After a late night, at 11:17 sharp on an excruciatingly hot Sunday morning in NYC, the bartender at Prune informed us that on Sundays, restaurants were not permitted to serve alcohol until noon. I was crushed but managed not to stab the bartender with my now-indignant glare. That is when I saw her close to the door - blonde, with braided pigtails, and a wickedly confident presence. She looked like she owned the place. Because she did. She didn't get us a drink, but seeing her almost made me forget about it.
Gabrielle Hamilton is the chef and owner of Prune. She is also the author of Blood, Bones, and Butter, a sharp, fiery, and luring memoir recounting an enchanted food-centric childhood, a mad self-search that ended in owning Prune, and a less-than-conventional approach to relationships, marriage, and family.
[This is not the released book, just an advance copy]
The youngest of five, Hamilton's family set the stage for her later career. She was introduced to from-scratch foods by a charming French mother who inspired a deep respect for food and an undying love of making it. The sensory experience of eating was instilled in her by her father, an artist and free spirit who created magical stories, unforgettable parties, and romanticized memories all revolving around food.
The young Hamilton recounting her childhood is innocent, mesmerized. When her parents announce a sudden divorce, Gabrielle reacts by going into a tailspin of adolescent behavior that eventually takes her to New York City working in questionable bars, using drugs, and barely escaping a criminal prosecution for grand larceny and possession of stolen property.
Woken up to reality, Hamilton goes to college, on and off - searching her calling, working nauseating catering jobs, cooking at a kids' summer camp for Mark Bittman's daughter (the world is so small), and taking a long and enlightening (if not miserable and excruciating) trip to Europe. It is this trip that inspires and tips Hamilton's will into wanting to do food her own way.
The trials and tribulations of opening a restaurant in a non-conventional way are described in detail and so is the emotional roller-coaster and romance and pragmatism that leads to her marriage. She leaves her long time girlfriend to marry an Italian doctor who sweeps her off her feet but who also needs paperwork to stay in the United States. This couple - a pair that never really lives as a couple in one residence - has two children and travels every summer to Italy for extended stays. Intriguing, unusual- to say the least.
During these Italian breaks from reality, Hamilton seems to dream up the scenery of dinners her father used to stage when she was just a girl. She wants to create her own feasts only to encounter her husband's harsh and adamant resistance. This, if nothing else, is a sign of the decline of their union.
Hamilton shares much of herself in this book- honestly and openly. Her stories are engaging. Her writing is sharp and surprising- only one sentence can swing the language and mood from 'fuck' to 'insouciant' - seamlessly and gracefully in a three line span. It's impossible not to fall for her writing, not to be enthralled by her story.
So buy the book and take a couple of days off work. Or plan to barricade yourself in the house for a weekend with enough food to survive. I got my advance copy 3 months ago and read it with the eagerness of a teenager getting her hands on the Justin Bieber memoir. I loved it and I am sure you will too.
A recipe is in order - one that Hamilton uses- a Chickpea Salad.
Chickpea Salad (an adapted version of a recipe published in Food and Wine)
Ingredients: one 19 ounce can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed; 2/3 cup Castelvetrano olives, pitted and torn into chunky bits; 10 small red radishes, cleaned and quartered; 5 scallions, white and light green parts only, chopped finely; 1 cup flat-leaf parsley chopped;
5 tablespoons olive oil; 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice; 2 teaspoons champagne vinegar; salt and pepper to taste. Plus 4 soft poached eggs.
Lightly crush half of the chickpeas. I did by pressing a cutting board on top of the chickpeas. Mix in the rest of the chickpeas.
Make the dressing by mixing together the lemon juice and 4 tablespoons of olive oil along with salt and pepper to taste. Toss the chickpeas with the dressing and add the olives, radishes, scallions, and parsley.
Poach the eggs by bringing a deep pot of water to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons of vinegar per quart of water.
Reduce to a simmer and crack the shell of the egg on the edge of your pan gently lowering the egg into the water. With a spoon, nudge the egg whites closer to their yolk. The eggs cook for approximately 3 to 5 minutes depending on the desired firmness. Remove the eggs from the water with a slotted spoon.
Serve the salad topped with a warm poached egg, a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and hopefully a few hours snuggled somewhere with this book.
Photography by Jennifer Olson.