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Cooking the Books

Before and afterAll photos: Connor Kilpatrick


Not only is Bill Buford's Heat, about his trial by fire in the kitchen of macho chef-restaurateur Mario Batali, finally out in paperback this week, the new edition is — or so the press release gleefully announces — "Now stain-resistant!" For ease of stoveside reading, Vintage promises the book is "kitchen-friendly" and "waterproof." Oh, really? We decided to make use of New York Magazine's test kitchen to see if it really stood up to the usual culinary "accidents": first a dousing with red wine, then an olive-oil spill, a misfire of Tabasco, and a little time on a flat-top range. Then, to test that final claim (and to prevent any work-related injuries), a little bath in the sink. So can Bill Buford stand the heat, or should his book get out of the kitchen?


1. Wine spill. A quarter of a bottle should do it. Predictably, the Cabernet spilled right off the laminated cover but soaked the inside pages completely. The book was largely still readable, and the print didn't bleed too much from the reverse. A quick wipe took care of most of the cover spillage.

2. Olive-oil splatter. The pages not only became gooey, the oil also made them translucent, and words ran together from opposite sides of the pages. The cover wiped down easily enough when spilled on from up top, but when the oil seeped in through the edges, even the cover was permanently greased. Maybe extra-virgin would have yielded better results.

3. Tabasco. Harder to wipe off the front cover, and the wine had already seeped down beyond the last chapter, meaning the back cover was an absolute mess — though we could still discern Buford's distinguished author photo. Pages inside were a ghastly red-orange.

4. Fire. Gas burners would have made quicker work of it, but when placed top cover down, Heat took a good fifteen minutes to start caramelizing and smoking. Until the plastic cover started melting off, the ingredients emitted a complex woody odor, like that of a spicy marsala sauce over grilled meat.

5. Water. Now crispy and with most its lamination burned off, we expected Heat to sink like a stone in the water. It did quickly become waterlogged, but amazingly, it floated. We pushed it down, it came right back up. We suspect it might be a witch. For all we know, all books float, but we didn't have the heart to try it on something else.

Vintage publicist Sloane Crosley conceded that the book is merely water-resistant, not waterproof. She added, "We do not condone the burning of books of any kind," and noted that "coating a book in grease, though making it tastier to the palate, may handicap the actual reading experience." We disagree! At the end of our test, the book was not only still (mostly) readable, it was also far more savory than we would have anticipated. — Boris Kachka