This week, Gabrielle Hamilton's cookbook Prune debuted at No. 9 on The New York Times bestseller list after being released Nov. 4. It's hardly a surprise given that Blood, Bones and Butter, her 2011 memoir, was a huge hit; and her restaurant, Prune, is one of the most essential dining experiences in New York City.
What is a surprise, however, is the book itself, which thrills in small ways practically from the first page. There is no introduction, and by the time you've turned two pages you're already into the recipes. Each recipe is made to look as if it comes from the three-ring binders Hamilton's crew uses in the Prune kitchen, and her handwriting scrawls across many of the pages with instructions far more personal than what you'll find in a standard cookbook. Plus, the food looks amazing. If this book doesn't make you want to jump behind a stove, it certainly will make you want to eat at Prune.
I sat down with Hamilton this week for a conversation about the book, about having voice in her recipes and about realizing, finally, that she is a writer.
BESHA RODELL: I love the book. it’s so delightful to open it and be, like, “Oh my God, I’m on page three and I’m cooking already!” It was shocking, but in a good way. Was that controversial with the publisher, to forgo any introduction or index?
GABRIELLE HAMILTON: I didn’t hear any controversy. Because I had written Blood, Bones and Butter, that’s the longest headnote, introduction and forward of all time. It didn’t make sense to try and recycle that material. And Random House was very nice. They gave me everything I wanted and asked for. I had to ask quite loudly at some times, but we didn’t have to argue about headnotes or introduction or celebrity chef endorsements.
It seems like one of the goals of the book is to make people feel that sticky-close energy of being in a kitchen, working on the line. Or at least that’s the outcome. Were you to trying to bring readers into the feeling of being in a professional kitchen?
It was not the goal. I started to write the cookbook in the normal way and I was dead in 10 seconds. There was no way I could use any language and, tell the truth, other than the language I use every day. I don’t cook at home. I haven’t cooked at home in 30 years. I wouldn’t even know where to begin to write about that. It was a lot easier for me to tell the truth when I was telling my truth and not trying to make it up.
I took our three-ring binders off the shelf that we use and cook out of every day and it’s made to look as if we Xeroxed them and put them in this nice binder. And the language had to stay the same. Granted, I’m not dumb. I knew other people were going to read the book and need to use the book. I was considering the reader. I’m not so self-indulgent that I thought, “Let’s make a vanity cookbook so I can enjoy myself.” I was always thinking of its usefulness, its contribution, its pragmatic application.
So of course I was thinking of the home user, and I brought whatever playwriting skills I had to the game. Because I know, like, in playwriting, you can’t break character. You can’t turn to the audience and say, “OK, this is really my mom and I’m epileptic and she would always take me to the fucking hospital when I would pass out and I never wanted her to, and we hate each other….” But still the audience has to know everything that’s going on. So I pulled that skill set out as much as I could, so by the time you read a recipe, you knew exactly what I’m saying. Even if I don’t say “serve immediately,” I say “Get this out of the pass and on the table,” you have the same understanding of any other recipe that would say “serve immediately.”
There’s a lot of information for the home cook. They won’t feel lost at all. And I think that, for the reader, there are also some treats. If you read through it, you’ll find some things just for you, even if you never plan to cook out of it.
I think I remember I read somewhere that you don’t think of yourself specifically as a food person. And I wonder if you think of yourself now as a writer.
I do see myself as a writer. I didn’t. And now I do.
Was that Blood, Bones and Butter that was the defining moment there?
It wasn’t, actually. It was a subsequent experience. I can’t really talk too much about it, but I had an avalanche moment, one where all the coins just drop, where I was being edited more poorly than I was doing the writing. And I just mean objectively, not from any ego stance. Like, oh my goodness, this editor just used four words in place of the one very good one that I already had here. And I was, like, “Oh, you know what? I’m a writer! And you’re not. And I’m going to tell you how this is going to go because this is my skill set.”
So it was not with the book. The book just made me fit — a little limbered up and your muscles start to get a little tone. Because I don’t write, I cook all the time. It’s not like I get up every day and practice and exercise my writing skills.
As a writer, part of why I like to write is that during the actual process I tend to surprise myself. Like, I don’t know where the humor and little tidbits of fun come from when I’m writing, and I find myself smarter and more charming on the page than I actually am. And I see that in your writing, but I also see it in your cooking. It’s often the unexpected ingredient, the flash of whimsy that makes the food I’ve had at your restaurant but also in the book so delightful. There’s something very writerly about it, I guess. So many of these recipes are very classic, but then they have a flourish of weirdness or something very specific to you. There’s something literary about them.
Yes, they have voice. They have a personal thumbprint, a point of view. We’re all going to make coq au vin, but I’m going to make the coq au vin that comes out of my lopsided kitchen. I think the food at the restaurant — the whole restaurant itself — initially had to absorb all of my frustrated ambitions as a writer that were never going to make it anywhere. I didn’t see that I was going to be a writer, so I was probably entertaining myself, like, well, we have to get some humor in here somewhere.
But I do approach menu writing like a document, because even your menu has to say a lot; you have to communicate a great deal. It has to be interesting and exciting, you need to advertise the dish, you need to sell the song in a way. You can’t be false. All that language that’s like, "oven-roasted potatoes." Well where else am I going to roast the potatoes? "Pan-seared scallop." Well, yeah, I’m going to use a pan.
It’s like the cliches that people fall back on in any kind of writing.
It’s just that they’re empty calories. The language is empty and has no meaning. So whatever writing I’m doing, I’m trying to get it right. The menu has to have cadence. The language itself has to have some rhythm to it, there has to be varied sentence length, even, or whatever the culinary equivalent is of that. It can’t just all be: "Rabbit. Olive. Carrot sauce." That’s like an abbreviated haiku of a description, and I think you can do one or two of those on your menu but you lose the reader. You lose the diner if you don’t give them more.
