Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Author of the Acclaimed Memoir "Blood, Bones and Butter" Finally Has a Cookbook: On Gabrielle Hamilton's "Prune," The Basis for a Dinner at Bacchus on November 17.

When it comes to these cookbook dinners that we periodically co-host, it's apparently feast or famine. Our last collaboration with Bartolotta was last fall, and now we've got two events just ten days apart, and not just any events, but two events celebrating among the higher-profile cookbook releases. Our evening with Dorie Greenspan was delightful, and  I'm excited to say that Baking Chez Moi just made The New York Times extended list. And what competition! Fully a third of the advice list is cookbooks this time of year.

Last week another major cookbook was released, Gabrielle Hamilton's Prune, and I'm thinking that it also has a good chance of making the top 20. Her memoir, Blood, Bone, and Butter was a major bestseller, getting all the way to #2 on The New York Times bestseller list. She's a double James Beard winner too, once for her writing and once for her restaurant, for which she was awarded best chef, New York City (five boroughs).

In anticipating of the Bacchus event on November 17 (to my knowledge, not quite yet sold out), I wound up finally reading Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, long on my must-read list*. Hamilton grew up in the countryside on the Delaware-New Jersey border, just as suburban subdivisions were beginning to pop up but before they pushed out the working farms. Mom was French and imbued Hamtilton with a love for simple and delicious foods. Dad was an artist. Unfortunately a messy divorce split the family, and that loss of stability seems to permeate the rest of Hamilton's narrative.

She does it all - waitressing, dishwashing, catering, summer camps, traveling through Europe where she spent months at a family crperie/bar/tabac - just about everything but culinary school. She did grad school, alright, only it was University of Michigan's MFA program, and there was an education there too, only it wasn't exactly on the syllabus. And eventually she sort of fell into this opportunity to open a 30-seat restaurant in the East Village.

Blood is her childhood, bones are the building blocks of her life as a chef, and butter? I guess that is family, most notably her marriage, but while the butter represented by her mother-in-law is sweet and rich, the relationship with her now ex-husband might be a little rancid.

I've been waiting a long time to do a quote roundup of Blood, Bones and Butter. There's a lot of enthusiasm out there for Hamilton's memoir. Joe Yonan, food editor of The Washington Post . On the comparisons to Anthony Bourdain: "Hamilton, chef-owner of the tiny Greenwich Village restaurant Prune, shares two of Bourdain's traits: a wicked, sometimes obscene sense of humor and a past checkered with drug use and crime. But as he admits in his jacket testimonial, she's the superior writer by a mile. "

Here's Michael Ruhlman writing in The Wall Street Journal: "And while this is a memoir and Ms. Hamilton is a chef, Blood, Bones and Butter is not the usual 'chef memoir' in our era of sex-in-dry-storage and testosterone-fueled cooking tell-alls. It is instead a minutely observed, artfully structured, fluidly written account of how a tough, eccentric woman navigates her way through a wayward youth and New York kitchens to become a renowned chef and respected author—and still manages to be uncertain about it all. "

Daniel Maurer in New York Magazine: "Hamilton writes about her formative food experiences lyrically even something like Coca-Cola is so tannic and sweet and achingly cold that it makes my eyes tear up. But the book also has its share of Bourdain-esque bravado."

This is a writer who connects with the serious food critics. From The New York Times, the former restaurant critic who wrote his own food memoir (Born Round) takes on Blood, Bones and Butter. His critique had a few more caveats, mostly noting that the story needed more connecting of the dots, but for my part, I think her MFA experience led her to leave that to the reader. From Bruni: "In many places the book cries out for connective tissue that’s missing, and there are specific omissions that throw a reader off balance. Although elated by her entry into that graduate program, Hamilton doesn’t say what she writes there — even as she’s being caustically dismissive of her classmates’ efforts. And when her mother reappears in the book after a long absence, Hamilton vents a fury at her that she hasn’t set the stage for. "

There are lots of interviews out there. Guy Raz in Weekend All Things Considered interviewed her at the restaurant. Hamilton discusses her parents' divorce, which in many ways drives the narrative, and mentions her first restaurant experience in New York, where she was busted at Lone Star Cafe** for not reporting sales. Being that it seemed that the whole restaurant staff had an angle, it seemed like bad luck that she was the one caught. But maybe that was due to inexperience - she wasn't even 18 at the time, which turned out to be a lucky break. The response?: "By the skin of my chinny chin chin I got out of that one, and now I'm honest Abe!"

There's no question that Blood, Bones and Butter left her readers a bit hungry. For one thing, Hamilton does an amazing job recreating the hunger that drives her in life, the set up that left her unable to do anything else but run her restaurant. But for food memoir readers like myself, one is left wanting more food. I think the Prune cookbook will sate those fans who want more on the food. Here's Jane Black in The Washington Post on its release: "Hamilton wrote the book as if she were speaking to her own line cooks. It has no inspirational or scene-setting headnotes. Its annotations, which are written in Hamilton’s own neat hand, are a mixture of warnings, advice and encouragement for those cooks. The conceit is sometimes discomfiting but stunningly original. In the blizzard of aspirational, look-alike cookbooks, Prune, like its namesake, stands apart."

And here's Julia Moskin in The New York Times: "It is the closest thing to the bulging loose-leaf binder, stuck in a corner of almost every restaurant kitchen, ever to be printed and bound between cloth covers. (These happen to be a beautiful deep, dark magenta.) Additional notes from Ms. Hamilton in black Sharpie are scribbled on most pages; instructions appear to be written on masking tape and pasted in. Written as if it were a manual to the sous-chefs in her kitchen, the book is fresh, fascinating and, occasionally, maddening."

So you're probably wondering, are you going to be served sardines*** on Triscuits? If you read Blood, Bones and Butter, you'll know that Hamilton survived on canned sardines, a deli egg sandwich, and happy hours that first year in New York before she had a job. I can tell you, having seen the menu, that no, Bacchus has not chosen to go that route, but honestly, I think it would be a great amuse-bouche! I'll just mention one of the dishes, pan-fried trout, braised green cabbage and anchovies and garlic, in buter vinaigrette. Oh, and maybe I should also mention the short ribs braised in pho broth with condiment. Now who's hungry?

The Gabrielle Hamilton Prune dinner is Monday, November 17, 6:30 pm, at Bacchus. $95 includes four course, wine pairings, a copy of Prune. Tax and gratuity extra. Reservations required. Call (414) 765-1166.

Oh, and to Prune the restaurant, happy 15th anniversary!

*I bought the hardcover at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (outside Seattle) and it has been sitting on my must-read pile for three years. Thank you, Miss Hamilton, for coming so I could move it to the top. Note that I've also agreed to help launch a foodie book club being organized by a customer, and I suggested this be the first selection. I hoped to give details here, but when I saw Jessie yesterday (at Sapna Thottathil's talk on organic farming in India), the details were not quite there yet. 

**I used to walk by The Lone Star Cafe constantly in the 1980s, but not only did I not have the money to go in, I really didn't want to. I was about not exactly an urban cowboy type.

***When I was very young, my father used to make his lunch every day for work. His rotation? Tuna salad, salmon (canned, of course) salad, and sardine salad. He loved mayonnaise so much he'd like the spoon. We had canned sardines stockpiled in the basement, never less than a dozen tins. And then one day he stopped eating them, and I never quite understood why. Like many folks of that time, he started avoiding fat,, so maybe it was the oil they were packed in.

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