March 2011

Charlotte Freeman


Fear and Hunger

Yes, this is Cookbookslut, where we review books about food and cooking, but I’m going to come right out and say it: although Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef tells a lot of stories about food, it is not a book about food. It’s a Bildungsroman. One about a chef. A chef who is also a very fine writer and who is writing about food, but only as the medium through which the protagonist discovers what her life is about. She thought it was going to be writing, but it turns out to be cooking, and then she wrote about that revelation. Which makes it sort of a book about food, but still, not really. So when I say this is not a book about food, what I mean is that it is what all great memoirs are: a book about people, and family, about figuring out who you are going to be in this world and how you are going to comport yourself. It is a book about becoming a person.

Because Gabrielle Hamilton has worked in the food industry since she lied to get her first job at 13, there is food in this book, a lot of food, but that food is always metonymic -- the point is what the food stands for, not the food itself. In the first chapter (which ran in The New Yorker) Hamilton describes the idyllic lamb roast her parents threw every summer, an outdoor party attended by dozens and dozens of people. “I associate my dad almost exclusively with that lamb roast,” she writes. Her mother is always identified with the “six burner Garland stove,” while Hamilton’s husband is forever linked to the beautiful, but ultimately inedible, homemade ravioli he made for her when they were dating, and for his ability to procure a sandwich with the perfect ratio of fat to meat at moments of near-disaster. A lonely teenage trip to Amsterdam in winter is brought to a head by one perfect warm potato and a piece of Gouda, while the fried eggs and smoothie proffered by a near-stranger in Athens become an enduring emblem of effortless hospitality.

Hamilton begins with her idyllic childhood in Pennsylvania. The youngest of five kids, daughter of a set designer and a French ballet dancer, she grew up the cherished baby of a family who valued food and art and good manners. “My parents seemed incredibly special and outrageously handsome to me then,” she notes. “I could not have boasted of them more or said my name, first and last together, more proudly, so show how it directly linked me to them.” There was never any money, but they always ate well, her mother was always perfectly dressed in the seemingly-effortless way of French women, and there was private-school tuition for the kids. Hamilton’s mother “lived in our kitchen, ruled the house with an oily wooden spoon in her hand, and forced us all to eat dark, briny, wrinkled olives, small birds we would have liked as pets, and cheeses that looked like they might well bear Legionnaire’s disease… Her burnt orange Le Crueset pots and casseroles, scuffed and blackened, were constantly at work on the back three burners cooking things with tails, claws, and marrow-filled bones -- whatever was budgeted from our dad’s sporadic and mercurial artist’s income -- that she was she was stewing and braising and simmering to feed our family of seven.”  

The rupture caused by her parents' divorce is brutal and final, and leaves Hamilton essentially orphaned at thirteen. Left alone at her father’s house with her next-oldest brother, Hamilton realizes that stealing from the neighbors isn’t going to keep her fed for the summer, so she lies about her age, and talks her way into restaurant jobs where she discovers the wonder that is a paycheck of one’s own. “No future graduate-level seminar in feminism would ever come within a mile of the force of that first paycheck,” she writes. “The conviction was instant and forever: If I pay my own way, I go my own way.” She learns to smoke and washes dishes and gets fired from her first restaurant job because she misses work for a Little League game, then gets another one. She shifts nearly overnight from the baby of the family who sat in her mother’s “aproned lap every single night of my young life, so close to the sounds and smells of her that I still know her body as if it were my own,” to the cocky kid who learns to titillate the adults with a foul mouth and the pretense of fearlessness. “By the time my parents might have realized -- a glance in the rearview mirror -- that they’d abandoned us,” she writes, “we were not to be recovered.” Hamilton’s description of the aftermath of divorce, especially those 1970s divorces that seemed to come, as her parents’ did, out of the clear blue sky, is one of the best I’ve ever read. One minute there is a family and a house and a mother’s lap, and the next minute you’re living in the house with half the furniture missing, the older siblings gone, and no one has remembered to buy groceries or enroll you in school or even that you’re living there.

