Gabrielle Hamilton can write, there’s no doubt about that. Craft infuses her recent bestseller, peppered as it is with references to both body and kitchen fluids.
Still, this writer was reluctant to read the memoir of this reluctant chef. When a book like Blood, Bones & Butter gets so much advance praise it’s hard to believe it can live up to the hype.
Let’s review, shall we? There was the excerpt in The New Yorker, a New York Times profile and laudatory reviews from the paper of record by Michiko Kakutani and Frank Bruni, along with glowing accounts in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. Of course, the womens’ glossies weighed in with pleasure, as did the blogosphere, including the Times (again), 5 Second Rule, and Bay Area Bites.
Curious to find out what all the fuss was about, this reporter went to hear Hamilton speak at Omnivore Books in March, when she swung through town on book tour, and again last Thursday, when she appeared on stage in conversation with Kim Severson as part of the City Arts & Lecture series. Oh, and in between this reporter devoured her almost 300-page coming-of-age story.
The book is an indisputable page turner, but let’s dispose of one major beef up front: The last section — “Butter” — feels rushed and not ready for prime time, in large part because the central concern — the unraveling of her lonely marriage — was not resolved in real time. No matter, the publisher wanted that memoir hitting the shelves pronto and mass marketing waits for no one. (Hamilton said Thursday that she’s since addressed the marriage matter — in life and on the page in an epilogue for the paperback edition, available in January.)
Clearly, the woman has a talent with pots and pens. The owner of Prune, a wildly popular little bistro in Manhattan’s East Village, (the restaurant’s title comes from a childhood nickname), Hamilton recently won a James Beard Award for best New York City chef after receiving nominations for the coveted title three years running. (Though some grumbled that the gal who serves Triscuits and canned sardines at the bar won more for what she represents than what she cooks.) She’s written about the chef’s life for Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, and Saveur, where her sister Melissa Hamilton was an editor, and appeared in six volumes of Best Food Writing.
Hamilton has worked hard and overcome obstacles to get to the top of her game, in two creative fields no less. She survived a largely feral childhood followed by a drug-fueled, unsupervised adolescence, turned to cooking to find family, home, hope, structure, and salvation and wound up, on a whim, running a restaurant of her own.
She’s not interested in glamorizing either pursuit. If anything she has a tendency to martyrdom: Hamilton recounts cleaning human excrement off the restaurant stoop and deposing of a dead rat riddled with maggots found on the back steps. She turns hundreds of eggs on the breakfast line, while major-league pregnant and, later, with babies clinging to her breast. Her autobiography, a decade in the making, is scribbled on brown paper between services, on subway rides, and while putting those babes to bed. There is never enough time or sleep.
Professionally, Hamilton is a big talent and a huge success. Her personal life, as she reveals in her book, is a bit messier. Estranged from her mother for decades, she identifies as lesbian but ditched the sisterhood for a clandestine affair with an Italian man she ends up marrying. He is the father of her two boys, though from the beginning of their coupling trouble is brewing. For starters, Hamilton seems more in love with his mother and summer visits to the Italian clan’s compound than her actual husband.
These personal revelations would seem meaty subjects for seasoned interviewer Kim Severson in her City Arts & Lectures discussion with Hamilton. But Severson — now the New York Times’ Atlanta bureau chief who appears to keep her hand in the food beat and her heart in San Francisco — was in a tricky situation. Just days before Hamilton landed in town the New York Post had dropped a bombshell about the celebrity chef’s love life.
Of course, who Hamilton sleeps with is really nobody else’s business, except that her memoir includes revelations about her adventures in the sack as well as an apron. And Hamilton talks a lot about the value of being honest and authentic in the kitchen and on the page. To top it off, the New York Post item on Hamilton was recycled in the local food media the day before her appearance.
Severson gave a nod to the matter early on in the chat: “I’m going to ask you the question on everyone’s minds, [theatrical pause] How do you keep your skin so dewy?” That set the tone for an evening of mostly softballs from Severson, who made a running gag about not being “bitter” that Hamilton’s memoir was a better read than her own, Spoon Fed.
