Q&A with Gabrielle Hamilton, chef/author at upcoming Restaurant Eugene event

“Blood, Bones & Butter” by Gabrielle Hamilton is the memoir of the moment—deservedly so. Whatever your feelings about Anthony Bourdain, his hyperbole on the front cover—“Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever.”—isn’t off the mark. She writes about her childhood, fragmented by her parent’s divorce; her run of cooking jobs that led to her own restaurant; and her atypical marriage with close detail and bittersweet (sometimes wonderfully coarse) humor. It’s told through the lens of food, of course, but it isn’t precious. What I love about the book is that Hamilton never veers into the soft-focus, feel-good trap of so many other culinary memoirs. Food is often a human comfort, but memoirs about cooking and eating are tiresome when they attempt succor without truthful storytelling. Hamilton, who earned an M.F.A. in writing at the University of Michigan, can also craft lovely prose. Describing the ravioli her Italian husband-to-be made for her soon after they met, she says, “They were small and delicate and a beautiful yellow from the yolks in the pasta dough and you could see the herbs and the ricotta through the dough, like a woman behind a shower curtain.”

As part of its ongoing series of author dinners, Restaurant Eugene will host Hamilton next Wednesday, April 13. Cost is $115 per person, which includes a copy of the book. Apparently, there are only a few seats left.

When Hamilton and I talked last week, she said she’d originally encouraged hosts of events for the book to cook their version of the family lamb roast detailed in the first chapter. She’s been promoting since February and enjoyed an awful lot of lamb in the process. Happily, I hear chef Linton Hopkins is drawing inspiration from elsewhere in the book.

Here’s more from our conversation:

What’s it like for you, right now, spending time promoting a book rather than cooking?
It’s been kind of civilizing in a way. I’ve been eating with utensils, and washing my face in the morning, so it’s not so bad. Ironically, it’s not the cooking I miss— it’s putting on my chef’s whites, clogs, and apron, and cleaning stuff and having the rhythm of my day very clear.

How long did it take you to write the book? How did you schedule your time?
I’m unsure, honestly. I sold it five years ago, and the thing stared at me for several of those. I was writing for sure, and getting the stories down, but I did it in an ersatz fashion—I had two babies being born and raised, the restaurant to run, and then invitations to food and wine festivals that are hard to resist. With all these things, the book kept getting pushed aside. I did the “squeaky wheel gets the oil” method. In the last stretch, I abandoned the idea of balance—that everything, including writing, gets equal attention all the time—and my neck and jaw were much more relaxed. The idea of balance is illusory.

What were the toughest sections to write?
Oddly enough, I couldn’t write chapter eight, which is the chapter about opening Prune.
The difficulty was, I was trying to explain everything with a capital E—including the two-year trip I took by myself [that deeply influenced the style of the restaurant]. I finally unlocked it: You know the phrase they tell writers, kill your darlings? Whoever said it, they were a bastard. Why don’t you just protect your darlings? When I realized I could do that instead, I was able to eliminate huge sections to save for another day, another essay, another book. That’s the wisdom that has come from this: Forget balance and do not kill your darlings.

How did your mom, who isn’t always portrayed flatteringly, react to the book?
I vetted the book with everyone who’s in it, so she knew what was coming. She’s proud, and it was painful for her in parts, but I took care of everyone. I’ve heard a lot of feedback that readers experience the book as intimate and unvarnished. It’s a deceptive intimacy, I’m totally in control of the book. People can feel assured, it goes much deeper.

Sometimes writing can have a cathartic effect on our lives, so I’m wondering: Have the inspirations for what you’re cooking in the kitchen [which have been deeply influenced by your personal history] changed since you wrote the book?
Oh, you devil! That’s a great question, and honestly, I’m stumped, I’ll have to think about it.

Are other books percolating in you? You wanted to write fiction at one point: Are you thinking about a novel?
I’ve tapped out the memoir material—although it’s true there were probably twenty chapters that didn’t make it into the book, by my own edit. If I do another book, it’ll probably be a cookbook. I don’t think I have the talent and skill for a novel, to be honest. I now understood vividly what goes into writing a book, and I didn’t grasp it prior. It was like, “Little girl, who do you think you are?” I don’t identify myself as a food writer. It was more like, Here’s what I know, this is everything I had, I brought my entire game to the project. It’s still got its training wheels. Lets hope it rolls.

(Photo credit: Melissa Hamilton)