Gabrielle Hamilton tells the stories behind the stories of Blood, Bones & Butter (part 1)
Author and chef Gabrielle Hamilton is full of surprises. At last night's Talk of the Stacks at Minneapolis Central Library, the audience was anticipating the bravado and swagger of an author who had just written a provocative tell-all memoir, committed grand larceny as a juvenile, dealt with human excrement and maggot-filled rats, worked weekend brunch while 39 weeks pregnant, and written an unapologetic depiction of kitchen life so true to form it garnered respect from even Anthony Bourdain.
But instead Hamilton -- the owner of Prune restaurant in New York -- stood in front of the jam-packed auditorium a little taken aback by all the attention. "This is kind of surreal because I still really identify as a dishwasher," she admitted, as the crowd's chuckles eased her nerves slightly. "But it does calm me down just to start by reading -- to hide behind the words for a few minutes."
Rather than hardcore and gritty, Hamilton wore a soft gray sweater with a charcoal jumper and collared white shirt. And as she politely opened to chapter one, there was nary an f-bomb to be heard.
But perhaps we shouldn't be shocked to see yet another side of Hamilton. After all, her book runs the gamut of experiences and emotions. It's brash and disarmingly honest, funny but also bitter. The reader finds himself at various moments rooting for her, fearing for her, and even becoming angry with her.
The collection of contrasts is much like the woman herself, and probably not by accident. Hamilton has identified as a lesbian, but was married to a man. She's received praise, but also been controversial. She's both the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef: New York City, and a New York Times best-selling author.
During a phone conversation earlier in the day, we asked Hamilton about this intricate stew of professional and personal realities, to which she replied, "I feel as complex and ugly and beautiful as the next guy. So hopefully that will resonate with people. If it's in the human catalog and it exists in you, then it should have permission to live and not be repressed."
And repressing things isn't something Hamilton is capable of. Prior to Bones, Blood & Butter, she'd written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, GQ, Bon Appétit, Saveur, and Food & Wine. But as she published stories, she recognized pieces of her personal narrative starting to infiltrate her work. "My life, and things that were going on, started to make their way onto the page unexpectedly and inevitably."
But writing a memoir isn't something she'd ever aspired to (much the opposite in fact). "In every writing class I've ever taken, you understand that memoir is the lesser genre of literature," she observed. "It's what women do, it's kind of soft and easy. People call it very confessional." Then she laughed, "And I am none of those things."
But last year, the memoir burst through. Blood, Bones & Butter follows the food map of Hamilton's life as she makes her way from her beloved childhood surroundings and her parents' grandiose parties into the hospitable arms of European kitchens, through the catering trenches, then onto the opening of Prune, and finally a re-grounding in the familiar and familial ways of her past courtesy of her Italian in-laws.
Growing up in the meadows of Pennsylvania, she was the youngest daughter of a set designer and former ballerina. Her mother, who was fabulously French, taught her to cook and forage food from the land: dandelions, common clover, chanterelles. Her father captured her imagination as she played in his studio and watched him mastermind the family's lavish lamb roast every spring. The over-the-top occasion, attended by 100+ guests, would come to embody a utopia for Hamilton which she longed to re-create later in life.
Hamilton's idyllic childhood ended quickly, however, with the divorce of her parents. And with both absent or otherwise preoccupied, Hamilton was left to her own teenage devices. To survive, she lied her way into her first restaurant job -- washing dishes at a local eatery -- and simultaneously began a rogue "Pippi Longstocking" lifestyle, dabbling in drugs, joyriding in borrowed cars and shoplifting.
At 16 she moved to New York, where she had a serious brush with the law (the aforementioned grand larceny), and at 19 she fled to Europe. With only $1,200 to her name, she was buoyed by the kindness of friends and strangers who would forever influence the way she viewed food.
Returning home, Hamilton slaved away at catering jobs through her twenties but eventually realized she'd become caught up in the momentum of a career she didn't really want. "The better you get at something, the more you do it, and the better pay you get. And then it's hard -- at least it was for me -- to get out," she told the audience.
But writing had always been something she wanted to pursue, and now was the time. "I guess I was turning 30," she said. "I started to realize that I was about to live the wrong life, and I didn't feel like I'd ever made a choice. I never decided to work in a kitchen, it had just happened to me. And it didn't seem like there was much more time left to get a whole new plan going, so I pulled the car off the side of the road, so to speak, and applied to graduate school."
She swore off cooking, sold all her checkered pants, and headed to the University of Michigan to get her MFA. "As you can see, it worked out perfectly," she said sarcastically. "I've never set foot in a kitchen again."
After graduation Hamilton returned to the east coast, fully intending to write a novel but not quite making it happen. "I got the degree and came back to New York, and sat around on the couch in my underwear WAY too long procrastinating."
While she was lazing away on the sofa, there was something brewing nearby: a restaurant space had became available, and food once again came calling. This time, however, it was in the form of a restaurant of her own named Prune. Although she had no background in owning a business, Hamilton decided to take the leap. And like many things before, she stumbled into something that was never part of the plan. "I enter everything through the damn back door," she said.
Join us tomorrow for part 2 as we learn about the food of Prune, her difficult marriage, and the Italian mother-in-law who conjured up images of years gone by .
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.