A Raging Appetite
By Gabrielle Hamilton
Random House, 2011
In B. R. Myers’ recent Atlantic article ‘The Moral Crusade
Against Foodies,’ Gabrielle Hamilton – and her tough, vivid memoir – come in for a beating for belonging to the Anthony Bourdain school of macho food writing: ‘it’s quite something
to go bare-handed up an animal’s ass… Its viscera came
out with an easy tug; a small palmful of livery, bloody jewels
that I tossed out into the yard.’ Driven by a passionate defense
of animal rights, flavored with Catholic guilt and vegetarian revulsion, Myers eviscerates the foodie, that particular modern version of the gourmand of years past. He argues that for all
the Michael Pollan sanctimony about looking an animal you’re going to eat right in the eye as a kind of atonement, this is just glorified gluttony – a deadly sin, if we hadn’t all forgotten? Furthermore, despite the hype about locavore sustainability
as a social good, foodie-ism remains a marker of elite social status: “It has always been crucial to the gourmet’s pleasure
that he eat in ways the mainstream cannot afford.” Foodies have the money and leisure to turn a bodily need into a sensual desire, and then, often, to write about it, for a community of like-minded, like-walleted readers.
At the other end of the moralizing spectrum, however, Eric Schlosser, author of the 2000 exposé Fast Food Nation, recently argued in the Washington Post that the elitist tag is a bait and switch. Dismissing those who pay a premium for organic-this and local-that as effete, arugula-munching liberals obscures the fact that the real elites are, as always, the billionaires: in this case, the owners of the massive agribusiness conglomerates that dominate America’s food production. The sinful elites are those currently pushing through a bill in Iowa to ban photographs of industrial farming operations, not Michelle Obama and her vegetable garden, or the diners at Brooklyn farm-to-table restaurants. The latter might be easier to satirize, but our moral outrage should be directed at those who keep fresh, healthy food out of the hands of the poor and poison the landscape while they’re at it.
In this fraught argument over the proper way to understand, appreciate, and write about food, the foodie memoir has a peculiar status. On the one hand, it participates in larger debates over food by advocating a particular way of eating – usually slowly, thoughtfully, with family and friends, using local ingredients, and if possible while watching the sunset over a Tuscan hillside. There are variations on this theme, and the occasional admission of a guilty pleasure in something mass-produced, but nobody has yet gotten rich writing My Life in Twinkies. On the other hand, the foodie memoir is necessarily personal – what is more intimate than a rumbling stomach, or tastebuds dancing in response to a perfect mouthful? The British food columnist Nigel Slater’s excellent Toast, for instance, is subtitled The Story of a Boy’s Hunger. How is that hunger, and its sating, to be shared? Foodie memoirs have long taken their cue from the lyrical Francophile M.F.K. Fisher, and tend to combine elements of the elegiac and the therapeutic. Often the writer is trying to recapture and recreate an idyllic, delicious childhood kitchen (Ruth Reichl), and sometimes to escape an upbringing of frozen dinners (Nigel Slater.) Healing journeys abound (Julie Powell) and more often than not there is some revelatory time spent absorbing the food and life lessons of different cultures, most often France or Italy, where the foodie memoir merges with the travelogue (Eat, Pray, Love.)
Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter combines plenty of these tropes on its journey from mythical childhood kitchen to thriving restaurant (she owns and runs Prune, in Manhattan’s East Village.) But the childhood – evoked in a haunting first chapter centered on a family lamb roast – is abruptly destroyed by divorce and her own near-abandonment. Later, when Prune is established and Hamilton has left her long-term girlfriend for her Italian husband, the revelatory trips to Italy to stay with his family in a rambling villa are eventually undercut by familiarity and the pitiless eye of an unromantic writer. The subtitle of the book – The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef – is misleadingly coy. Hamilton is hardly a reluctant chef: she is, most of the time, a thoroughly ‘badass’ chef, proud of getting down on her knees at nine months pregnant to scrape down the inside of a restaurant oven, and cleaning up human shit that appears on the back steps of the restaurant one malodorous morning. But she’s often a reluctant something else – a reluctant daughter, sister, student and especially wife. She describes retreating into herself on a trip to see her mother after twenty years’ silence:
I mentally leave my body, swept and neat, exactly as I would leave my home before a journey of several days. I crawl deeper and deeper back into my impenetrable mind, until I am lodged so far back that I can see the periphery of my body as I peer out from it, like being inside an open, dry shed while it storms outside.
The image of the shed is not accidental, but drawn directly from the Vermont landscape she is being driven through in the back of a speeding car, nursing her infant son: a typically pointed and highly crafted metaphor. She’s far from a reluctant mother, but in a knowing reversal of the relentless consumption of foodie memoirs, describes instead being consumed: ‘the cannibalizing feeling that nursing constantly can leave you with, as if you were being eaten alive, not in huge monster-gore chunks, but like a legion of soft, benign caterpillars makes lace of a leaf.’
The visceral excavation B.R. Myers quotes is characteristic of the memoir in using a scene with food at its center to ground a larger story, both public and private. But in context this is hardly a Bourdainian exhibition of the writer’s iron stomach. She ‘begs’ to kill the chicken at her father’s house out of, perhaps, a skewed moral impulse against factory farming, or ‘what two years at Hampshire College had done to me.’ But the desire to kill is also intensely private, mixed up with reading Dostoevsky and post-adolescent confusion, at a time when, as she says in hindsight, she was ‘brittle with subcutaneous rage, and bone tired.’ In the fading light, the killing is messy and brutal, ‘and the meat, as if scripted, was disagreeably tough.’ Ironically used by Myers to demonstrate the foodie’s gluttonous pleasure, this is a cold, disappointing scene of loneliness and familial estrangement – one of the many in the book that make it a more affecting and more complex memoir than the typical journey to gastronomic enlightenment – highly scripted for sure, and quite agreeably tough.
