Interview: Gabrielle Hamilton, author of Blood, Bones and Butter

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

By Vivian Chum

“If you just tell the damn story from the beginning to the middle to the end, and you are authoritative about your subject—you know what it looks like, smells like, you know who, what, when, why–everything else will take care of itself.”

Gabrielle Hamilton, New York Times bestselling author of the memoir Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, admits she hit a snag at some point in her writing process. Though she would have liked to have attributed the holdup to the fact that, while writing her memoir, she was also raising two young children and running her East Village restaurant Prune, “The truth is,” Hamilton explained, “I had a paralyzing fear that I’m a piece of shit, this is a piece of shit, I’m boring, and this is boring.” Paradoxically, to overcome that fear, said Hamilton, “I stopped making the memoir about my goddamn self. I brought everything I knew about being a chef, cooking, and the service industry to the project of writing a book.”

So what was the essence of that knowledge? After years of serving hungry patrons, Hamilton understood that “when you’re hungry, there’s nothing better than eating the food you want, to have appetite.” Likewise, to write a bestselling memoir, Hamilton simply had to ask herself what her readers would want.

Blood, Bones, and Butter, the result of Hamilton’s efforts to carry over her talent for satisfying a restaurant full of hungry people, is a memoir that hits the spot. With a flair for describing memories and sentiments through her taste buds (in Hamilton’s world, an emotion is like root beer: “frigid and caught… in the back of my throat”), Hamilton holds her readers’ rapt attention as she leads them, meal by delicious meal, through her childhood, two decades in the catering business, a yearlong backpacking trip (during which Hamilton experiences the particular thrill of being “picked up and fed, often by strangers, when you are in that state of fear and hunger”), and the opening of her popular restaurant, Prune.

SMITH caught up with Hamilton one morning in her New York apartment during a brief break from her book tour. Though she had a million items on her to-do list and had already been up for hours, “right now,” Hamilton reported, “I’m just eating the last bite of toast.” Between bites, Hamilton spoke about writing a bestseller, juggling two careers and motherhood, and, of course, food.

Photo by Melissa Hamilton

Photo by Melissa Hamilton

How does it feel to have written a bestseller?
I’m still catching up to what it means to be a bestseller. It’s incredible and I’m thrilled, but a lot of things without merit are bestsellers. For me, the number of sales does not equal merit. The fact that Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times reviewed my book in the literary section and not the food section was for me what felt like standing at the top of Everest.

How has your life changed since your book came out?
Everyone’s asking me how’s all this fame. I’m like, I’m famous? Wait a minute. I have no sense of what’s going on.

In your memoir, you write that many women have self-selected out of the chef life, but here you are a mother, a chef, and a published author. What drives you?
If you’re referring to the fact that I had a restaurant, kids, and a book to write all at the same time, I’d say I couldn’t have planned it that way. Everything that I wanted in life just happened exactly at the same time. I was not going to say no to any of those things. I just had to cram it all in somehow. I’m generally turned off by the word impossible.

In a previous interview, you say that admitting you wrote a memoir is like admitting you wrote a power love ballad. What’s that comparison about?
I have always understood memoir to be a kind of bastard genre of literature. I’m not ascribing these characteristics to it. This is what the hardcore male literary critics say—that memoir is typically what women do, and by saying that they are demeaning it, because of course whatever women do is obviously less serious than what men do, which we can obviously refute. I just want to embrace this by saying, Yeah, I wrote a memoir. That was my way of de-fanging the critique.

What was your writing routine like? How did you fit it into your busy life?
It was brutal, and it was so far away from that Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own ideal. But the more I have to do, the more shit I accomplish. If I had all day to sit around staring at the book, I wouldn’t have written it. I’m at my best when there’s a lot of constriction and boundaries. If I have only 20 minutes, then I get it done. That’s what I like about magazine and newspaper work. There’s a hard and fast word count and a hard and fast deadline. The limitations work as muse and editor together, because if it has to be done, then you got to get it done.

How would you compare your two crafts—writing and cooking?
They’re incredibly compatible. I’m very grateful to have my day job as a chef and to have the restaurant. It’s so grounding and practical. The restaurant is a place where actual living life happens. It’s sociable and doable, and I cherish being able to walk away from the loneliness and the seemingly unaccomplishable task of writing. I’m a part-time writer, and I’m still learning how to write. Faced with one’s amateurism, it’s nice to go to something you’re pretty accomplished at. Conversely, it’s so nice to come to the page after an 18-hour day of manual labor and quite mundane thoughts like, have I ordered enough parsley today and the espresso machine seems to be leaking. It was an incredible relief to come to the page sometimes and let your mind out for a longer stroll than the average chef life allows.

