Friday, November 07, 2014

She can infuse a recipe for banana bread with hostility


I was all wrong about the Prune cookbook, which I bought yesterday. I don’t have a problem with the recipes, it’s the writing I hate. Hate. It's likely my feelings will change and change again, but we’re capturing the moment, here.

In case you don't follow cookbook news, Gabrielle Hamilton owns a tiny, celebrated Manhattan restaurant called Prune and Prune is her long-awaited cookbook. A few years ago she published a stunningly well-written memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butterwhich I adored. She was clearly an imperious, thorny, stormy, difficult woman, but I didn't care. We weren’t going to be friends. I just loved her writing.

But the relationship you have with a cookbook is, in fact, a bit like the relationship you have with a friend. The author is speaking directly to you and offering advice and instructions. And I really don’t like the way Hamilton talks to me. 

In case you haven’t seen Prune yet, which 99% of you haven’t, the book is supposed to resemble the fat binder of recipes in the kitchen of a successful restaurant, a compendium that has been spilled on (there are fake stains on the pages) and endlessly amended. No friendly headnotes telling you how a dish is going to taste or where you might start looking for, say, caul fat. Just commands and notes scribbled in the margins in black marker. Scolding notes. Needling notes. 
one of the stains and another snotty note
It's definitely original. And you could argue that Hamilton is just showing how it’s done in a restaurant, nothing more, and we should admire her wit, vision, and chutzpah. I'm open to this argument. Please, someone, make it! I want to discuss.
I can't believe how annoying I find this.
Personally, though, I think there’s more to it. She strikes me as a bully to core. The choice to write her cookbook in this way was a choice to talk to the world -- to you and me -- exactly the way she talks to her disappointing underlings at the restaurant. But with deniability.
I think you are a nightmare and it shows.

59 comments:

  1. Oh noooooooes. I LOVED her memoir and this is so off-putting.

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    1. Flip through it. You might not respond so negatively.

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  2. Under the how to cut a watermelon, it says to put the rinds in the garbage bin or "dinner wax"? What in the world is dinner wax?

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    1. I don't know. I'll look into it.

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  3. Last night I wrote about being excited about the Prune cookbook, and then today I looked at it very quickly at the university bookstore (where it is going for $45?! would anyone pay that much for this?) and felt unsure about how badly I want this book. Do the recipes look good to you? I feel like the idea is a little precious, and restaurant instructions are not very helpful to the home cook who, presumably, is here audience. I feel confused but I am in the middle of Blood, Bones, and Butter and loving it so much, that I'm not sure I can resist this.

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    1. The recipes look ok. Not great. And I don't think the pictures do much to sell them.

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  4. While I find the splatters somewhat silly, I have to say I like the annotations. I have those kind of thoughts but usually can't voice them. Geez. I must have an unlikeable inner self. I can remember my husband's sister making blueberry cream cheese tarts (from a recipe I recommended and in my kitchen) and her smooshing the berries into the filling and me so wanting to say something to make her stop...

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    1. I like the idea of annotations -- I annotate all my cookbooks -- it's the tone I'm not crazy about. Seems unnecessarily sharp.

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  5. My initial response to your dislike is to be reminded of her book. I couldn't put down Blood, Bones & Butter but I disliked her at the end of it all, and I couldn't entirely put my finger on why. Her tone in the comments of this book matches my experience cooking in restaurant kitchens. It's instructive and doesn't care what you (the recipient -- her staff) think of what she wants -- she just wants you to do it. Perhaps the mistake Hamilton made in all this is in trying to meld restaurant-speak with chipper remarks like "it's summer!"

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    1. p.s. -- I don't know why I sometimes post as "Maggie" and sometimes as "anonymous" but I will just come out now and say that I am the one from the previous post who said I liked this book and also the one who said I love what Lena Dunham has done for normal women's bodies. From here on I'll just stay "Maggie" because it seems like a conversation about Prune might be forthcoming, and because the Ottolenghi conversation could go on too. I am a regular reader of your column and a big fan, and I live in SF so I love all your local references, too. Among "food" blogs, and I follow quite a few, yours is my absolute favorite. Rock on!

