Bill Buford was at one time the fiction editor for The New Yorker, but I think the first time I really took notice of him was when I came across a review essay on his book, Heat, in the London Review of Books a number of months ago. Buford was irresistibly drawn to the purism and passion of his friend, culinary superstar Mario Batali, who inspired him to switch the gears on his career, and immerse himself in the world of food preparation. Heat tells the story of that journey, and I heartily recommend the book to anyone who wants to be taken to an exciting world concerned about what is real, and genuine. Beyond what it tells the reader about pasta and short ribs and fast paced kitchens (the “roomful of adrenaline addicts,” the likes of which I came to know and love as a server at Biaggi’s), it may just inspire your own search for that which is uncompromisingly real in your life. I suppose that is the main reason I find myself drawn to Buford.
Now of course good Missouri Synod Lutherans are not supposed to read The New Yorker. They are supposed to content themselves with reading more Republican material, like The Limbaugh Letter and For the Life of the World. So as I was reading this week’s issue of The New Yorker (the October 29 issue), I noticed that Buford is at it again with his Notes of a Gastronome. His article, “Extreme Chocolate: The Quest for the Perfect Bean” (68-79) takes the reader to the source of some of the world’s greatest chocolate, the rainforest of Bahia, off the coast of Brazil. Along the way, he gives glimpses of the life of a relatively small time organic chocolate maker, Frederick Schilling, who founded the Dagoba chocolate company. Schilling is a raving fanatic. He even claims to have had on at least one occasion a visitation by night from an Aztec goddess, who made him vow never to be untrue to his purist chocolate ideals.
Schilling, and the other chocolate makers to whom he introduced Buford at the Fancy Food Show, have a seriousness about their craft that goes well beyond the money making goals of the big chocolate companies. As Buford observes:
“They were uniformly earnest. They told no jokes. They seemed to have no interest in selling, wanting to talk only about what they made, bars invariably (anything else-a filled confection like a truffle, for instance-was frivolous), in the compulsive, insistent way that upmarket vintners go on about their wines.”
Schilling himself at one point says, “I like getting in the truck and driving sixteen hours to a village that hasn’t replaced its original stock with the latest hybrid. Every bean is a story.”
Now comes the logical question, what do either Bill Buford or pure dark chocolate have to do with theology, and a theologically oriented blog? Frankly, if you don’t see what should be plainly obvious to you by now, then I can’t help you. (I’m just joking there. I’m not Scaer, and you’re not in my classroom.)
As I stated above, Buford is passionate about searching for what is most real and genuine in his field of study, and I like that in a writer, and in a man. Why, I ask, should we waste our time and energy doing things in a mediocre manner? So I am drawn to the purist in any realm. And as a bonus, when I come across such people, it serves to remind me that there are plenty of people in the world and of the world who, even if they will not do some of the things that a Bill Buford will do, yearn for what is most genuine in life. If they are going to agree to give religion a try, and spend their time in church, an increasing number of people, especially the young, want to find something worth their while, something they can respect. Their parents, the children of the sixties and seventies, are largely still busy pleasing themselves with pursuits that are ultimately empty and self serving; they have, for example, founded mega churches, made in the likeness of their own mega image of themselves. The young, I think, want something older, and more genuine, than their parents.
Also, note how he goes about his research. To him, research is a true search. Buford is the kind of man who believes that the only way to ultimately learn about a thing is to see it less as a theory upon which to speculate, and more as an experience, a journey, that must be taken. To know something, as King James uses the word, is to truly relate to it, interact with it, ponder its every facet, and then dive into it, and take it into oneself. Hence his affinity for doing things like submitting himself to the rigors of the kitchen of an Italian restaurant, or of learning the qualities of a strange Brazilian fruit by taking hold of it, and sinking his teeth into it, and feeling its effects in his mouth. His approach to learning is, dare I say, in some sense sacramental, as he fittingly shows in this latest piece, wherein he explores chocolate, which some call the “food of the gods” (theobromine, which I prefer to translate as “God’s food”).
Perhaps Buford’s article will convince you, if you have yet to be convinced, of the virtue of seventy plus percent chocolate. More importantly, though, let the Christian reader take it as an illustration of the fact that the only way to truly know God is to know Him sacramentally. Indeed, it is better to say that God thus comes to know us. From heaven above to earth he comes, not as a scandalous thing He had to do in order to save and redeem us (though he does thereby save and redeem us), but as the ongoing reality of the life He loves to share with us, His beloved spouse. And as He thus comes to us, He in fact not so much leaves heaven behind as much as brings it with Him.