Unlike Gabrielle Hamilton, author of the best-selling Blood, Bones & Butter and proprietor of a New York restaurant called Prune, I’ve never written a memoir. I’ve read a ton of them, though, so I get how it works. You start with a few basic facts about your life, grossly exaggerate them to make yourself sound more interesting, pretend you remember things that people said and put them in quotes, then arrange it all in a fashionably non-chronological order. How hard can it be?
What follows, then, is a memoir of the time I spent interviewing Gabrielle Hamilton on the phone, along with the hour or so I spent at the Minneapolis Central Library listening to her read from her book.
My Time with Gabrielle: A Meta-Memoir
“Now, that was a good read,” I said, slapping the book shut with a satisfying, hardcover thwack. I’d scored the hardcover when someone forwarded me an email from Gabrielle Hamilton’s publicist, saying that Gabrielle was going to be in Minneapolis for a reading. In my short career as a food writer, I’d already figured out that if you tell a publicist you’re going to write about somebody, they’ll send you a free book. It’s totally worth it.
I tossed the book over to Bruce. “You should read this,” I told him. “It makes those masochists on Top Chef look like a bunch of pussies.” I could see him eyeing the book suspiciously. A memoir? Isn’t that chick lit? I’m pretty sure that’s what he was thinking, although he’d never admit it. He used to be a communist.
“What’s so good about it?” he asked.
“Well, she’s a famous chef, but it’s not really a cooking memoir. It’s about the twists and turns her life has taken, from her idyllic childhood through some horrific times. Also, she’s hilarious.”
“I’ll give it a try,” he begrudged.
Now that I’d finished the book, it was time to think up some questions for my interview with Gabrielle. But what do you ask someone who’s written about every intimate detail of her life? It seemed nosy to dig deeper. I’m sure she left some things unsaid about her sex life, her bad-girl teen years, her grueling catering jobs, and her loony parents. But if she’d wanted us to know more, she’d have told us.
Anyway, what could I possibly ask her that hundreds of other reporters hadn’t already asked? My eagerness to scam Random House out of a free book had gotten me in over my head. I was just going to have to wing it. I picked up the phone.
“Hi, Gabrielle? This is Lu, with the Twin Cities Daily Planet. Do you, uh, have a minute to talk?”
It’s not that I was nervous. I’ve had too many jobs in too many professions for anything to make me nervous anymore. I used to be a computer programmer, if you want to talk about nerve-wracking. But my list of interview questions was perilously slim.
“Hi, Lu! Sure, I’ve got nothing to do but talk, while I’m on this crazy book tour! How are you?”
She was utterly disarming, just as she seemed in print. Suddenly, it didn’t matter that my questions were inane and redundant. We were just chatting like old friends.
“About your Italian ex-husband,” I said. “I think I used to be married to him, too. Except mine was Greek.”
“No shit!” she said. “That sucks for you.”
“I know, right?” I said. “Well, I’m sorry your marriage sucked, too. But I’ve got to tell you something. At the beginning of your book, when your life was all gauzy and perfect, I kind of hated you. So I was glad when everything went to hell, because then I could like you again. Does everyone tell you that?”
“Ha, ha!” she roared. “No! Are you nuts?”
“Ha, ha,” I replied, but I knew I had to pull it together and ask her a real, reporter-like question. “So, have you ever been to Minnesota?”
“No, I’ve barely been anywhere,” she said. “I’m excited about this round of my book tour, because I finally get to see America.”
“Where are you going to eat when you’re here?” I asked. I wondered if she’d heard of some restaurant, any restaurant, in the Twin Cities.
“I don’t know, but I’m going out with a friend of mine who lives in Minneapolis,” she said. “Do you have any restaurant recommendations?”
That threw me. What do I know about restaurants? I barely ever go out to eat, not since Bruce got laid off. But I do read a lot of reviews.
“I’m interested in something distinctly regional,” she continued. “I hate it when restaurants have that attitude of, ‘We wish we were New Yorkers, and we’ve got a big chip on our shoulder that we’re here.’ I don’t want to go anywhere that feels defensive. I’d rather go to places that are proud of what they’re doing.”
“I’d recommend The Bachelor Farmer,” I offered. “It’s very Minnesotan, and the Star Tribune named it ‘2011 restaurant of the year.’ Or maybe Spoonriver; Brenda Langton is sort of a pioneer chef around here. The food is spectacular. Or 112 Eatery. The chef got a James Beard award, so his kids, if he has any, must be very impressed with him.”