There are some strange elisions in this book. Hamilton’s relationship with her mother after the divorce is poisoned in ways that even she does not seem to understand. They remain estranged for decades, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who recognizes her description of the thrummy anxiety with which she faces the prospect of taking her husband and new baby to visit her mother. It’s something that is nearly impossible to explain to people who have what I call “real parents” -- I’m not talking about great parents, or perfect parents, but parents who didn’t violate the essential trust of the parent-child relationship, parents who never abandoned you in an empty stone house. For those of us who belong to the tribe, who long ago learned to live without “parents,” Hamilton’s description of her dread, her physical revulsion, and her inability to accept that things are going pretty well will ring excruciatingly true. The terrifying mother is somehow defanged, and the sometimes-difficult husband is charming, and even has her back -- and yet it's just too late. There is no Hallmark moment. The relationship is never going to be repaired. Hamilton isn’t particularly good at explaining exactly what went wrong after the divorce, but her description of what it’s like to live in the aftermath is brilliant.

Although Hamilton’s idyllic childhood and her precocious stint as an underage and felonious waitress during the heyday of the Lone Star Cafe in New York are garnering a lot of reviewers’ attention, it’s Hamilton’s description of her experience in the MFA program at the University of Michigan that had me laughing out loud. Fleeing a stable, if workaholic life in high-end catering in search of something more meaningful, she did what so many of us did, applied to grad school, to a writing program, where we were going to read and write and live the life of the mind and finally figure out “how to be a writer.” In what turns out to be a sort of theme in this book, Hamilton’s dismay at the softness and pretension of, well, pretty much anyone who hadn’t been scrapping for a living since early adolescence, puts her at a fatal remove from the other members of the workshop. She does what she always does, gets the first cooking job she can find, and in the process makes a real friend, and discovers her first mentor. Only it’s not in the writing program. Her mentor turns out to be a woman named Missy, the first cook Hamilton’s ever met who would “solicit the opinion or experience of her staff. She was willing -- always -- to learn from any source.” And yet, Hamilton kept hoping that she’d find a way to really enter the graduate experience. Her description of that moment when you realize that you’re never going to get what you wanted from the writing program is priceless. Listening to a poetry student read her own work “in that self-important, sing-songy way… [that] attaches more importance to the words than the words themselves -- as they’ve been arranged -- can possibly sustain… the more I fear [going to gradutate school is] no more a contribution than arranging salmon roulade in a ring mold with tiny dots of pistachio oil garnishing the plate.”

While Hamilton might have thought that her MFA experience was for naught, clearly she learned plenty in the Michigan program. This is a book that has been very carefully structured. She builds her story with enormous skill, and I’m jealous of the way she works with time -- there are several seamless shifts between the present action and flashback that really earn their keep here -- they illuminate the present action without derailing the story at all. However useful the Michigan program was to her, I’d like to reserve credit for her facility with a sentence for Hamilton herself. Good sentences can’t be taught. And this book is full of great sentences. This is one of those books you’ll find yourself reading hunks out loud to anyone else in the room with you. And yet, while she’s funny, and often very sharp, the cleverness of the prose is always in service to the story she is telling. I hate show-offy writing; there's very little of it here.

If there is a single thread that runs through this book, it is Hamilton’s determination to relieve starry-eyed foodies of their romantic ideas about the restaurant life. It is very hard work. Hard work that Hamilton describes with the verve of the true workaholic, with the engagement of someone for whom her own ability to work harder and longer and under worse conditions than anyone else is a core element of her sense of self. “Much has been written about facing the shocking heat of a restaurant’s set of burners, and in spite of what it might reveal about me,” she writes, describing the prize fight that is Sunday brunch, every week, in her tiny New York restaurant, Prune, “I am the only one I know who likes it. I feel like I am a contender in a nicely matched bout every time we meet.” The sections of this book describing opening Prune, and the ins and outs of running a successful restaurant in a very tiny space are written as if to debunk every amateur’s idea about how “fun” it would be to run a restaurant. She is brutally honest about the sheer work that it entails. There are unspeakable messes that must be cleaned up, and she is clear that as the owner, it’s your job even if it means you’re scraping vagrants’ shit off the back steps, or spilled pancake mix off the green floor mats while heavily pregnant.  The restaurant is hers, the food is hers, it’s her creation and she’s justifiably proud of it, but she’s also having none of the woo-woo foodie-ism that has infected what to her is the workaday world of restaurants.

