Gabrielle Hamilton Has Written a Masterpiece. Here’s Hoping Everybody Learns from It.
I returned home from a trip last week to find a copy of Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune waiting for me, sent along by an editor we have in common. I was wiped from traveling and took a cursory glance at it.
My initial reaction was confusion and disappointment. There was no flap or cover copy to explain the concept; no foreword by one of the author’s pals; no introduction by Gabrielle herself. After the title page and table of contents, I was suddenly, jarringly, looking at the first recipe, a recipe that had no headnote and was rendered in nondescript type art directed to look like a sparse notebook page. I leafed ahead. None of the recipes had headnotes. And the third recipe had no method (i.e., instructions), just a roster of ingredients. There were notes and corrections hand-scrawled around the margins and between the lines, binder holes “punched” down toward the spine’s crevice (not really, but the images look impressively real), and facsimiles of Post-Its, mostly indicating how to scale a recipe up or down, on some of the pages. It seemed a little crazy and unthought-out to me. I shook my head, set it aside, and went on with my night.
Saturday morning, I found myself alone with the book and a cup of coffee at my dining room table. During that meditative early-morning time, I decided to give it another look. It wasn’t long before I realized that my initial reaction could not have been further off the mark. As far as I’m concerned, Prune is a masterwork. More than that, it’s the book, or a version of the book, a great many of us–independent authors, chef-authors and their collaborators alike–wish we could write, but which most editors would never buy into. If they did, their publishers would probably override them. If that didn’t kill it, well, there’s always the sales and marketing crew to squelch the impulse to break the mold. The reason is simple: there’s a deep-seated belief in American publishing that a cookbook must adhere to certain conventions or readers will not be able to use it. Put another way, there’s an assumption that many people who cook in this country are culinary imbeciles, incapable of figuring anything out for themselves, and in need of every teaspoon, temperature, time, and taste-cue to be explicitly spelled out for them.
And yet, somehow, miraculously we have Prune. I think it’s no accident that the title doesn’t include the word “cookbook,” because the book is not just a collection of recipes, but also a Joycean depiction of life in a professional kitchen and of the chef who runs it. Sequel might not be quite the right word, but I experienced this book very much as a companion piece to Gabrielle’s excellent memoir Blood, Bones, & Butter. Every professional kitchen is a world unto itself, and this book presents a world to be discovered, explored, and mastered. One might read it cover to cover, as you would a novel, or poke around its pages randomly, or both. Like a great novel, movie or television series, I suspect it will reward and deepen with repeated readings/viewings.
Simply put: Prune is a cookbook, but it’s also an exercise in post-modernism disguised as a cookbook. Put another way, it’s an irresistible bit of interactive, literary performance art in which you, the reader, are a cook working for Gabrielle at her East Village restaurant Prune, and you have happened upon or been handed this densely packed binder full of recipes, and it is the only thing that stands between you and failure. (Not that the chef wants you to fail; her helpful, supportive notes throughout make it clear that she wants very much for you to succeed.) When I opened it for the first time, I didn’t take the time to realize that. In the world of the book, I was coming to it in the wrong state of mind. I walked off the job, and the kitchen went on without me. When I came to it the following day, I arrived with time to ponder it, to absorb it, with a cup of coffee in hand, just the way many cooks start their day. In other words, with the attitude required to appreciate the book.
So, let’s get into what makes this such a landmark achievement…
About the cookbook mission: More than a dozen Novembers ago, Tom Valenti rattled off a recipe for his sausage and fennel Thanksgiving stuffing to me. This was not for a cookbook but for my personal use. He dictated it to me, not with exact quantities, but the way chefs talk to their cooks, in approximate amounts, with little bits of wisdom punctuating the steps, such as advising me, “don’t be afraid to sear the hell” out of the sausage, and to stick my hands in plastic bags so that I could knead the stuffing together while the just-added stock was still hot. I hadn’t written a cookbook yet, but I loved the way he conveyed those instructions, as though talking to one of his cooks, and I still have the scrap of notebook paper on which I hurriedly scribbled it all down.