You write so intensely and lyrically about emotional moments in your life through your descriptions of food. Can you talk about the connection and interplay between food and your memories?
I’ll tell you the truth, I did not deliberately do anything, and I highly recommend it to writers. If you just tell the damn story from the beginning to the middle to the end, and you are authoritative about your subject—you know what it looks like, smells like, you know who, what, when, why–everything else will take care of itself.

Having said that, I knew I had to write about food. Chefs are very popular now, and I happened to be at the right place at the right time. I understood my job in writing this book was to include food. I’m obviously not a food writer, but I was able to write about the experience of food, being a part of a family where food was emphasized. Food is in the book because food is my life.

Hunger is a significant part of your memoir, and you write that your memories of hunger are central to your conception of your restaurant Prune. What does hunger mean to you?
I consider hunger an important part of eating. In terms of Prune, I wasn’t opening a conceptual restaurant. I didn’t want a place that was entertainment or a place where you go to have your mind blown. When I’m having a blood-sugar moment at four in the afternoon, I just want some very delicious thing to eat. I don’t want some conceptual chef to give me a deconstructed hardboiled egg that’s been chemicalized and cheffied up, nor do I want a Snickers at the local deli. When you’re hungry, there’s nothing better than eating the food you want, to have appetite.

You spent two decades in the catering industry, but you don’t really write about how that experience informed your restaurant Prune. Can you tell me a bit about that?
From catering, I learned everything I did not want to do in my restaurant. As a caterer, I spent a long time blow-torching things, wrapping things up in saran wrap, cooking meat hours and hours before it would be eaten, reheating meat in a Sterno cabinet, and preparing food that fifteen people had touched. I wanted nothing to do with that.

On the other hand, I’m a pretty good caterer by now. It’s fun to be able to produce a meal for 350 people in the middle of a field. I’ve actually always loved catering. You see these incredible parties. There’s some formidable stuff that happens in catering. And you can work outside of your idiom. By that I mean, if you have a restaurant, your restaurant has a point of view and you have to stick to that. In catering, you can be in Italy, Morocco, Vietnam. Everything you can pull off is legit.

At the beginning of the book, you write about your French mother with great fondness. She passes on to you her love for food and cooking, but as an adult, you avoid her for 20 years. There isn’t much about the complexities of your relationship with your mother in your memoir. Was that deliberate?
Yes. I had to write about people as they pertained to food, so my mother was obviously a huge influence, and I couldn’t technically write about her without including the fact that we have a strained relationship. But as for the complexities of our relationship, that’s not in the book and it’s not for sale. Understandably, people are having this experience of this book as intimate and very personal, and they feel like they know me so well, but it’s kind of a deceptive intimacy. You don’t really know me as well as you think you do. I’m very much in control of the material in the book.

And what has meeting your readers on your book tour been like?
The book tour has been so surprisingly nice. I didn’t realize that the people who come to see you are on your side. They like the book. I’m always preparing myself for being hated or heckled. I prepare myself for the worst, always, and it hasn’t been that way. I’ve been joking that my book tour is my Facebook Unplugged Tour, because I don’t do Facebook or social media. I’m running into people I haven’t seen in 10 or 20 years. It’s just incredible. Who needs Facebook? You just got to go on book tour. And the conversations have been just how I like them.

What do you mean by that?
I think by writing the book in this straightforward or honest way, it has also encouraged that kind of conversation with others. So far it has not turned into TMI situations where someone is telling you way too much about their life. It’s just been exactly in the same kind of tone that I wrote—honest, straightforward, but not over-exposing, and not over-revealing.

Do you plan on writing another book?
This is just changing in the past couple of days. When this question has come up on book tour, I’ve said, Can we wait just ten minutes? I need to enjoy this book for just a moment. Now that book tour is starting to wind down, I’m a little like, What am I going to do now? I haven’t quite answered the question. I suspect for my sophomore effort, I’m just going to be chickenshit and do a cookbook or something.

What about writing one of those cookbooks that combines recipes and memoir?
I assure you I won’t do that. That’s a kind of cookbook I actually resent. Just give us the recipe. If you want to tell us your life story then just write a memoir.


BUY Blood, Bones and Butter.

WATCH Gabrielle Hamilton read from her memoir.

VISIT the website for Hamilton’s restaurant, Prune.

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