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    2. "It's summer!" makes me think she was trying to balance things out -- be sunny, not just sharp. And there's a lot of good stuff in there, a lot of really clearly written instructions. I'm softening already.

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  6. One suggestion for folks: rather than spend $45 for a book you're not certain you'll love, just get on the waiting list for it at your local library. After you spend 3 weeks with it you can decide if you really NEED to buy it.

    Also re: Kashk .. I forwarded that blog entry to a friend saying I was impressed you hunted down kashk; she was even more impressed that you also found kishk! I'm intrigiued by kashk .. anyone know where to buy in SF on down the Peninsula?

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    1. I would usually agree about the library, but I had to own this book given how much I loved Hamilton's memoir. Kishk. That's next.

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  7. Funny. When I read the memoir, I kept thinking what a hateful person she must be. And yet I still looked forward to a cookbook. I got mine a couple days ago and have already read it all the way through. The critical notes don't bother me at all. She just sounds like the boss. I've had aggressive, female bosses that make her sound like a pushover. And if it were my kitchen, and the food were going out under my name, I'd probably be just as fussy and demanding.

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    1. Good. I like this perspective. I've had hard-ass bosses and hated working for them. Maybe this is all just a mismatch between her style and mine. Chemistry.

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  8. I also loved her memoir, and therefore considered buying her cookbook. After reading through it at the bookstore though, I decided to pass. The price ($45) was a big deterrent, as was the tone. Cooking is a pleasure for me, and I would prefer to be caressed rather than spanked while I do it.

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    1. That's funny. I feel the same. Don't need someone chastising me in the kitchen.

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  9. I don't mind (well, maybe not so much) snotty annotations if they are helpful. From the examples you give, only one of these seems helpful. Creaming the butter/sugar until it is white, ok. I doubt a serious home cook would have to be told not to serve wilted lettuce, and most home cooks don't benefit from being told how to plate something.

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    1. Joanne Chang ("Flour") is the one who impressed on me the need to cream butter and sugar until white -- and there were no little barbs attached to the lesson.

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    2. Christina Tosi in Milk Bar does the same. She's more my style. Smart but approachable.

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  10. I have to say I am relieved by your dislike, since she has always rubbed me the wrong way and I was skeptical when I read you were looking forward to her book. Difference between the way you talk to your employees and people who have bought your cookbook: you are paying the former, the latter are paying you. I read the Piglet article you linked to yesterday, and some of these annotations (e.g., asparagus alignment) are even harder to take after her criticism of the photos in Dorie Greenspan's book being overly styled.

    Ottolenghi, on the other hand, I enjoy reading but I find his recipes always end up being more complicated than they look. I suppose I would feel differently if, like him, I had a battalion of prep cooks. I have Plenty and haven't cooked from it nearly as much as I thought I would. Your description of the roasted squash dish reminded me of the miso-curry roasted squash and tofu from Super Natural Every Day. (Not the exact title, sorry.) Have you tried it? I went through a major infatuation with it and the miso-curry paste-lemon combo last year.

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    1. I've never tried that miso-curry roasted squash. Should I? It sounds like it.
      Yes, Gabrielle Hamilton was very hard on Dorie Greenspan. There was an extra bit of steel in her critique of DG's book and its stagey photography, something that was totally absent from her criticisms of Ottolenghi carelessness. It was clear she'd never hang out with Dorie, but Ottolenghi was sufficiently cool.

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    2. I have been eating a miso-harissa roasted squash recipe that is, I think, originally Heidi Swanson's, although I use Catherine Newman's version from Ben and Birdy (her blog). It is here: http://benandbirdy.blogspot.com/2014/01/spicy-squash-salad-with-chickpeas-and.html. I think you would like the recipe!

      You and she are my favorite bloggers -- I have been reading your blog for years and am a huge fan of all your writing!

