It's like a five star restaurant you've heard about for years but have never actually eaten at. When you finally do land a reservation, you wonder: is there any way the experience of putting this food in my mouth can ever measure up to the hype? Can the chef's ragu, or branzino, or signature vegetable platter possibly be as good as I have been led to believe? And the answer is: maybe. Maybe it will be better, maybe it will be worse, or maybe it will just be different, leaving you with an experience you really hadn't predicted at all.
That last bit is how I reacted to Blood, Bones & Butter (Random House, 2011), the new memoir by chef Gabrielle Hamilton of New York's Prune restaurant. The book and its author have enjoyed wide coverage in the press, and rightfully so: it has been a long while since a chef's memoir blared onto the scene with such a brash, devil-may-care attitude. Which is not to suggest that Hamilton isn't reflective about her life, her career, her restaurant, or her family -- she is. But it's not a "look at me" kind of reflection. It's more a "this is what I do, this is who I am, this is my story, and if you want to read about it, fine, but then can we please get on with it?" kind of attitude. You get the sense that she really isn't all that invested in whether you read her book or not. That the process of writing has been its own journey, its own reward. And of course, that insouciance makes you want to turn the pages even faster. She's not trying to teach you anything, or impart lessons based on her own experience, and this refusal to pander to her audience is what makes this memoir so gripping.
I found it ironic, then, that I did learn from this book. Certain passages, and themes, so resonated I kept turning them around and around in my head, which may be why I've had a tough time getting this review down. I've had trouble processing, and letting go.
When considering her years spent doing what she calls "kitchen work," including 18-hour shifts catering events "with my hands thrust into a bowl of micro-greens lightly dressed with aged balsamic and garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds and roasted apricots," Hamilton writes:
The ironic and disaffected stance toward life had not yet closed its full suffocating grip on the throat of the world, and at the time I remember, it did not feel embarrassing or over earnest to say that you hoped to make a difference. It did not feel hopeless -- or even futile -- to declare your deep and total admiration for the million-man marchers with their sons and fathers walking together or the radical ACT UP kids who were lying their own fragile bodies down on the freezing pavement of Times Square at rush hour, stopping traffic with their die-ins, or the brilliant visionaries who were unfurling that ever-expanding quilted acre of bottomless sorrow and getting arrested for trespassing on Bush's White House lawn in the doing. My heart caved in a little further every month when the popular food magazines hit the stands and in them were articles entitled 'What to Wear to Your Favorite Expensive Restaurant,' or 'Chef's Favorite Kitchen Tools,' or this urgent topic, 'French Chef Doesn't Use Butter at Home.'
This may sound like badly written parody, but I am actually quoting actual food magazines. It's hard to work in an industry where these are the headlines.
Or how about this passage, written when she considers a panel she will sit on at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. The panel's title is "Where Are the Women?" and yet, Hamilton writes, she is "not interested in answering this tired question..."
...we know perfectly well where the women are. They jumped to publishing, and are now busy with idolizing the male chefs who make it impossible for them to continue cooking in restaurants and they are so busy writing features and articles about them that they don't have time left -- or column inches -- for the female chefs who actually toughed it out. Women have self-selected out of the chef life, which can grind you to a powder, and have become happily married recipe testers and magazine editors, or private chefs, working moderate hours for good pay and benefits while successfully raising several small children whom they do not damage...
If you know me, you will understand, perhaps, why I have highlighted these passages, and why they spoke to me in a way I didn't anticipate.
Some of the publicity materials tout Hamilton's early "idealized" childhood, her "adored" mother, her "idyllic" past family, but any glossiness implied in these descriptions feels out of place when you actually read the book. The writing is beautifully rendered, but the experiences themselves are raw, and descriptions about the emptiness of her marriage, though she doesn't wallow in self-pity, struck me as terribly sad. So while I would give my left foot to be able to write like this, or to cook as she presumably does (I have not eaten at Prune), I would never want to change places with Hamilton. I am far too soft to be able to hack the experiences she has weathered. They would crush me.
If you simply love to read good writing, but don't care as much about food, you'll still find much to appreciate in Hamilton's fluid command of language, a command honed, or at least allowed to breathe, during her time as a graduate student at the University of Michigan's master's program for fiction writing. Describing a batch of "profoundly beautiful ravioli" her Italian (or "Italian Italian," as she writes repeatedly) husband made while first courting her, she writes: "... you could see the herbs and the ricotta through the dough, like a woman behind a shower curtain." That simile left me breathless.
Just a few minutes ago (literally), the James Beard Foundation announced its list of finalists. Hamilton has been named a finalist in the Best Chef: New York City category.
That someone can cook well enough to be nominated for such an honor, and can write well enough to make even the least star-struck of us whip out our highlighters and mark long paragraphs in flourescent pink, pretty much says it all. Hamilton has much to celebrate.
And I'm sure she will. But then I'm guessing she'll get right back to work.
As she wrote in her book, Put your head down and do your job and let the recognition end of things sort itself out.
I, for one, will certainly try.
Courtesy of Random House, I have a brand new, unmarked copy of Blood, Bones & Butter to give away. Tell me why you want it below, before Friday, March 25, 2011. I'll announce a winner next week.