Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Perfectly bent


English muffins spread with parsley butter await big, fat, grilled Prune burgers. 
Ok, Prune. Ouf. I have really dug myself into a hole with this one because instead of writing about it piecemeal the way I’ve written about other cookbooks, I got to know Gabrielle Hamilton's Prune on the sly, cheating on whatever I was doing with the blog to cook a dish from Prune every now and then. I did a lot of this over the last year and in the process all my feelings about the book changed dramatically. When I first got my copy of the cookbook I hated it with the fiery passion of the disappointed fan. Now I think it’s a masterpiece. And now I have to explain why all at once. Ouch.

Prune is not easy to love and not easy to cook from. In case you don't know what I'm talking about, Prune is a cookbook by Gabrielle Hamilton, a famous badass New York chef who runs a tiny, fetishized downtown restaurant. The book has no index, no introduction, and no headnotes. It is modeled on the massive recipe binder used at the restaurant and contains a multitude of scrawled, scolding notes from Hamilton as well as underlinings and fake stains.
The burgers -- made with beef and lamb -- were delicious. It looks like I didn't quite get that cheese melted.
The book isn't warm and friendly. It isn't charming. That's the point. You might well hate Prune, but the things you most hate about it are the very things that make it great.  It’s as if Hamilton looked at a sweet, pretty, puffy contemporary cookbook, read a few cloying headnotes, and said: No fucking way. Her book is tart, precise, bitchy, opinionated, uncompromising, personal, tight, and totally original. In my view, it was the best cookbook of 2014.

I love reading the recipes in Prune. They have a real voice and rhythm. (They also work, but more on that next time.) They can be funny. They can be sensual. Sometimes both in a very short space. Here's a segment from the recipe for sweetbreads (which I will never make):

"Thoroughly and neatly peel the membrane -- the thin, slippery, translucent 'skin' that encases the gland -- which will come off in a rather neat sheet. Trim off any waxy fat clusters which tend to cling to the underside of the gland, and gently tug out any egregious muddy brown veins. Try to pull out the tubular looking arteries as well. If you've made it this far and are not retching into a garbage can, leave the minor little capillaries intact in order not to have the lobe fall apart into nuggets. Portion into 4-ounce pieces, as possible.

Hamilton is wonderfully acerbic on the subject of organic produce, farmers' markets, and the like. From her Bloody Mary mix recipe:

"Be sure to inventory properly midweek to keep the house fully stocked so that we are not having to make Bloody Mary mix over the weekend with some crappy organic tomato juice or 'artisanal' 'small-batch' Worcestershire handshopped in an emergency at Whole Foods."

God forbid.

And here's a favorite passage of mine from the spaghetti carbonara recipe (which I have made and which is very good):

“Pay attention to the toothsomeness of the pasta -- don’t get lost in your timing and let this just boil away in the pickup until it is flabby and bloated and disgusting. . . . Ideally we want the strands slick with yellow, eggy egg yolk and smoky, salty, uriney pancetta fat, with all the granules of sweet, nutty grated parm clinging to the strands. You want to see the black pepper, taste the floralness of it, and feel the warm heat of it in the dish -- but don’t obliterate.” 

It looks tossed off and maybe even sloppy, but it's not. It's vivid. It's loose. It's great.

In the first episode of her run on the PBS series Mind of a Chef, Hamilton says that she’s a perfectionist, but that her idea of perfection is is different from others people’s. She says that she likes things “perfectly bent.” 

Prune is perfectly bent. 

Tomorrow: some food.

42 comments:

  1. A pleasure to read this. I can't wait to read the next post, or to start cooking from Prune in October.

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    1. I'm curious what you'll make. They seem to be off to a slow start -- last I checked someone had made the drippings salad and that's it.

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  2. Boy, can you write! I know you write for VIA, from AAA, and/or Sunset, but Food and Wine and Bon Appetit should hire you.

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  3. Loved the review; quotes spot on!

    Oz

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  4. Thanks for writing about Prune, I've been looking forward to hearing your take on the book.

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    1. It will probably be months until I shut about it.

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  5. I remember sighing with pleasure over that passage about Spaghetti Carbonara too, thinking that the flavors she was after were the kind you want to eat when you've reached a certain age, had the chance to spend some serious time in countries where they care about food, and have had the opportunity and the inclination to develop your palate. Hamilton's sensibility seems to me to be about food for grown ups.

    I"m so glad you changed your mind about her. I loved Prune and thought her insistence on doing things the way exactly and only she wanted them done and the way she had of communicating her vision was original and amusing. Geniuses are uncompromising, after all!

    So looking forward to hearing more!

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    1. I want to eat at Prune again some day and see if I can finally appreciate it.

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    2. I have never eaten there, and I definitely should have before I became the JFC. But I wonder if her food would be too grown up for me! Before I went on this diet and even before I stopped eating meat, I always thought of myself as an adventurous eater, but if I analyze what I tend to cook for myself and what I tend to order in restaurants, it's mostly kind of plain and not especially exotic.

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    3. What I remember from Prune is the plainest whole fish I have ever been served.I was so disappointed: plate, fish. (But I think that works for even a food crank.) Also, they gave these lumps of dark chocolate with the bill. It was so cool and so good. I came home and bought a big bar of the very same chocolate -- like 10 pounds. Now I've forgotten what chocolate it was.

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    4. I remember your post about that meal at Prune: fish, fish, fish, you're done. Still laughing.

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  6. This is one of the most intriguing reviews you have ever written. Obviously, you have had a complicated relationship with this cookbook! Something must have drawn you to it, even in your distaste of her tone and eccentricities. Now, I want some of that Carbonara, badly. I have never made it in my kitchen to those specifications, so if you have any secrets, please share them!

