Well, I read the book, went to a reading, and ate at the restaurant. Guess it’s time to write a blog post about it. Of course, I’m referring to Blood, Bones & Butter, the memoir of Chef Gabrielle Hamilton, who created the restaurant Prune in New York. I wanted to read Hamilton’s book because I hadn’t heard a woman’s voice in awhile. Remember how I wrote about Grant Achatz’s (chef of Alinea) biography? Well, there were hardly any women in that at all. I mean, on the periphery, girlfriends, wives, mothers, sure — but working in the kitchen at Alinea? I didn’t see a one.
Gabrielle Hamilton is no softie. She is scrubbing the floor at Prune while 39 weeks pregnant. There’s a passage in the book about a line cook quitting and telling Hamilton in the middle of service. Hamilton, now very pregnant and very understaffed, says, “You fucking suck so much”. At the reading, when she got to this passage she prefaced it by reiterating how much she still hated the woman. (I think she was trying to soften the upcoming blow for us of her shouting, but it had the effect of underscoring her hard edge.) In the book, when she goes to an event about women in the food industry and the panel is asked, “Is it okay to cry?”, she thinks about how she has never, no matter what, ever cried.
Still, you don’t realize that toughness when you first open her new memoir. It is hard not to be mesmerized by the first chapter that deals with Hamilton’s childhood punctuated by elaborate feasts put on by her former professional ballet dancer mother and a father, an artist/visionary who creates whole sets like the ones for Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus. (At one point, she’s with her dad at work and sinks her arms all the way to the elbows in a fifty-gallon barrel of silver glitter.) Hamilton captures her childhood voice so well and her love for her parents is so great. “Our house…,” she writes, ” was not really a house at all but a wild castle….”
And yet, that voice and that tenderness fades later on in the book. (Maybe for awhile displaced by the bad ass toughness?) The last section of the memoir, “Butter” that deals more with Hamilton’s marriage and her July stays with her husband’s family in Italy, is much harder to get through than the first. Maybe recent history is harder to write/make sense of/shape? than the more ancient chapters of one’s life…
I’ve heard a lot about this book and about how raw it is (she does kill a live chicken!) and I guess that’s true, but Hamilton is also indiscernible in some critical ways. As beautiful as the prose is, the most central questions about Hamilton’s life remain a total mystery. While she can talk about scraping by in catering kitchens and running summer camp kitchens, the major relationships with people (not food) in her life (a.k.a. one’s emotional heart) are difficult to understand. Why, for instance, did her connections to all her siblings (she’s one of five) except for her older sister disintegrate? Prune, after all, is not only the name of Hamilton’s restaurant but the nickname her French mother called her as a child. The affection there is powerful and unbreakable …
“Until this moment, more or less, I sat in her lap after dinner every single night. For a period I was too young for after-dinner chores –clearing, washing, drying — and possibly too favored, and so I eagerly crawled up and took my place in her lap, barefoot and drowsy. I leaned back into her soft body and listened to the gurgling as she chewed and swallowed. I breathed in her exhale: wine, vinaigrette, tangerines, cigarette smoke. While all of the others were excused from the table, I got to sit, alone with my mother and father as they finished. I watched her oily lips, her crooked teeth and felt the treble of her voice down my spine while she had adult conversation and gently rested her chin on the top of my head. She cracked walnuts from the Perigord and picked out the meats, extinguished her occasional cigarette in empty broken husks, shifted my weight in her lap; she squeezed the tangerine peel into the candle flame and we watched the oils ignite in yellow and blue sparks. I sat in that woman’s aproned lap every single night of my young life, so close to the sound and smells of her that I still know her body as if it were my own.” (23)
Such a gentleness and yet, later in the book, so little is mentioned of why the author and her mother did not communicate for 20 years! Similarly, Hamilton does little to illuminate why she married and stayed married to the Italian man that she at times doesn’t seem to have loved fully ever (keep in mind, she has only dated women up until this point). I found myself cringing at her comparison of her relationship to her husband to the homemade raviolis he first brought to her in an attempt to woo her. Apparently he carefully made the ravioli that are so beautiful and thin, but ultimately, they aren’t as perfect as they seem. She talks about how he forgot to blanche the pancetta so that the taste of the ravioli filling was too salty. Describing her relationship in this way is possibly a clever literary device, but is it a gracious move?
I say this partly because when you eat the food at Prune you feel the graciousness of the chefs in the back, of Prune’s creator. You get those nibbles on the table — in our case celery and olives. We even got to linger (three tea refills on my part, with milk and brown sugar cubes that came along with it), despite the small restaurant space.
Any questions or concerns I had while reading the book or seeing Hamilton at her reading, softened when I ate at Prune. The offerings were delicious, inventive, and fun. Deviled eggs were on the menu as was this hamburger on an English muffin with cheddar cheese.
I’m so glad Hamilton puts on the menu food that she has craved. Way before she opens Prune, she is young and traveling all over the world. She writes, “Because so much starving on that trip led to such an enormous amount of time fantasizing about food, each craving became fanatically particular. Hunger was not general, ever, for just something, anything to eat. My hunger grew so specific I could name ever corner and fold of it. Salty, warm, brothy, starchy, fatty, sweet, clean and crunchy, crisp and watery, and so on.” (129)
Lucky us to benefit from that kind of training (and a little like Achatz, no? Remember how he re-learned the specificity of taste when he was going through tongue cancer and only slowly got each taste back?)
Anyway, back to Prune. My skate wing was hands-down scrumptious. Nutty and lemon-caper buttery, yum.
And for dessert, lovely pâte à choux pastries, sprinkled with sugar and drizzled with orange blossom honey. At this moment, I wish I could better convey texture, like you could touch them through the screen. They are at the same time doughy and yet light, light, light.
If you go to Prune, you will see a very particular menu. It’s not trend-based; it’s the imaginings/memories-turned reality of a particular person with a particular lineage. And in the food at Prune? I think they’re both there — the tangerine peel into the candle flame and all that glitter…