Gabrielle chuckled. She had told me that her kids think she’s a rock star because she got a James Beard award last year. They’re only 5 and 7 years old, ages when kids still think their parents are cool. I didn’t know whether to warn her about what lies ahead, or assure her that because she actually is cool, she might evade the callous deconstruction that most teenage children apply to their parents. I decided to change the subject.
“Are there any food trends that you love or hate?” I asked, hoping to get a heads-up on New York trends that are coming our way.
“Hunh,” she said. She sounded dispirited. “I don’t spend much time thinking about food, really. Food trends…I’m at a loss. I’m not interested in food trends. I just do my job, and eat.”
“Yeah, I get it,” I said languidly, pretending that she and I were sitting in a bar drinking the Negroni cocktails she mentions frequently in her book. “Well, are there foods you really like that you don’t serve in your restaurant?”
“Oh, sure,” she said. “I love cilantro, and lots of Asian foods. But I can’t let them happen in the restaurant, because I set up Prune to have a Mediterranean influence. At home, though, I’ve got a whole cabinet full of ingredients for Asian foods.”
“What do your kids like to eat?” I asked. I was thinking of the childhood depicted in her book, full of her French mother’s complex cuisine and her father’s manic lamb roasts. “What food memories are they forming that will compare to the memories you have of your childhood?”
There was a silence on the other end of the line. I worried that she’d quietly put down her Negroni, picked up her handbag, and walked out of the bar.
“Well,” she said at last, “you’ve hit on a poignant absence that’s one of the clinchers for leaving my marriage. I would have liked to have some family traditions, after ten years of married life. But because we lived so oddly and separately, I fear that my children have no sense of tradition.”
She sighed. “Their food memories will be of me and them huddled at the kitchen counter in a tiny East Village apartment eating Parmesan omelets. It’s a real remorse of mine. It seems so paltry compared to my mom’s kitchen, full of stews, and aromas, and pots and pans everywhere…”
“Don’t say that!” I cried. “Why shouldn’t Parmesan omelets at the kitchen counter be just as fragrant and indelible as the foods of your childhood? Your kids are forming deep, satisfying memories. Furthermore, how many kids have a mom who runs a famous restaurant, and, more importantly, kicked Bobby Flay’s ass on Iron Chef?”
“Maybe you’re right,” she admitted ruefully.
“Of course I’m right,” I snapped, the Negroni having gone to my head. “You should see the crazy shit my kids are nostalgic for, now that they’re grown. Spaghetti casserole. Grocery-store sushi. I’m telling you, you’re doing a wonderful parenting job and your sons are lucky as hell. Stop wallowing in self-doubt.”
“Okay, all right!” she said. “I just love my kids so much, I want everything to be wonderful for them.”
“I know what you mean,” I said, seeing an opportunity to say more about my own kids, because who doesn’t think their own kids are more interesting than anyone else’s? And if this is my memoir, why shouldn’t I talk about my own kids?
“Would you like to see the photos my daughter took when she and my other daughter went to Prune the other day?” I suggested. “Both my kids live in New York. You should meet them. If you need a babysitter, by the way, they’re both awesome babysitters.”
“Well, thanks,” she said. “But I don’t actually remember that this was part of our phone conversation.”
“You’re right,” I admitted. “Furthermore, we’re having this conversation on Wednesday, and they didn’t go to Prune until the following Sunday. But isn’t that how memoirs work?”
“I’m not sure you’re on the right track, exactly,” she said.
“Anyway, here are some pictures,” I said.
“Those are lovely,” she said.
I looked at my watch. I knew I was going to have to let her get on to her next interview, but I wanted her advice. “Look, I’m not sure my memoir of this conversation is going so well,” I told her. “How can I improve my technique as a memoirist?”
“I always try to keep Hemingway’s mandate in mind: just write one true sentence,” she said. “That’s what I tried to do in Blood, Bones & Butter, even though it was really hard. Just write one true sentence, and then another, and then another.”
“But some of what I’ve written here is complete fabrication,” I said, “and the alleged sequence of events isn’t even remotely logical.”
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to start over,” she said.
Bruce read the book and loved it.
There was an overflow crowd at the Friends of the Library event. The line of people waiting for Gabrielle to sign her book went all the way across the enormous lobby. I marched up to the front of the line with my camera, using my spurious press credentials to butt in.
“Hi Gabrielle,” I interrupted. “I’m Lu. We talked on the phone last week.”
“Lu!” she exclaimed, reaching out her hand to shake mine. “So glad to meet you! You’re the best!”
“No, you are!” I said, beaming with delight.
She turned away to sign another book, but I knew we were both thinking wistfully of those imaginary Negronis, and our imaginary time together in that imaginary bar. Or, at least, I imagined we were.
Photos of Prune by Miranda Lippold-Johnson