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    1. Hers isn't the best carbonara ever. It's good, but it's not the best. I don't know what recipe is, though.

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  7. What an interesting-sounding book. I'm not sure if I'll ever dare to try to cook from it, but I admire her for being herself, and her quote about liking things perfectly bent resonates with me. Kin to the phrase "artfully disheveled," I think.

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    1. She's very precise in her tastes. I admire that.

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  8. Is it ever ok to describe a comestible as *urniney*?

    Shock jock sensibility in a cookbook writer.

    You've read the book, and I defer to your judgment that GH's going somewhere despite the show-off transgressive hyperbole.

    But it is hyperbole (muddy brown veins...retching into the garbage can...crappy organic tomato juice...flabby and bloated and disgusting) and it gets old quick.

    GH's food may be for grown-ups, but her writing seems adolescent.

    Full disclosure: I read BB&B after loving the excerpt published in The New Yorker and was bitterly disappointed with the balance of the book. Like you, I'm violent and changeable in my literary criticisms. My husband will not let me forget the time that I boomeranged a Saul Bellow book across our Madrid hotel room over 20 years ago. Today, he's one of my favorite authors taking up a sizable stretch of my bookshelf space.

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    1. I don't really feel that in the context the writing seems hyperbolic. But you're not seeing it context. Maybe excerpted, it looks that way. Most of the book is just flat directions so when she comes out and says something dramatic and opinionated, you really feel it.
      And I give uriney a pass because it made me think instantly of Ulysses: "Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine." I read that in college and it made a profound impression. Twenty years later, when I had the opportunity to eat kidneys I seized it. I could not get beyond the first bite. But if I can't persuade you to like GH, maybe you can persuade me to like Saul Bellow!

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    2. Urine in Ulysses - but of course. So funny, I couldn't even SPELL *uriney* in my first post I was so verklempt! After his burnt kidney breakfast, Bloom opts for a vegetarian lunch ordering a Gorgonzola sandwich, "a nice salad", a few olives, and a glass of burgundy. "Mr. Bloom ate his strips of sandwich, fresh clean bread. . . pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese. Sips of his wine soothed his palate." Thus restored, Bloom decides, "After all there's a lot in that vegetarian fine flavour of things from the earth." Bloom ate his green "corpse of milk" cheese lunch with a "relish of disgust". Let's blame all this uneasy eating on his boyhood experience munching Catholic communion wafers, shall we? My recommendation is to start with Saul Bellow's HERZOG. There's terrific dinner served by Moses' girlfriend Ramona - shrimp Arnaud as its centerpiece. Have you ever looked at HERZOG?

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  9. I didn't care at all for her memoir, which I thought was irritable and self-aggrandizing, in her "I'm so crochety" way. But the cookbook is very, very good. I've got my beefs with the tone and format, but the recipes are terrific. The cooking show, of which I have just watched the first episode, strikes me as over-produced, but I am now agog, yes! agog! to make the fried sweetbreads. I have never made sweetbreads, but I need to try that dish, and going to NYC doesn't seem all that feasible. So it's off to the butcher for me.

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    1. Oh, tell me about the sweetbreads! You are brave.
      I have my problems with her as well, both with her persona in BB+B and her writing in Prune. But I got past the latter.

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  10. I actually enjoy Hamilton's writing very much, although I do agree with other readers who have complained that she wears her crochety nature like a hair shirt sometimes. I read a recent article she wrote for Vogue where she talks about her upcoming marriage and saw quite a different side - she is so in love with her future spouse that she seems positively giddy.

    My only beef is her (and many, many other chefs and writers) use of the word toothsome to describe something chewy! Toothsome means delicious and it bugs the hell out of me that it is used incorrectly so often. So I guess I have my own share of crochetiness to work out...

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    1. I would love to read that Vogue article. Is it new? I can't find it online.

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  11. I just re-read this post, Jennifer, and the excerpts of GH's writing that you posted reminded me of her memoir and that got me thinking of...Lila, one of the main characters in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan quartet. Have you read those? If not, please start immediately. Or, as some people suggest, start with her first stand alone novel, Days of Abandonment and then do the quartet. I'm on book three and enthralled. Anyway, something about Hamilton's untrained writing struck a chord there.

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  12. Okay, the report. I just made the Prune sweetbreads. They were a medium pain-in-the-ass amount of work, and they were also a HUGE hit with -- and I am not making this up -- my 80-yr-old dad, his ladyfriend, my wonderful neighbor, my apprehensive husband, and two 13-year-old boys (esp. the one not related to me). My sauce broke, but it still tasted good, and I used it anyhow. Next time maybe I'll be less frazzled, and have a smaller crowd, and can make one like it's meant to be. Watch this video, if you haven't already, and tell me that those sweetbreads don't look delectable. http://video.pbs.org/video/2365557015/ The sweetbread part starts about halfway through. I will likely make them again; sweetbreads, from the la-dee-dah nose-to-tail place near me, are only about $10/lb., with almost no waste. They're not gross; that's the interesting thing. Really, they're not. I really like the cookbook, too; I had a great success with the salad with chicken drippings, too, on another occasion, and that is quite easy.

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  13. Also good and successful, but SO rich: the pan-fried butterflied trout with brown butter vinaigrette. The vinaigrette makes tons, and now I am again irked by absence of index, because I will have to flip through whole book so that we can use the remaining 1.5 cups up. And if you make it, I suggest you just take the fishheads right off; they're very gross once they have been in the skillet, and it's just unpleasant. On the plus side, I now know how to butterfly trout!

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