A little admin stuff first – my new weekly podcast for ESPN, Behind the Dish, debuted today, featuring an interview with Astros GM Jeff Luhnow and a conversation with fellow writer Joe Sheehan. I appreciate the support of all of you who listened to Baseball Today and mourned its end, so I hope you’ll tune in to the new show. It should be up on iTunes today (there’s a technical problem on their end, I’m told). Spread the word.
Also, I have new posts for Insiders on Jeff Samardzija, David Holmberg, and other Cubs and Dbacks and on Yordano Ventura, Brandon Belt, Tyler Skaggs, and more.
Gabrielle Hamilton is a self-taught and, in her words, “reluctant,” chef who achieved great acclaim for her tiny New York restaurant Prune and the honest, rustic fare she has served there for the past fourteen years, eventually winning the James Beard Award as NYC’s best chef in 2001. Her brilliantly written memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, is a masterpiece of the memoir genre, a perfect emulsion of food writing and autobiography that will make your mouth water with descriptions of food yet never shies away from critical introspection.
One central thread, Hamilton’s own relationship with food and, by extension, how much that relationship tied to her relationships with friends and family, runs through the entire book, but rather than giving a single story, Hamilton splits her memoir into a sort of triptych: one section on her childhood and adolescence, one on her stop-and-go path into a career in food (with a detour to Michigan for a master’s in creative writing), and one on her unfulfilling marriage to an Italian doctor, Michele. Food is everywhere in the book, yet the book isn’t about food. It is about Hamilton’s peculiar life, with her passion for cooking a recurring character in every episode.
Hamilton’s path to culinary stardom was accidental, but also extremely odd, not something you’d ever recommend to a would-be chef. Her offbeat family imploded when her French-born mother suddenly demanded a divorce from Gabrielle’s set-designer/artist father, ushering in a period when Gabrielle was largely left without parental supervision, a tragicomic setup that led her both into the kind of libertine behavior you’d expect from a 13-year-old without adults around and into a lifetime of extreme self-reliance. She began working in restaurants and bars, as a dishwasher or a server, and eventually working insane hours for catering outfits in New York, learning how to cook as she went rather than at culinary school. Her disdain for fussy, pretentious food gives her an opportunity for some hilarious rants; her own culinary ethos is about as far from a “chef’s tasting menu” as you can get. Instead, she waxes more romantic when describing an Italian sandwich she purchased at a pork shop in Brooklyn (unnamed, sadly) or the fresh seasonal vegetables she finds during annual visits to her mother-in-law in Rome and Puglia. Even in the final section, which details her latent disaffection with her marriage, one that wasn’t founded on love and never grew into anything more than friendly co-parenting, Hamilton still uses food as the foundation for the exploration of her own emotions.
While Hamilton infuses nearly every page with her passion for food, it’s her clear yet highly evocative writing style that sets Blood, Bones & Butter apart. She can express so much in just a few sentences, as in this passage, describing the scene at a coffee place in Grand Central Station:
I hate hating women but double-skim half-decaf vanilla latte embarrasses me. I ordered a plain filtered coffee, as if I were apologizing on behalf of my gender, and when I dug through my heavy purse to pay for it I discovered in my bag a diaper, a resealable jar of apricot puree, and one of Marco’s socks, which had somehow in the general loss of boundary and private real estate that is Motherhood, made its way in there.
That second sentence there is a thing of beauty, its odd punctuation contributing to its sense of barely contained chaos, all while we get Hamilton’s scorn for overly prissy fake coffee drinks and her exasperation at the loss of self that comes with the addition of one or more kids. When Hamilton describes her experiences in catering kitchens, or takes you through Michele’s family estate in Italy, or talks about the large family meals that bookend the story – the giant lamb roasts her father organized when she was a kid, and the family meal with her now ex-in-laws that appears in the epilogue-cum-“reader’s guide” – you can hear the sizzle of the meat as it cooks. If she’s as good of a chef as she is of a writer, Prune must be amazing.
One stray thought on the book: in a passage about women’s roles and struggles in a professional kitchen, Hamilton offers this thought:
If anything, I have come to love the men who also feel that the kitchen is abetter place when women are allowed to work in it, the men who feel that if any part of society is abused, that it demeans the rest of society.
Emphasis mine there, because that summarizes quite nicely why I will block people on Twitter who use the r-word, or a gay-bashing epithet like the word for a bundle of sticks, and it explains why I find team nicknames like Indians or Braves or that odious one that plays football in Washington so offensive. Intent to demean is not required for something to demean. Simply creating a division that sets one part of the population as “other” is demeaning. We do not name sports teams after Italians or Jews or African-Americans, after lesbians or Sikhs or the disabled, yet we think nothing of naming sports teams after Native Americans, or using words that are obvious proxies for them. (Would you see the implicit racism in a sports team called the Atlanta Slaves?) Hamilton’s praise for men who want women in their kitchens and treated as equals says much about her character, and what kind of co-worker and boss she must be, especially in an industry that often adulates alpha males with domineering personalities.