Every single recipe in Prune is written that way, with Gabrielle essentially coaching you, as a member of her team, giving you a recipe as well as whatever bits of wisdom and direction will help bring the dish home. For those who have never spent time in a professional kitchen, or read a considerable amount about life there, some of the terminology might leave you a little confused. For example, she doesn’t explain that “mise” is short for mise-en-place (prepped ingredients), or that pass means the window between the kitchen and the FOH (sorry, front of house). But you will still likely be able to figure out what she means in the handwritten note alongside the celery, fennel, and radish salad, that reads: “Keep your mise fresh each day, pay attention to the potency of the garlic as it changes from head to head, and make sure the Valdeon toast is still warm when the plate hits the pass.” She also dispenses with many of the conventions of American cookbooks, such as directing you to preheat an oven, or in some cases amounts of individual ingredients.
Prune‘s editor is Pamela Cannon, who also edited Michael Gibney’s wonderful debut book Sous Chef, which was published earlier this year. Sous Chef is told in the second-person, with the reader living a day in the life of a big-city sous chef. Michael explained to me in an interview back in March that he didn’t want to spoon-feed readers, but that he wanted them to experience the kitchen day the way a cook does. When you show up to work in most kitchens, it’s sink or swim. Unlike other occupations, with orientation weeks, buddy systems, and a lunch out on your first day, you are expected to jump right into a kitchen. Everybody else is too busy getting their own work done to take you by the hand and make your life easy. Things will be explained to you, the occasional question will be answered, but really what a chef wants is for you to make her life easier.
Prune take a similar stance. You have to earn much, if not most, of the knowledge it offers, even some of the simplest things. For example, on page 7, the recipe for marinated white anchovies calls for lemon cheek. Now, I’ve written two-dozen-plus cookbooks without having used or encountered that term. Ten pages later, the recipe for Serrano Ham, Fried Pistachio, and Fresh Figs calls for lime cheek and the photo of the dish on the facing page features a tangential slice of lime rind with a little flesh attached. “Ah,” you think to yourself. “That‘s a citrus cheek.” That’s more or less how you’d learn something in a professional kitchen, by keeping attuned to what’s going on around you and figuring things out … fast. (Just for giggles, and one of about a thousand casual glimpses of life inside the industry scattered throughout the book, the ham recipe begins, “If Health Department comes, take the serrano off the carving stand and throw in the oven.”)
One of my favorite lines from any cookbook occurs in the opening pages of Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook: “The idea of cooking and the idea of writing a cookbook are, for me, in conflict. There is an inherent contradiction between a cookbook, which is a collection of documents, and a chef, who is an evolving soul, not easily transcribed in recipe form.” This book takes that truism and runs with it. And the soul to which Thomas refers is present on every page, in Gabrielle’s handwritten notes that explain the details and decisions that will bring a recipe home.
Last night, while writing this post, I phoned up the book’s editor, Pamela Cannon, to share my impressions of it. She said that all of this was intentional and also shared a bit of the creative process with me: Gabrielle initially tried writing headnotes to the recipes, but it felt wrong, violated the purity of her vision; moreover, she felt that some of the recipes’ headnotes were essentially contained in the text of Blood, Bones, & Butter, confirming the new book as a companion piece. Pamela also relayed a fascinating exchange Gabrielle had at a recent public appearance where she was asked about expanding her restaurant and explained that she saw her books as an expansion of her restaurant. Pamela also offered that the handwriting in the book is Gabrielle’s own, and described how much thought went into the art direction — the crinkles, splatters, smudges, and handwriting on many of the pages. “Each page is an individual work of art,” she said. I couldn’t agree more. Kudos to Cynthia Warren Design, credited with the book’s look and to Susan Turner for its layout. Oh, and like me, Pamela had never heard of a citrus cheek, which made me feel better.