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    3. You should absolutely try the miso-curry squash. You can change the vegetables used, omit the tofu, etc. They all mainly serve as a vehicle for the sauce, which is a more than the sum of its parts combination. Salty, tangy, spicy. I would never have come up with it on my own--which I guess makes it worth the price of the book! I think I have made it with harissa (because I was out of curry paste), but my preference would be with curry.

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  11. Huh. I'm interested to check this out now. I didn't read her memoir since it seemed a little too macho for me, like many assy bosses I've had. I did kind of like her Piglet review though. I will say that as a baker my recipes were encased in plastic protectors and thus they were never stained (the outside of the binder, though, is another story).

    When I would train interns or even just with my coworkers I might occasionally say something bitchy, but mostly I try to be decent. We had this bakery notebook where we could leave notes for each other and it sometimes degenerated into passive-aggressive madness. But, I probably wouldn't publish those notes since I feel like they are an act of momentary frustration, not constructive criticism. If I think my technique is better than someone else's I prefer to just explain why I think that, instead of attacking them. So I'm not sure I would really like reading snippy notes in a cookbook. It's like, this is my own home! I'll clean the plate if I feel like it. Don't tell me what to do!

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    1. I'd be fascinated to see an actual restaurant binder -- but this isn't one. It's a cookbook that's trying to appear raw and authentic by pretending to be a binder. It's a very strange production.

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    2. I will send you a picture of my pastry binder. It is scary-looking. The tops of all the pages (and the plastic sleeves they are encased in) are black with accumulated kitchen grease and soot, and there are splashes and stuck together pages. But with the plastic covers, you can always peel them apart again. I have pulled my paper pages out of said plastic sleeves repeatedly to scribble marginal notes to my various assistants over the years--but they were always friendly notes. Helpful and cheerful. This is why I'm not impressed with Hamilton's tone--at least what you've shown of it. I'm going to rant a little about my biggest peeve of the moment: The macho, hard-living, anti-intellectual bravado of kitchen culture. Tattoos, scars, hard drinking, toking up in the car before your shift--I hate it all. Why can't cooks just be nice people?

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    3. Protective sheets for a restaurant binder... Are you mad... There's no $$$ in the budget for that!!!!
      If your cook and you want your own binder ( usually any copies of in- house recipes is something one does on the sly shrewish) of your own recipes then buy your own plastic protectors.

      Can't say that even mean my own recipes were ever inserted in them. Who had the time for that

      Every station usually had a really nice and clean binder (that can be wiped down).. But the pages were usually splattered, burnt, or worse.

      I would rather have this kind of headnotes and then being left alone to get the job done than have a Really annoying person standing over me.... That you wish would just f##k off....really headnotes are so much better the precise the better, no one wants to drag a binder around a kitchen asking someone for clarification... That's the worst thing in earth

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  12. I read her memoir and while I thought it was well-written, her personality grated on me so much that it wasn't an enjoyable or even a satisfying read. I can see how this authoritarian cookbook is an extension of that. I was afraid this might be a gender thing involving implicit bias against domineering women, but no, I also don't like Michael Ruhlman's books when he tips over into haughty scolding.

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    1. I worry about gender bias all the time. My own gender bias. Like, am I harder on Lena Dunham because she's a woman? I don't think this comes into play for me with Gabrielle Hamilton. I would probably resent a male author who wrote like this even more.

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    2. I think you got this but to be clear I was self-examining my own potential for gender bias, not in any way suggesting that you were afflicted by it.

      I think with a male author it would fall into the realm of "mansplaining", sadly easy to identify.

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  13. Yeah, this is annoying. 1. Concept is too cutesy; it would be different (but still annoying!) if it were an actual facsimile of the restaurant cookbook). 2. The tip about the butter creaming is helpful, but the other comments give me a low opinion of the staff she hires. Wouldn't want to eat in a restaurant that is no doubt pricey but where staff have to be told not to throw asparagus on a plate like pick-up sticks. 3. Wouldn't want to eat in her restaurant because I would spend the whole meal feeling sorry for the browbeaten staff I would know were cowering in the kitchen.

