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Friday, July 3, 2009

Summer Reading That Won't Make You Stupid: Food Memoir with the Scent of Balls

Posted By on Fri, Jul 3, 2009 at 10:27 AM

In Cooking Dirty: A Story of Life, Sex, Love and Death in the Kitchen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26.00) Jason Sheehan rolls and ties an autobiographical narrative of a life spent toiling in the lower regions of food. Sheehan is resto critic for Westword, the Denver alt weekly and SF Weekly sister pub. His memoir ia a double dip into testosterone mash, stirred up with the gritty glamour of line work (it pays overt homage to Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential). You damn near catch a whiff of scrotum in writing like the following, in a chapter about working nights in a diner alongside drunks and junkies: "Full body hard. That's the phrase we used to describe new hires who we knew would probably make it okay ... a guy who was a straight-up, toes-to-top boner in those last couple minutes before the rush came in; stiff as wood and just so goddamn excited to see what was coming that if you breathed on him wrong, he would've popped."

Call it kitchen-line bromance, a genre you can sample these days even in the blogosphere (take a look at line cook, the ramblings of Nopa sous chef Richie Nakano). But Sheehan, a fierce writer, imbues the formula with restless meaning: the transcendence of the $6-an-hour loser. "We do it because here, we're part of something. We're expected, which is only a big deal to people who understand what it's like not to be expected anywhere." Sheehan ends with his acceptance of a James Beard medal for a Westword piece about barbecue. The scene comes off as a curiously depressed anticlimax, as if the author -- by stepping off the kitchen line -- had long ago extinguished any animating spark. As if, in some perverse way, success gave him the kind of legitimacy that squelched his slacker soul: a deliciously bittersweet ending.

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