Gabrielle also has some fun with the conventions of cookbook-writing. There are no acknowledgements per se, although on the copyright page, she does scribble, next to photographer Eric Wolfinger’s name “OMFG. Wolfie! best.photos. ever.” There’s also no list of sources, although on page 123, alongside the recipe for beef short ribs braised in pho broth, there’s a phone number scribbled, with “5.99/# bone in” written next to it. A quick visit to Google reveals that it’s the phone number of Pino Prime Meats on Sullivan Street, and I caught at least one explicit reference to Pino elsewhere in the book. But the point, it seems to me, of that exercise was visiting the Internet–you can find anything on the Internet, who needs a source list in the year 2014? Figure it out, people!
Gabrielle’s one of that rare breed of chefs who can also write. They inspire awe in me because the two talents are so often in opposition. (For one thing, most writers don’t have the thick skin or physical stamina to survive in a pro kitchen; conversely, most chefs can’t sit still long enough to compose a three-paragraph email, let alone an entire book.) She brings a writer’s love of language to Prune. It’s easy to miss because the recipes are rendered in such a nondescript font, with faux smudge and grease marks all over them. But there’s a lot for word lovers to dote on on just about every page. Just a few for-instances: the recipe for hamburger instructs the cook to “rain” salt and pepper over the patties; an omelette recipe concisely says “drag eggs into center from noon, 3 o’clock, 6 o’clock, and 9 o’clock;” and another recipe describes how to set pumpkin wedges points-up, “like Viking boats.” She also has a gift for onomatopoeia as in calling for a “glug” of blended oil for browning lamb shoulder.
She also emerges as a character in this book as when she expresses years’ of frustration by handwriting, next to the recipe for soft lettuces vinaigrette, “Perky, Lively. Fresh. Seriously. Pay attention. I have seen some wilted crap come out of this kitchen.”
Speaking of “perky, lively, fresh,” that’s the effect the second-person format has on much of the book. Gabrielle scribbles the following note beneath the recipe for a cured green tomato dish: “We should figure out something to do with the interesting cured tomato water that accrues in the bottom of the plate by the end of service. Maybe the bartenders have an idea?” In any other book, that’d be, “Use extra tomato water to make cocktails.” Or maybe it wouldn’t because many editors would insist on the chef-author providing a cocktail recipe, at which point the note would likely be deleted.
My personal hope is that this book proves to be a game-changer. There was a time when home cooks needed to be taken by the hand and walked through the basics of cooking, when they needed the brilliantly detailed recipes of, say, Julia Child to make something as elementary as beef stew, and also needed the attendant mail-order sources and explanations that were often featured in books of that era. The bet that Prune makes is that we’ve come a long way, that reader-cooks will be able to create successfully from this book with its shorthand style and trust in the reader.
There’s so much about this 567-page tome I haven’t mentioned: There’s a section of prep in the back that includes ten stocks and broths, a slew of vinaigrettes and butters, plus spice mixtures and salsas. There’s a selection of cocktails. And Gabrielle’s notes on family meal double as a primer for spontaneously cooking from what’s on hand at home. And then there’s a section called “Garbage,” explaining useful things to do with parmesan rinds, zucchini tops, expired heavy cream, day-old bread, and a bunch of other stuff. My favorite might be the sardine spines, which can be dredged in flour, fried, and dusted with paprika and salt.
“Do not sell these,” writes Hamilton to her cook-reader. “These are just a cook’s treat and to be used as a special wax for good friends and the right people.”
That paragraph ends, “Don’t waste it on anybody who won’t get it.”
That’s how I feel about Prune. You can’t read this book on your smart phone, or your Kindle, and you can’t mindlessly cook from it, either. Like many great works, of art and entertainment, it demands your full engagement and participation. More importantly, it deserves those things.