Gabrielle Hamilton tells the stories behind the stories of Blood, Bones & Butter (part 2)
Earlier this week we spoke with Gabrielle Hamilton, author of Blood, Bones & Butter, and attended her Talk of the Stacks reading at the Minneapolis Central Library. Read part 1 to learn how the book came into being, and why her childhood began fancifully but ended decisively and spiraled into adulthood too soon.
Today, we pick up just as Hamilton is opening her New York restaurant Prune. And we're about to meet her future spouse, who's quite unexpected...
In the pages of Blood, Bones & Butter Hamilton details how the extreme hunger she experienced backpacking through Europe gave her an acute appreciation for hospitality -- and it's that feeling of being attended to that she wanted to convey when people stepped through the doors at Prune.
But has she been able to reach that high bar? "I think we have in large part," she said thoughtfully. "And it may be changing now."
During the early days Hamilton knew she and her staff "had just enough charm and politeness and grace that people met us halfway. Our customers let us get our kinks out and figure out how to be a restaurant. And that exchange was kind of reciprocal hospitality, if that makes sense."
Over a decade later, the house is now more savvy and polished. But the largesse she encountered in her travels still pulses through Prune's veins. "If you've finished your bottle of wine but you still have 3 bites on your plate, the servers are going to grab you a bottle and get you a sip -- just to let you have something to drink to finish your meal," she explained. "Just a little 'give'
As for the food, Hamilton characterized her cuisine as simple and straightforward: "It's not defensive or unconfident. Meaning, if we want to put something on a plate the way it really is, we do." Unlike her years of schlepping catering trays, she no longer needs to "restaurant-ify" entrees to meet certain dining expectations. "We don't dress it up and make it sing and dance."
This philosophy may best come through in a dish Hamilton aptly coined Bread Heels and Pan Drippings -- an idea spawned during dinner service. "We would finish roasting chickens, and all the delicious bits would be stuck to the bottom of the pan," she remembered vividly. "A caramelized clove of garlic, a crispy little branch of rosemary, a few lemon seeds, the fat, the skin -- and I was always scraping it up with the last crust of bread out of the bread basket."
Meanwhile, over at the salad station, a line cook would be using a stainless steel bowl to mix greens. Over the course of an evening, a few hapless leaves would become saturated and wilted -- left behind as perfectly prepared lettuces were continuously emptied onto waiting plates. "I would just stand there and eat the drippings on a slightly stale piece of bread, with some overdressed salad. And it was just so damn delicious," she laughed. "I thought, we're gonna have to open this up to the public!"
After launching the restaurant Hamilton met a man named Michele. And although she'd previously been in relationships with women, he became her husband. Initially based on lust and a green card arrangement, the marriage lasted more than a decade. And while she gives a raw chronicling of its inadequacies in the book, Hamilton also embraces the fruit it bore: two beautiful children and a set of in-laws who helped her reclaim her father's magical parties -- at least, in small ways.
About her sons Hamilton reflected, "To be a mother, it teaches you everything. Maternal love, romantic love, filial love... I feel like I learned that all through having kids." And despite the rift with her husband, she was fond of his family -- particularly his mother Alda. Hamilton relished their annual pilgrimages to Italy to visit her and the rest of Michele's relatives. And although they spoke different languages, she and Alda forged a bond while cooking side by side.
As the book draws to a close, Hamilton hints at an upcoming divorce, but we're left with plenty of questions and loose ends -- some of which she now addresses with a new chapter in the paperback edition. But beyond the saga of Blood, Bones & Butter, how would she reconcile the dual role of chef and writer?
When Hamilton originally opened Prune, she made a conscious decision to leave writing behind. To the live audience at the reading she revealed how she bluntly killed her own dream: "I just kind of had a harsh conversation with myself and said 'You're not a writer, you are a chef. You're a cook, you're good at it, just get with the program and put both feet facing in one direction.' I'm not saying that that is a very easy thing to do, but it's good to be that frank with yourself sometimes, and give up those old fantasies."
But 6 weeks after Prune's debut, she was offered a writing gig. Like food, the pen kept wedging its way back into her life.
Fielding the last questions of the evening, she looked out onto a sea of faces, and was asked something she'll need to become accustomed to: Do you prefer to be called a chef or a writer?
"I have to choose?" Hamilton asked, pausing to gather her thoughts. She then offered this final nugget: "I'm a good cook, and I like to write. But I guess I value writing more than cooking. I have never been moved to tears by a meal, but I have definitely been moved by words on a page. Those moments when you're alone with a book that alters your freaking life and makes you feel accompanied. Those are the most powerful moments for me."