And what of food? There is a striking lack of sensual, solitary indulgence in this writing: food for food’s sake. Food is described with gusto and glee when it is to be shared with others, or when it’s the perfect mortadella sandwich and ice-cold beer that averts a hunger-induced meltdown. If it’s the hoarding of private, bodily pleasure that makes gluttony sinful, this is an unusually virtuous memoir, for all the cursing. Food as image, as picture-perfect lifestyle accessory, comes in for a sound kicking, especially the New York farmer’s market and ‘the girl with the bicycle, wandering along from stall to stall with two apples, a bouquet of lavender, and one bell pepper in the basket of her bicycle.’ But Hamilton is under no illusion that the old-fashioned picturesque market, with its ancient farmer selling zucchini blossoms under a tree, can survive – not even in Italy.
I know that when he dies he’s the last, and this – this – the pants held up with a piece of twine, his work shoes dusty and curling up at the toes, and the simple way he has tossed his wares in to the bed of the wagon next to the jug of gasoline and the coil of thin rope and the cracked plastic pails, covering them with a light sheet of burlap – a grain sack split open to make a sheet – this all goes when he goes.
Even this vecchio eventually disappoints, and sells Hamilton a pound of maggot-infested beans. But failure is better than selling – or being sold – a fantasy. Hamilton excoriates foodie inauthenticity in all its forms, showing us the industrial labor and questionable hygiene behind the scenes of lavish Hamptons weddings, and reserving particular ire for certain Brooklyn restaurants with their cookie-cutter brunches and ‘“blood-orange” hollandaise sauce.’ Even rural Italy, birthplace of every foodie fantasy, unravels along with her marriage, when the endless repetition of family tradition that makes Italy Italy begins to preclude exploration, novelty, adventure. “Local. Seasonal. These are the words that turn everybody on these days. But twenty-one days of local eggplant season is torture.’
Blood, Bones and Butter is really two stories – before and after Prune. Before, the uncompromising personality of its storyteller is more appealing, perhaps because the poor decisions and bad behavior of a lost soul are easier to swallow than the poor decisions and bad behavior of a grown woman who has chosen what she wants to be and do. The picaresque tales Hamilton shares, all grounded in food and kitchens, include being left alone at 13 with her elder brother in their ramshackle house after her parents divorce, and walking into town to beg a job in a restaurant because the food has run out and nobody thought to leave her any money. At 16 she’s in a Manhattan apartment with her sister, working as a waitress in an ’80s bar straight out of Wall Street, cheating her clientele out of thousands of dollars in a coke-fueled year and ducking a grand larceny charge on account of her youth. She attends a couple of liberal-arts colleges and eventually graduates, finds grinding work in catering kitchens for most of her 20s, and eventually combats her feelings of demoralized pointlessness with a casual application to the University of Michigan’s MFA program: ‘That September, I rolled into Ann Arbor to start a whole new clean and kitchen-free life.’ Of course, once there, she pays the bills with commercial kitchen work, and finds refuge from the intensity and pretension of her classmates with kindred spirits, ‘working away together under the fluorescent lights, with cold smoked chicken in apricot glaze and sirloin tips in molasses black pepper sauce.’ It’s in the interest of the outsider persona she cultivates to downplay the influence of her writing training – and educational institutions in general – but somewhere along the way she learns to tell a crackling story.
The conventions of the memoir genre prepares readers for a redemption story, and although we get that basic structure here, reconciliation and regret don’t come easy. Hamilton’s uncompromising personality comes through in her language – she’s as fond of ‘ass’ and ‘bullshit’ as she is of aromas of bacon. Yet there’s often a sad mismatch between what this fearless writer can perform on the page and what she can say out loud. One of the most frustrating parts of the book is the long passage describing Hamilton’s participation at a panel on women chefs at the Culinary Institute of America (the other, more fun CIA.) As our heroine sinks lower and lower into her seat beside a panel of doyennes of her profession, conscious of her baby’s spilled oatmeal grubbing up her sweater, it’s hard not to wish that the pages of articulate anger at their platitudes and complacency could have found a voice at the time. It’s unclear whether speaking up would have inspired a new generation of women chefs to embrace the sheer labor of the restaurant kitchen – ‘cook, ladies, cook’ – and not to flee for the gentler pace of food journalism. Yet Hamilton embodies an unusual kind of success in the industry, having opened Prune with no prior restaurant experience (she had only worked in patron-less catering kitchens) and quickly becoming renowned for her female-friendly hiring. That her path – and her place – are still unusual makes the message the more urgent for trainee women chefs.
Following Hamilton’s story, from familial estrangements to the impending divorce that looms large over the final chapters, can become frustrating: time and again her default reaction is withdrawal, then rage. But in a sense, this works for the genre – food can communicate when the author cannot find the words. Literally, in the case of her Italian mother-in-law, food overcomes the language barrier. Towards the end of the book Hamilton describes herself as a woman with a raging appetite, whose blood-sugar crashes have the power to lay waste whole relationships. As a chef and restaurant owner, hospitality and conviviality are her trade; as a mother and daughter-in-law, food is family, tradition, and memory. In private, though, it’s even more powerful: she doesn’t just love to eat, she needs to eat – and soon. That need gives her story its particular energy. Foodie dilettantes and picky eaters can look elsewhere to satisfy their hunger – you’re getting a full, bracing three courses here, served exactly as the chef decides.
Joanna Scutts teaches literature – from the Greeks to Virginia Woolf – to unsuspecting freshmen at Columbia University. Originally a Londoner, she now lives in Astoria, New York, and is working on a book about modernism and memorialization after the First World War.