The Times staffer did try some shock value, noting the book’s unusual intimacy, which a friend described to Severson this way: “I feel like I know every fold in her vagina.” But she quickly found herself in the role of comforting colleague, after an earthquake literally shook the subdued Hamilton, who looked like she wanted to bolt from the stage when things started rocking.
A few sips of wine later, however, Hamilton regained her composure and temporarily shut down Severson, as she meandered through her self-described cliched questions. Case in point: “What’s the last taste you would want in your mouth before you die?” Surely not the first time Hamilton’s fielded that query.
“I thought we were going to have an intelligent conversation about writing and you want to know if I keep lube in my bedside table,” Hamilton scolded at one point. Note to Linda Hunt: Not all KQED subscribers may be amused by the repartee between these two, who wondered if any couple, regardless of orientation, can keep sex alive in a long-term relationship — though, it must be said, the crowd at Herbst Theater ate it up.
During the audience Q&A fans gushed about how much they loved Hamilton’s book, even if they hadn’t finished it, and her restaurant, even if they hadn’t eaten there yet. In such an environment, this reporter felt it would have been a hostile act to ask the writer-chef if she cared to comment about the recent allegations in the press. Instead, she opted for the more discreet email follow up to both Hamilton and Severson, neither of whom jumped at the opportunity to explain why the subject wasn’t broached on stage.
Hardly surprising. Hamilton made it clear at her book signing at Omnivore that she’s selective about what aspects of her private life the public get to know about through her writing. Her mantra: If it’s not in there, it’s not tellable — readers don’t get all of her. Fair enough.
It’s this kind of contradiction — the tell-all that keeps secrets — that makes Hamilton such a fascinating creature. She’s full of inconsistencies — aren’t we all? — only hers are on display for all the world to see and hear. Hamilton often says she loathes being called “a female chef” and yet when TV came calling looking for just such a demographic, she jumped at the chance to take one for the team.
Similarly she thinks the term “food writer” is demeaning; she’s simply a chef who is also a scribe and cooking is what allowed her to come to the party. Yet, when asked what readers can expect next from the literary writer she responds: A cookbook.
During the talk Hamilton mentions the moms at her sons’ school, who she says look at her disdainfully as she drops off her kids. Her children eat poorly and often in the car on the way to school, she confesses. And yet, one can’t help but get the impression that the 45-year-old looks down her nose at them. Severson counters that perhaps the other moms are intimidated or awed by the successful chef with the best-selling memoir but Hamilton dismisses this notion out of hand.
And the Beard Award is silly, Hamilton says, until she wins it, and then it’s the most important culinary honor a chef can earn. Thankfully she has a sense of humor about all this flip-flopping.
One gets the sense that Hamilton doesn’t give a hoot if you like her, agree with her opinions, or want to read her book. It’s what makes her intriguing and may well be an essential part of why she’s so talented on the page and in the kitchen. She’s just doing her own thing and not seeking anyone else’s praise or approval.
During the course of the 90-minute City Arts & Lectures dialogue she laments the fetishization of food (the cult of farmers’ markets, home cooks with sous vide machines), discussions of gender issues in restaurant kitchens (snoozeville), and the plethora of social media around food culture. Reading about food online, she says, is like eating at McDonalds. “You end up feeling hungry, undernourished, tired, and full of self loathing.”
She’s also down on the rise of reality TV cooking shows, even though she’s had her own turn in front of the camera. (She slayed Bobby Flay on “Iron Chef”). “It’s starting to suck for all of us, since TV isn’t about cooking it’s about entertaining,” says Hamilton. “It’s impossible to be quiet or subtle with food on television because actual cooking is really quite dull and repetitive.”
Plans for a movie based on the memoir are already in the works, Hamilton told fans Thursday. She jokes she’d like to see Robert Downey Jr. play her.
That seems about right. Hamilton has balls. And a muscularity to her convictions and craft that the actor could convey handsomely. Audiences with a taste for Hamilton’s contrarian ways might just go for such gender-bending casting. Stay tuned.
Listen to the conversation between Gabrielle Hamilton and Kim Severson broadcast on KQED Sunday, November 27 at 1 p.m.