Batali, High and Low

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Mario Batali is the double life he leads quite publicly. It’s something that Bill Buford sketched memorably in his book Heat: Batali is a populist, with his TV shows and his plastic clogs and his rock ‘n’ roll, but also a proud member of the cognoscenti—the know-it-all who’s unable to hold back esoteric literary-historical references, who unlike other Food Network hosts is skilled enough to maintain his flagship restaurant, Babbo, as a top-drawer New York restaurant with three-star reviews and $500 wines on the menu. Outwardly he is all alpha male, but he’s savvy enough to embrace the feminine side of cuisine, too, saying, as Buford quoted him: “People should think there are grandmothers in the back [of Babbo] preparing their dinner.”

Batali has published several cookbooks, ranging from complex recipes taken from his restaurant menus (The Babbo Cookbook) to straightforward home-style preparations (Molto Italiano: 327 Simple Italian Recipes to Cook at Home). In his most recent cookbook, however, Batali turns to the boys’ club. Mario Tailgates NASCAR Style is a slim little book, published not by major New York publishers, like his other books, but by Sporting News Books, whose title list is heavy on commemoratives and stat books, including The Pride of Chicago: The White Sox’s 2005 Championship Season and Saturday Shrines: College Football’s Most Hallowed Grounds.

As the title suggests, it’s a guide to cooking while hanging out at NASCAR’s massive speedways. It’s been a rapid seller, with 125,000 copies currently in print (clearly the NASCAR fan base, and its dads in particular, are a powerful demographic—just ask the current presidential administration). While the match-up might seem like just an extremely shrewd marketing alliance, Batali insists, in the book and in associated interviews, that he really is a longtime NASCAR aficionado. He’s not, in other words, some effete interloper, the likes of the Sacha Baron Cohen character in Talladega Nights, and there are plenty of photos of Batali hanging at the tracks to prove the point. “One of my favorite tracks,” Batali writes, showing off his speedway savvy, “is Dover, a.k.a. the Monster Mile. Its concrete surface and seriously banked turns make for some incredible racing—and Dover is in Delaware, which is crab country.” I suppose that’s how you have to write when you’re tying a cookbook in to NASCAR.

It must be hard to keep the Manhattan cultural elite and the Middle American fan happy at the same time (even if there is some bit of overlap between categories). Mario Tailgates is an effective exercise in compartmentalized marketing. From the back-of-the-book blurb, you will not learn the names of Babbo or Esca or Del Posto—too New Yorky, I suppose—but you will hear about his TV shows Molto Mario and Iron Chef America. Nor can you buy Mario Tailgates on the Babbo website, where his other books are offered for sale. In his cover photo, he has even switched his trademark orange plastic clogs from Italian-made Calzuros, which appeared on the back of his Molto Italiano cookbook, to what look suspiciously like Crocs.

Mario Tailgates has a jokey, guy-talk vibe that firmly plants itself in a narrow but persistent category: the boys’-club cookbook. I always think I’ve seen the last of gendered cookbooks, but they keep popping up. Boys’-club cookbooks have been around since at least the middle of the last century—emerging from the game and fish and backcountry cookbooks that helped outdoorsmen cook when there were no women to help out. There are the old pipe-smoking-bachelor books, heavy on the cocktails, published by the likes of Esquire and Playboy, which contrast with the more mainstream-macho barbecue and hunting books, like Ted and Shemane Nugent’s immortal Kill It & Grill It: A Guide to Preparing and Cooking Wild Game and Fish. More recently, Anthony Bourdain larded his book of straightforward French-bistro recipes with his own tough-guy patois.

NASCAR, with its speed and bravado, adds another layer of masculinity—and absurdity—to the manly cookbook. But in some ways, this hypercommercial world is the perfect retreat for Batali: No one would mistake this cookbook for his more earnest fare. It is clearly a boondoggle, but one that appeals at the same time to Batali’s anti-snob tendencies.

Boy’s-club cookbooks usually delight in taking the piss out of prim or fancy cooking. The portions are enormous, there is no shame in using canned ingredients, and virile ingredients—booze, garlic, meat, and, most of all, chiles—are almost always invoked. Batali’s never been a hyper-refined chef, anyway, but for tailgating he axes the flowering chives and jellyfish that you find in The Babbo Cookbook, in favor of canned green chiles, pepper jack cheese, and liquid smoke. Batali gestures to global food with a few recipes—pork braciolona, a Cuban-style mojo, chicken satay—but in general the selections are pretty mainstream.

They’re also typically not written for everyday cooking; they are for occasions when cooking is a real performance, and Mario’s is no different, tailgating being a rather more celebratory event than your typical Wednesday night dinner. “Say it’s the weekend of the big race. And say, hypothetically, it’s also the weekend of your wedding anniversary. Hmmm. One solution to this conundrum is not to say anything and hope your wife forgets. Another, more likely, solution is to do something really special, like making this exceptional roast.”

Clearly, Batali’s not shy about hamming it up; his performance includes overworked speedway metaphors, jokes about the scarcity of fish and green vegetables at a NASCAR tailgate, even a very safe limp-dick joke: “Nothing is more humiliating than watching your flame sputter out just as the steak hits the grill. (And no one makes a little blue pill to solve this particular problem.)” (Given the broadly macho tone, it’s odd that the cocktail section of the book is rather tempered; guessing by the car sponsors, I’d say that NASCAR fans just prefer beer.)

Not surprisingly, given its novelty feel, Mario Tailgates isn’t a comprehensive guide to grilling. (Without a fancy stove-equipped RV, almost everything has to be grilled or prepared ahead when tailgating.) But for what it’s worth, the recipes I tried out were tasty, in an Applebee’s-only-better way. There was a giant breakfast concoction that was a mix between chilaquiles and a frittata; seriously good wings served with creamy dipping sauce, which was embarrassingly tasty considering it was made from little more than mayo and white vinegar; and a clever method for cooking pizzas on the grill. Next time I have too much money on hand, I might try roasting a prime rib among the coals, too.

Of course, Batali doesn’t seem comfortable being solely a man of the people: He can’t resist a few highbrow references—a whiff of Melville here, a dash of Buñuel there—perhaps just to reassure any elegant New York clients who stumble across the book that he hasn’t been entirely lost to the screaming engines of the Pocono Raceway. Perhaps he’ll make his next cookbook just for them —a Mario Cooks with Italian Grandmothers, or Mario Brunches, Sunday New York Times Crossword Puzzle Style.