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    1. I ate at Prune a few years ago and it was disappointing. As I recall, I ordered fish and that's what I got -- a whole fish on a plate, nothing else, very austere. I was sad because this was during my Blood, Bones, Butter infatuation. What I do remember loving was that with the check came this big, rough-hewn chunk of the most amazing chocolate. A great touch.

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  14. Her comments didn't bother me - they seemed brusquely efficient, and her style of writing recipes matches my style of reading recipes - just the basics, if there's a lot of narrating I skip it (and usually miss something important). Even the carefully messy design of the book that I thought was going to be way too cute worked to pull me into the book. But while I loved this cookbook, I also loved your review! It was great! For every person I recommend the book too, I'll also recommend this link.

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    1. Thank you. Very kind. It's going to be interesting to work through one of these bare-bones recipes and see how it goes. I kind of like how spare they are.

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  15. I wanted to check this out of the library but it's only available in Ebook form, which seems like a bad idea. I'll have to go to the bookstore. And have you ever read this? http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/25/magazine/25food.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

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    1. Ebook?? No. Not for this one.
      I just read that story -- thank you! How very, very strange.

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  16. There are distinctions to be made here that (possibly) lend some perspective to the criticisms of this book. First of all, she IS talking the way a chef would talk to her staff, not the way a kind instructor would talk to someone taking an afternoon cooking lesson. I find her tone merely direct, and also entirely appropriate for a professional cooking environment, where time and efficiency are of the essence. And given the "restaurant binder" nature of her book, I can only assume that part of what she is trying to convey is the experience of cooking in HER restaurant, creating HER vision for the dish, and I think she does this well. One always cooks in a restaurant with an eye toward maximum efficiency and use of ingredients, and her notes are often reminders of that. The lack of an index only reinforces the nature of this particular beast; never in a restaurant binder would you find an index. You just leaf through. Her chapters also reinforce the restaurant nature of the book. It is not a typical cookbook and as such, I would argue, it needs to regarded with a different eye.

    For anyone who has wondered what the difference is between a "home" cook and a "restaurant" cook/chef, this book illustrates the answer beautifully. I have cooked in restaurant kitchens so this book makes a lot of sense to me. I appreciate her notes and the tenor of them. I stand by my "thumbs up."

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    1. Thanks, Maggie. We may not actually disagree that much. I understand exactly what she was trying to do and think she succeeds brilliantly. I also think the book is very true to who GH is -- uncompromising, smart, tough, efficient -- and what she cooks. But while the restaurant binder concept is original and cool, I also think it was an inherently aggressive choice. And a consciously aggressive choice. She’s not even going to soften to the extent of giving the home cook an index, or explaining what a “10” can of hominy is -- and she’s well aware that most of us don’t have a clue. Sure, that’s all part of keeping the artistic integrity of the restaurant binder format, but I happen to think (and here we may differ) that it also reflects an underlying desire to dominate, control, and withhold. Do I admire her? Yes. She’s produced an austere and extraordinary artifact. But as a cookbook for the general public, I find the absence of explanations, the omission of index, the reprimands, et cetera, highly disagreeable. I feel bullied and I don’t think that’s an accident. I can’t prove it, of course. And I could change my mind. I do that all the time. I’m very eager to try some of the recipes and see how they work. Have you cooked anything yet? Are you going to her book signing at March? http://www.marchsf.com/events/

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    2. I haven't cooked anything yet but I'll be making her tian tomorrow. I will let you know how it goes! I guess I missed her today at March.... I was thinking I'd see her at Omnivore but I just realized it's an offsite event. If you did get to see her in person, I'd love to hear about that!

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    3. I am very interested in the bacon and marmalade sandwich, the grape nuts and ice cream, the mastic fondant. . . I wanted to go yesterday, but couldn't swing it. Seeing someone in person can totally change how you perceive their work.