Her rant about the preciousness of farmers markets and the people who shop at them is hilarious, and her despair is real when asked to participate in what seems to her a wholly unrealistic and essentialist panel discussion about women in the restaurant business at the Culinary Institute. Hamilton’s answer always seems to be get back to work, and to cook from your true palate, to cook for other people what you would want someone to cook for you. Her description of pacing her apartment after seeing the tiny wrecked space that would become Prune, and trying to figure out what kind of a restaurant to make it is marvelous. And while Time magazine declared that Hamilton’s description of what she wanted “is essentially a blueprint for every small cool-food restaurant of the past decade,” what struck me was less the “cool” factor, than the creative excitement that fueled it. It’s the same thing you want to do as a writer, create a world. And while Hamilton thought she’d gone back to New York after Michigan to work catering jobs and finish her novel, what she discovered was that the thing that had her pacing her apartment on fire with ideas was not her novel, but this thirty seat space in the East Village. And what she did with it was throw out any ideas about what food was “supposed” to be, and instead, cook those things that inspired her own feelings of being taken in and cared for. “To be picked up and fed, often by strangers, when you are in the state of fear and hunger, became the single most important and convincing food experience I came back to over and over, that sunny afternoon humming around my apartment wondering how I might translate such an experience into the restaurant I was now sure I was going to open down the block.”

But the story doesn’t end with the restaurant. She builds her restaurant, and it’s successful, and it’s very hard work and the girlfriend who came back with her from Michigan pitches in behind the bar. And then, just when it looks like the story is sort of settled, and she’s built her sort of bad-ass, woman-centered restaurant that isn’t explicitly lesbian but isn’t particularly straight either, a man arrives. An Italian man, a doctor, who woos Hamilton despite the girlfriend working behind the bar. There’s a messy period of overlap, and a romantic trip to Rome, and all the while she’s thinking that he’s just an “equally ambitious hardworking heterosexual male for whom I would probably feel much more than warm affection. How unthreatening.” When he comes to her with green card problems, she agrees to marry him, admitting that she “approached the wedding -- and talked it up -- like a piece of fun and spontaneous downtown performance art.” The girlfriend doesn’t see it that way, and takes her final leave. Hamilton admits that she seemed to be the only one treating it as a lark. Michele “was not marrying ironically. For him this was not a piece of performance art whatsoever.”

It is a rocky union, fraught with long silences, and deep miscommunication, and yet, it seems to take. They have two children together, and although they don’t live together in New York until the very end of the book, they travel to Italy each year to visit Michele’s family at their villa in Puglia, an annual trip that Hamilton both adores and dreads. This section of the book was the most uneven in tone, and one can’t help but wonder when Hamilton admits that when she fights she likes “to break the furniture, throttle the bastard’s neck, hurl epithets across the room and narrate the exaggerated story with myself as the innocent,” whether this is not also her preferred mode of writing about her marriage. It’s rocky. They both work long hours. They have little children, who are, by their nature, needy and demanding (and beloved). She feels neglected and withdraws. He wants another iPhone. In short, they don’t seem that different from many other hardworking professional couples trying to balance work and kids and intimate life. And while at times it feels as if Hamilton is indeed painting herself as the innocent victim in this section, her sense of dedication to the cause comes ringing through. After the birth of their second son, Hamilton realizes that “My ambivalent relationship to Michele had not changed with the arrival of Leone, but my attachment to family had. I thought a good deal of that empty house my parents had left Simon and I alone in, and understood that no matter what disappointment I felt in Michele, I would never, ever, leave.” Nonetheless, she realizes that no matter how attached she has become to her Italian in-laws, she remains “only a guest. A familiar July visitor, who happens to bring with her every time she comes a new baby with the Fuortes surname, but a guest, nonetheless, for just the month in July.” She wants more. She wants in. And by the final scenes of the book, she seems to be finding her footing in the family, and in the villa, and even in her marriage, but unlike the scenes from her early life, she hasn’t had decades to polish these stories, and so they have that messy raw edge that so much of real life does.

Apparently at the Brooklyn Book Festival last year, Hamilton made some crack about how it depresses her when she hears people talking about the food in her restaurant. Publisher’s Weekly asked her about it and she said: “I don’t get to go out very often, so when I do, it’s not how I want to spend my spare time, talking about where this freaking arugula came from. I’m interested in it for five minutes and then I want a full night of ‘What’s going on with you?’ or 'Can I tell you what’s going on with me?’ What are people avoiding talking about if they’re getting so into the food?” In Blood, Bones & Butter, Hamilton takes on all the things people should be talking about, who we are and how we live and who we love and how we love them. That it happens through the medium of food and cooking is why I’m reviewing it here on Cookbookslut, even though it’s not a book “about” food or, god forbid, about “foodies.” There aren’t any recipes here, but what is here is everything that is important about food and cooking -- that it's through this medium that so many of us express our love for one another. That it's by frying a couple of eggs for a stranger and setting a plate at the table that we let one another know we are not alone in this world.