean that he fits in. Jessica, a wine writer, speaks French easily, but he doesn’t – and their outsider status creates tension that thrills throughout the memories. Buford’s mission was to feel confident in French cuisine. By studying in a culinary institute and working in a Michelin star restaurant, he acquires the technical skills he needs. But belonging, he realizes, will require a different kind of education.

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To feel more connected to Lyon and less like a tourist, Buford sets out to find out where its culinary traditions come from. At one point, he considers the cheese and its nature preserved. There are over 1,000 varieties of cheese in France – and the experience of eating cheese is special for Buford. He wonders why: “Does eating a piece of cheese, more than any other food, amount to honoring a piece of place?” As he searches for the answer, he reveals the importance of understanding a city to better prepare his dishes.
In the end, it’s the little bakery where he grows the most, and not just as a chef. Bob welcomes him and gives everything he knows about making bread with care. To some it may seem strange to read a travelogue – and the ease with which Buford can hop on an airplane while Dirt could surely arouse envy. But by capturing his relationship with Bob and the bakery so delicately, Buford highlights a deeply resonant life principle: the value of community.

Write to Annabel Gutterman at [email protected]