If I could think of a word to describe myself, “graceful” would never be on the short list. There are few things I do gracefully. Some women age gracefully. Maybe I have that to look forward to, but all signs are already pointing toward “no” on that front. The two most egregiously graceless things I do are cry and sweat.
When I cry, I look like a garden gnome. My face gets all swollen and blotchy red, and I blubber like a fool. It’s horrible to watch. This does not bode well for the wedding, especially because I cry all the time [in the last 48 hours: when Shaun tweeted me this video, when I read this article, when I listened to a mixtape I made my dad for Father's Day, when I realized I had only slept about 4 hours, when I listened to this podcast by Martha Manning.] I sweat a lot, too. I do not glisten. I come back from a run literally drenched. I am the person that caused gyms to put up “please be courteous and use towel” signs near the machines. It’s gross and embarrassing, and I can’t control it. I don’t even want to know what it would look like if I cried and sweat at the same time. I’d probably dehydrate and die.
My utter gracelessness makes me gravitate toward people who can keep their shit together during the worst of times and look elegant doing it. That’s why, 50 pages into Gabrielle Hamilton’s book Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, I fell in love. Gabrielle [chef/owner of NYC's Prune] is to me the epitome of poise and charm. She writes of the sweat and tears that permeated her life both before opening a restaurant and after that restaurant’s success, but instead of the visceral “ew” that my own crying and sweating evokes, I was left in awe of her character and strength.
It’s clear just a few pages in that Hamilton did not have the best adolescence, and the story of how Prune came to be is almost too fantastic to be true. But equally as interesting as the backstory and the travel and the food is the way that Hamilton reeks of grace and strength, even though she sweats it out in a kitchen 18-hours a day in what many claim is a male dominated industry [she has an interesting take on the title "top-rated female chef" that I won't divulge here but is worth reading]. In one particularly moving chapter, Hamilton participates in a panel of women chefs at the CIA in upstate New York, where a female student in the audience asks, “Is it okay to cry?” Although she doesn’t respond out loud to the student, the inner monologue you’re treated to resulting from this simple question is one of the most honest and brutal representations of life as a chef – a female chef – I’ve read.
This book might change your relationship with food. Although the descriptions of European fare trigger some pretty gnarly cravings, her food writing might also make you look at food as more than a need or a desire. In this book, food seems to be a catalyst for every major life event – a ravioli precipitates her marriage, for example – and takes on a life independent of its nutrition. You might think more deeply about the traditions you have with family and friends that revolve around food after you finish the final chapter.
But this book also hands you a brand new role model [and I won't even say female role model, just a role model full stop.] Hamilton is a talented writer, but her prose pale in comparison to her honesty and ability to carry on. For someone like me who sometimes handles life in the most ungraceful way, it’s nice to learn about someone who can sweat the small stuff and still come out on top, or have a good cry and still manage a kitchen and a family. Whether you like food writing or not, read this book. I promise it will change your outlook on something, and maybe teach you that it’s okay to blubber, as long as you persevere and get things done. For a graceless garden gnome like me, that’s a pretty comforting thought.