There’s a running joke that goes through this book where you keep saying in the recipes, “If you go on to work at a real restaurant,” insinuating that Prune isn’t a real restaurant. Do you still think of Prune that way? Like you’re just playing restaurant?
I don’t think I’m playing restaurant but I think that Prune is often mistaken for a restaurant. With good reason. We are here to deceive you into thinking it’s a restaurant. But I think that Prune is a project in like-minded community, in generosity, in proxy family, in civic responsibility. It just happens to be a restaurant, but even if I ran a UPS warehouse, that’s how I’d approach it.
I worked in restaurants for years, and all of my favorite places to work were like that. Dysfunctional families.
Except that, it’s actually something I’m very proud of about Prune that it’s highly functioning, highly clear. The language is very frank and you don’t spend five minutes of your shift wondering what the fuck’s going on, when something’s going to get fixed, if you’re doing well or not doing well. You don’t worry for a millisecond. Everything has a super thought-out system, rigidly enforced. That’s my job. That’s the lonely part of Prune. I created the functioning family of my dreams, and I have to stand outside of it, making it happen.
There’s a line in the foie gras recipe where you say to plate the dish “casually but aesthetically,” and that seems like the soul of the book a little bit, and maybe the soul of the restaurant.
I have to thank you for reading the book.
Do people not read the book?
People flip through the book and pick out the most media-friendly thing to focus on. Thank you for reading, and I’m glad that made sense to you. Because that idea, of casual but aesthetic, could be kind of confusing.
There’s that, and I don’t know if you saw but on The New York Times review of the book, in the comments section there’s this whole debate — it’s kind of hilarious — about the thing you say about a quenelle of ice cream. You write: “We don’t want to send that type of message.” And people are debating if you were referring to World War II gas chamber-deniers or French racism. And some people are like, “Um, I think she’s just talking about ice cream.” And that’s how I took it, another instance of casual but aesthetic. You reiterate a number of times in the book, the idea that “we’re not that type of restaurant.”
Right, well, I think it’s important to constantly remain ourselves. And we are pressured, often, to become something that we’re not to please others. And the pressure doesn’t come from the customer often, it comes from the server and the cook who, they themselves, are not mature enough to know that I want what we’re doing to be what we’re doing. I have something to offer you. I want you to see this ice cream that’s not in a rigid, perfect quenelle, and I want to tell you that you’re allowed to be that way, too.
I don’t want to go to anyone’s home and have a quenelle, frankly; I want you to get the scoop out and have that little air pocket. Now, I don’t want you to look like a moron, sloppy person who doesn’t even know how to use an ice cream scoop. This is the bark that I bark all day long. Even the language of the server. I don’t want you to go the table and go [sits up stiffly], “Tonight we are serving a grilled shrimp with an anchovy butter sauce…” We don’t have sauce! Prune doesn’t make sauce! And we are not serving. It’s not the language of my restaurant. And what’s dangerous is if you start to use it, then you invite the customer to have that expectation of you, and then we’re going to go down the tubes. I mean, Prune has no aspiration to be, like, “After you, Alfonse.”
How old is the restaurant now?
That’s amazing. Because it feels like now that kind of aesthetic … you were pretty far ahead of your time in that way. But we’ve maybe gone in this weird direction where we’re now … there’s the spiel you get in every single restaurant, and it’s not that stiff thing of the past, but I find it just as false.
What is the new spiel?
It’s: “Hi, my name is so-and-so, and I’ll be taking care of you this evening. Have you dined with us before? We’re a seasonal, farm-to-table concept and all of our dishes are small plates, meant for sharing.”
Ha. You could be a very good waiter. Anyone would hire you.
Well, I hear it every night. It’s such a rigid script, it makes me just as uncomfortable in some ways as the old-school snooty service of the past. And it’s a shame, because I think the feeling many of these places are trying to get to is just that you’re in someone’s place and they’re going to take care of you.
Isn’t that the big old trick? How to be real and not pretend to be real.
I feel like the amount of scrutiny on you in particular when Blood Bones and Butter came out was kind of incredible. I know that if you write a memoir, you’re putting your life out there, but I wonder whether that was jarring when that book came out, to all of a sudden have your life picked apart, to become such a public person so quickly.
I think that’s the trick or secret to memoir writing. You have to bring a writerly skill set to the project because that’s what’s going to protect you. What’s on the page, you are welcome to. I put it there, and you can have it. And you don’t even know what you’re not reading. So, for you to have the impression that you know everything about me is correct. I gave you that impression. And I worked really hard to give away what I’m willing to give away.
It’s like a good gambler. They don’t go to Vegas and just blow everything they have in their wallet. They know what they’re going to spend and they spend it wisely. It did not freak me out, and the kinds of conversations I was able to have with people after the publication of the book made my life instantly better. I would waste no time: I would meet people, and immediately we’re going right to something more interesting.
It was really refreshing to have questions in that book that weren’t tidily wrapped up, and I think that’s part of what generated so much interest.
I learned some things. It was a debut, right? I get to keep going.
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I was going to ask you, do we got more prose from you at some point?
I hope. I mean, this cookbook, it doesn’t ostensibly have prose, but there was so much opportunity for writing in it, which I was really glad about. And also initially dismayed by. I thought I was going to crank out some cookbook as a means of getting around my sophomore effort. Book No. 2, no problem! But then I was slapped by how much I actually care about books. I don’t care if it’s a cookbook or an auto repair manual, I’m going to do everything that it really requires and I’m going to do the best job that I possibly can. However, now that I’ve done these 560 pages of cups and minutes and pans and teaspoons, I think the well is filling up again for some literary stuff.