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Bill Buford on reading and learning from cookbooks

Bill Buford  is the founding editor of the literary journal Granta who went on to become the fiction editor of The New Yorker.
Bill Buford is the founding editor of the literary journal Granta who went on to become the fiction editor of The New Yorker.Thomas Schauer

Bill Buford has seemingly done it all in the literary world. The founding editor of the literary journal Granta went on to become the fiction editor of The New Yorker, which he left only to become a best-selling writer, with books such as his most recent, “Dirt: Adventures in Lyons as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the History of French Cooking.” Buford, back stateside from five years in Lyons, now lives in Brooklyn with his family.

BOOKS: What are you reading?

BUFORD: I’m reading Evelyn Waugh for the first time. We just moved and “A Handful of Dust” is what I had at hand. Lately I’ve been reading books I never got around to, like Salman Rusdie’s novel “Quichotte,” his novel about Don Quixote. Also, since the fall I’ve been reading an edition of Shakespeare sonnets, which I happened to work on when I was a student at Berkeley with my mentor, the Shakespeare scholar Stephen Booth, who died this year from COVID. It’s a powerful experience because of that and the sonnets are so weird. I remember when I read them as an undergraduate I thought I’d be able to recite Shakespeare. They are almost impossible to memorize.

BOOKS: What else have you read that you’d been meaning to get to?


BUFORD: I read Tom Reiss’s “The Black Count,” about Alexander Dumas’s father, who was Black. That’s a complete delight. Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard” took me forever to get to because I thought, “A book about the Italian aristocracy: Who really cares?” It was fantastic. Now I’ve read just about everything Hemingway’s ever written. I thought both his best-known novels were marred. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” has the most brilliant first 150 pages and then becomes a mess that reads like an old war movie. The ending of “A Farewell to Arms” was just awful. I still really like his collected short stories.


BOOKS: Do you read largely fiction?

BUFORD: A lot of what I’ve been reading has been nonfiction for my work. While I lived in France I learned to read French. I had the most fun reading old, classic French food writing, a lot of which you can read on the digital library Gallica. I also got quite obsessed with collecting hand-written cookbooks. I got one made by a French prisoner of war during World War II. It explained to me how food becomes culture and identity.

BOOKS: Who were some of the famous French food writers you read from then?

BUFORD: La Varenne, who wrote “The French Cook” in the 17th century. He’s credited with writing the first cookbook, which established that chefs can write. From that point on they began writing more books and the writing became much better. I read a lot by Menon. He was fascinating in making the distinction between cooking at home and in a restaurant.

BOOKS: Who are your favorite food writers in English?

BUFORD: I’m a big fan of the British writer Elizabeth David, which comes from me living in England for years. I like her narrative approach to cooking. Without being labored, she’s able to evoke the town where she learned a dish or the woman she heard it from. I also love the American writer Harold McGee.


BOOKS: How well do you treat your cookbooks?

BUFORD: I just treat them like [expletive]. I have this rare book written by the restaurant critic Curnonsky, who’s credited with making Lyon a gastronomic capital. There are only a few thousand copies that were printed, and I managed to get one. Then I just jammed it in my rucksack with other stuff and took it everywhere. It’s just decimated.

BOOKS: What’s on your upcoming pile?

BUFORD: I love Orwell but I’ve never read “1984.” I’ve never read Tolstoy or Proust. I’ve been discovering the Bloomsbury crowd all over again. I’ve been dipping into Gerald Brenan, who wrote books about Spain. Spain might be where we end up living next.

BOOKS: Your reading makes you sound homesick for Europe. Are you?

BUFORD: Yes, I can’t justify it. I can’t say I’m returning to my heritage. I just like a lot of things about it.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane” and she can be reached at amysutherland@mac.com.