Radishes with butter and sea salt, grilled lamb sausages, smoky eggplant and flatbread: just the kind of snacks you might expect, ready to be paired with a glass of Champagne or an expertly made Negroni at the tiny bar of a French-inspired, chef-owned bistro like Gabrielle Hamilton's Prune in New York City. But wait, sardines? Canned? Served with Triscuits and mustard?
When I lived in New York, quirky little Prune was a favorite restaurant of mine. Dinners there were brightly lit but festive, and whole sunny Sunday afternoons could float by in the wake of their justifiably famous Bloody Marys. But every time I walked in, my brain snagged on those sardines. They'd been on the bar menu since the place opened, and they never budged. There had to be a story there.
And there is, but not the one you'd might expect. Hamilton, as she tells it in her memoir Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, grew up during the early 70s in a sprawling, bohemian family in rural Pennsylvania, the Jersey border right across the river--five kids running wild, dad a set designer and scenic artist for trade shows and theaters, mom a perfectionist Frenchwoman who made her own cassoulet and served her bisteeya the proper Moroccan way, with olive-and-orange salad and sweet mint tea.
The book begins We threw a party (and what else, really, does the staff of a restaurant do every night?), describing in loving and vivid detail the lamb roast her father orchestrated in the meadow behind their house every summer, in a voice that's funny, sharp, and profane. Telling the story of the party, Hamilton brings her family and her adolescent world into focus, only to let us know, in passing, that she remembers this party and its preparations so well only because it was the last moment before everything fell apart.
By the time Hamilton was 12, her parents had split up, her mom fleeing to Vermont, her dad working on failed shows (Got Tu Go Disco!) and nearly broke. As she recalls it, she and her 17-year-old brother Simon were left, parentless and cashless, to their own devices. Dinner meant whatever she could scrounge from the garden and the remains of her mother's pantry.
I ate canned sardines and chewed through the spines and the silvery unpleasant skin until I finally realized how to skin and filet them gently with a paring knife, placing the meaty bodies on horribly stale Triscuit crackers with sliced shallots and mayonnaise. I washed lettuce from the garden in warm water so my hands wouldn't get cold and watched it wilt but ate it anyway.
Soon, at 13, she was walking to the tourist restaurants in town, talking her way into bussing jobs by claiming to be 16. She works as a busser, waitress, and eventually cook at a place "called, ironically, Mother's." Work, to her, means freedom. "No future graduate-level feminism seminar would ever come within a mile of the force of that first paycheck. The conviction was instant and forever: If I pay my own way, I go my own way."
And go her own way she does, to New York City in the crazy 80s, where she starts waitressing at The Lone Star Cafe, a hotter-than-hot urban-cowboy nightclub and restaurant. She turns 17 there, working a scam with the other waitresses and bartenders to pocket something like 90K in cash--almost all of it, she notes, quickly spent on drugs, especially cocaine, which fueled both frenetic hours on the job and equally frenzied nights out afterwards. She got busted, but gos lucky: a lawyer friend of her brother's finds out she's still a juvenile and works a deal, as long as she agrees to get out of New York City, fast, and enroll in college. Some more string-pulling ensues, and she ends up at Hampshire College, an earnestly progressive, no-grades liberal arts school in New England, where she lasts for all of five semesters before moving first back home and then back to New York City.
Here, the story starts skipping forward and back. The comfort of kitchens becomes the grind of a decade as a freelance catering-chef-for-hire, working grueling shifts for the big high-end catering companies feeding the city's nouveau high society. Years, it seems, go by in a fluorescent-lit blur of plastic-wrapped racks full of salmon pinwheels.
There are frank, Bourdain-like rants about the grossness of professional kitchens, about the interchangeability of the cooks, and how sheer stamina becomes the only thing she and her co-workers can brag of. There's a brief respite in the shape of a summer camp, where she cooks for several bucolic years, feeding, among others, the appreciative, food-smart young daughter of New York Times' writer Mark Bittman, and a bleak foray into a graduate writing program at the University of Michigan, which she longs for, then despises, and eventually makes her peace with, mostly thanks to another restaurant job where she cooks for cash and sanity, re-establishing her place in the world away from her jargon-spouting, comfortably privileged fellow writers.
Eventually, of course, we get to the real meat of the book: the surprisingly off-the-cuff way she starts Prune, her own restaurant, and gets it up and running. As any chef can tell you, owning and cooking at your own restaurant is a 25-hour-a-day job, and Hamilton has not only the restaurant but two kids. So, perhaps it's not surprising that the book feels more and more fragmented as it goes along. Here's Hamilton, undertaking the truly grisly job of clearing out the rotting remains of the space's previous tenant, a failed restaurant whose owners had split the year before without taking out so much as a bag of garbage.
Then, suddenly, here she is getting married to one of her male customers, an Italian doctor, after an obliquely described affair that splits up Hamilton and her longtime girlfriend. He needs the marriage for visa purposes, but their love affair is a real one--except that he pulls away almost the moment they head to Europe for their honeymoon. Yet they stay, nominally, together, having 2 sons but uniting only for a yearly trip to visit his family at their villa in Italy.
A long flashback to a solo backpacking trip through Europe and beyond explains the emotional back stories to much of the food on Hamilton's menus. Structurally, though, it feels shoehorned in. Hamilton is a smart and accomplished writer, but she seems exhausted or simply unwilling to reveal as much as a memoir demands, nor does she quite have a handle on the solid, novel-shaped arc and structure that the form requires at its best.
Engaging and observant, she zeros in on small details, such as how, due to blood-sugar issues based in "too many years of going all day without eating, that freakish thing about restaurant work," she desperately needs to have "some orange juice, iced Ovaltine, and a full quart of ice-cold Coca-Cola down my throat in seconds, and in that particular order" at least twice during every brunch shift (wherein, by the way, exactly "192 Thomas's English muffins" and "1440 eggs" are consumed). We learn all about crazies living upstairs, and how one complains about the music while another stands around bare-chested and gesticulating in front of the restaurant's windows. We get a meticulous description of the warm, perfectly waxy yellow potato that accompanied a ham sandwich she ate on a freezing, lonely day in a cafe in Amsterdam. But when it comes to the big questions, she sketches in the issues, then keeps her head down and her mouth shut.
Were this a novel, a reader might expect to eventually find out why such a tough and opinionated main character stays married for so long to a man she describes angrily as distant, impersonal, and disengaged. Why did this man pursue her so ardently, then cool off abruptly without letting her go? Previously a lesbian, does she miss her relationships with women? Why did she cut her supposedly adored mother completely out of her life for 20 years? Why all those soul-sucking years in catering?
And why, with all the other dirtier, tougher, more glamorous jobs out there, do we still long to devour the inside dish on a restaurant chef? Hamilton's not telling. But she sure knows how to throw a damn good party.
Listen to clips of Gabrielle Hamilton reading from the Blood, Bones, & Butter audiobook which she narrated herself:
Opening Prune (describes the first time seeing the Prune space and her decision
to open a restaurant, 6:02 run time)
Female Chefs (about speaking to the students at CIA about the state of women in
the industry, 4:25 run time)
Gabrielle Hamilton will be signing books at the Left Bank in Larkspur, followed by a four-course dinner. Tickets are $100/person and include dinner, wine, and a copy of the book. She will also be signing books at Camino in Oakland on Fri., Mar. 11, at 6pm, followed by dinner at 7pm. Tickets are $100/person and include cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, dinner, and wine. She will be doing a free reading at Omnivore Books in San Francisco on Sat., Mar. 12 at 3pm.
KQED The Writers' Block Interview: Q+A with Gabrielle Hamilton