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  17. I thumbed through our library copy prior to sending it down to our "new" shelves. I didn't like the faux stainage on the pages of the book. I have plenty of recipes and recipe books with stains. But, they're *my* stains. Proof that I've made the recipe -- probably more than once. I didn't even notice the snotty comments. I also don't care for the fact that she hasn't scaled the recipes down for the home cook. When I looked at the recipe for the Creamed Hominy -- which sounds good to me -- and saw that it calls for a #10 can (that's 1 gallon, folks) of hominy, I was done!

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    1. Lots of this in the book. Lots of things that are needlessly difficult and a big hassle for a home cook. (Thank you for the explanation of a #10 can, btw.)

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  18. I found her memoir so distasteful that I would never read anything of hers again. OK, her mother made some terrible mistakes in raising her family. So did mine. So did a lot of people's. But if you're in your forties and still nursing a grudge against mommy, there's something seriously wrong with you. The portrait of her mother as a monster turned into a self-portrait of one.

    So it doesn't surprise me that her new book would have a nasty edge to it. I have to deal with bitchy sociopaths in my daily life. I don't need one in my kitchen.

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    1. The mother visit was baffling to me -- it's where I almost turned on the book. Hamilton's behavior was incredibly hard and cold and didn't make sense, not even in the context of what she'd written about her lousy upbringing. It was either a writing problem, or a personality problem/disorder. I couldn't be sure. (The allegations about her personal life that came out later suggest the latter.)

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  19. I’ve eaten at Prune twice. I live just down the block from it. It was novel when it first opened 10 years or more ago. Each time I feel taken. My wallet is significantly lighter and my stomach not that much different from my wallet. Ok it was interesting 10 years ago to eat simply prepared food- to taste bone marrow for the first time. But when you pay 25$, or more, to receive the bone (and the marrow) and a small pile of salt, with 2-3 pieces of toasted bread- you can get a little grumpy. Order trout? That’s all you will receive. It’s so skimpy. A meal is not a one note event. (this is my complaint about so many restaurants- make a meal! Don’t chip away at our wallets with a reasonable request to have a side of spinach denied, lest we fork over $8 for that.) The restaurant is charming in that it’s ‘small’ and very ‘East Village’. That’s overrated in my opinion. There are at least 10 other restaurants, within blocks, which you can go to who are also pushing the envelope. I am not surprised that the cookbook reads like a rant when the restaurant treats its patrons with so many misery overpriced portions.

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  20. Maybe there's a high turnover of staff it's amazing how stupid new hires can be or someone not familiar with this particular kitchen. Everyone new to a station will invariably screw the simplest thing up just from bad nerves alone.... It's amazing the stuff that gets chucked on the sly...... I wonder what a kitchen binder in Thomas Keller's kitchen looks like.

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  21. Hey, I liked your post! I actually worked at Prune for a short spell--I was one of the disappointing underlings. Even though I don't particularly liked getting snipped at, I still really liked the tone of this book. She nags and bitches because she loves, and she wants you to succeed. (Or perhaps your post has just revealed that I'm just a masochist....Hmmm. Commence self-examination.)

    Anyway, I wrote a post about it here, and I also made a little index, which you can download there. And a partial glossary...

    Thanks for your post--I'm happy to have stumbled across your blog!

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  22. I also wrote a little response, partly to what you wrote (which I'm undecided about -- the tone doesn't bother me, but I also don't feel strongly that it shouldn't bother other people) but more to every fucking review about how impractical it is. I love the cookbook, snippy and impractical or not. https://nomadhomebody.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/gabrielle-hamiltons-new-cookbook-prune/

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  23. I am inffront. It turned out perfectly!atuated with that bureau! What an incredible thought to utilize the chicken wire for the. buy facebook 5 star review

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  24. I like the idea of annotations -- I annotate all my cookbooks -- it's the tone I'm not crazy about. Seems unnecessarily sharp. buy facebook 5 star rating

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