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 has to 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. …