Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The pause that refreshes

I think extreme close-up photos of food will become my trademark.
I od'd on Gabrielle Hamilton and had to go cold turkey. A couple of weeks ago I made her ratatouille sandwich (yummy, oily), dandelions braised in olive oil (pretty good, oily), and the eggplant parmesan (a monumental pain in the ass, delicious, quite oily) and was suddenly tired. Tired of fats, tired of strong flavors, tired of Hamilton's mind games. I took time off from Prune. I'm still taking time off.

Have I turned on the book? Not at all.

But then I've never said Gabrielle Hamilton was pleasant. She's not. She's impossible. One minute she's dictatorial and highly specific ("6 Forelle pears, 1 day short of perfectly ripe") without explaining why or offering alternatives. The next, she is oddly vague, assuming you know what she means by "a rather generous hunk" of salted French butter for dressing the cold tomatoes. Is that two tablespoons? Four? Six? Well, yes, you can make a good guess and things will work out fine. It's the casual imperiousness of it all that bugs me. Her voice is crisp, super-smart and and original, but also snippy, scolding, and verging on contemptuous. I love it. I also hate it. I think she's brilliant and a total bitch.

Random House sent me a copy of Ruth Reichl's new My Kitchen Year and if she is brilliant, that brilliance does not show itself in this cookbook/memoir, which is warm, genial, confiding, and familiar. Reichl writes: "To me, recipes are conversations, not lectures; they are a beginning, not an end. I hope you'll add a bit more of this, a little less of that, perhaps introduce new spices or different herbs. What I really want is for my recipes to become your own."

You will never hear Gabrielle Hamilton say something like that.

Prune is a more interesting, visionary cookbook by far -- and I'm not done with it. But the spinach-ricotta gnocchi and applesauce cake I served for dinner last night from My Kitchen Year were lovely, and cooking from Reichl's recipes was restful. More on both books coming soon.

31 comments:

  1. I stopped caring about Prune after the black licorice fiasco. Can't. Even.

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    1. It was pretty bad! But to be fair, a lot of her recipes are great.

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  2. I wonder if the difference is that Hamilton is writing from a Chef's perspective and in a Chef's voice -- as if she were writing to her staff -- and Reichel (who is not a chef) is writing more to and for the home cook. A here's-how-you-can-have-fun-cooking kind of thing. I do know that she wrote the book after Gourmet closed and she was floundering for what to do with her life. From the interview I heard, cooking became a comfort for her and so, maybe, that comes through in her writing.

    For Hamilton's part, if she is 'writing to her staff,' I can understand the snippy-ness and demands of perfection on some of the recipes. She wouldn't want her chefs to wander to far astray of the recipe as consistency would be lost. I remember seeing a scene with Anthony Bourdain where he was showing someone how to make steak tartare at his restaurant. He told the guy something along the lines of, "If you fuck up my tartare, I will kill you." I get that kind of attitude when it's your name (and your recipe) on the line.

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    1. Oh definitely, the tone is part of the conceit of the book -- she's addressing her underlings. But from what I know of her from her memoir and from her TV appearances, she's an incredibly demanding, somewhat unforgiving, and difficult person. I admire her talent and will read anything she writes. But the feelings she evokes in me are not 100% warm.

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  3. A friend and I have been having this restaurant-vs-home-cooking conversation just recently. Restaurant cooking (and also competitions like the Great British Bake-Off) seem to rush through. Home cooking has time to be contemplative. I finished reading Reichel's book last night - I found it calming. Cooking doesn't have to be hard.

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    1. It's a calming book. I just wish it stayed open when I put it on the counter!

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  4. I have the Reichl book from the library right now. I plan to make the "Diva of Grilled Cheese." I saw a video of her making it and it looks so decadent, but in an enticing way. I'm not sure how I feel about the book as a whole. I could live without the tweets. And as an object, I wish it opened flat.

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    1. Ha. I just complained about the book not opening flat in my reply to the comment above. Her little musings on the weather and her mood are awful.

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    2. COMFORT ME WITH APPLES. For subjecting me to that title alone, I have a grudge against Ruth Reichl. GARLIC & SAPPHIRES - not much better. The bible, T.S. Eliot, yeah I know. But her easy *lyricism* wears super thin with me. That sh*t-eatin' grin - doesn't she always seem to be in a stupor of good will? High on life. I don't know. I haven't liked any of the autobiographic/memoiresque bits in her books. I'm sure the 'novel' would drive me bonkers.

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    3. Anonymous, I have met RR a few times, enough to wish I knew her better. She is an extremely gracious and altogether lovely person. I believe that she was born with some unusual gifts which she has put to very good use. It's clear from her writing that her sensory perceptions, especially her sense of taste, are in a different category than the rest of ours. I love her writing. I have seen her on the street in NYC a few times, and even when she is walking alone, she does have a happy smile.

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    4. @witloof - Thank you for your perspective. I appreciate reading your take on RR. Especially because instead of simply refuting my points, you include them in your portrait of the lady, and then provide an alternate interpretation. Since I feel you *listened* to me, I'm open to *listening* to you! And softening my attitude a bit, perhaps. That pervasive grin though - it's interesting, intriguing - isn't it?

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    5. Her smile doesn't have the same impact on me for some reason. I don't find it especially remarkable or disturbing.

      You know, I think she really has a lot to be happy about. She has made herself a wonderful life. She has a very supportive husband and son, a beautiful home, work that she adores, and lots and lots of interesting friends. She seems to have a large capacity for enjoying herself. If I had so much to be happy about, I would smile like that too!

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  5. I can't speak to Prune, other than to admire you for getting as far with it as you did, but I listened to an interview with Reichl on the California Commonwealth Club podcast (Margo True from Sunset was the interviewer. good times) and it made me want to check out the book. I understand the recipes are written in a narrative style, which is the way I tend to cook anyway, so that's appealing. And dang, that cake looks good.

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    1. The cake is good. You've probably eaten a lot of cakes just like it, but that's not a complaint.

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  6. I got RR's book, too, and while I haven't cooked from it I found the narrative of healing after Gourmet's closing very moving. It's the book she should have written instead of that novel.

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    1. The novel was regrettable.

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    2. I picked up the novel at a library sale and could not make it past three pages. 99% of the time I force myself to keep going but in this case, it wasn't worth my time. I did enjoy her memoirs though.

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  7. I have a chip on my shoulder about RR. I discovered Gourmet in the college library in 1971. I was flabbergasted that a magazine could be so elegant and so interesting about cuisine. I just fell in love. I have about every issue since those days (a problem, I know). But several years ago, I contacted Gourmet to suggest they create a database online of their recipes from all the issues, maybe only available to subscribers, if need be. I got a very haughty reply that they had no interest in such, and I remember thinking, " You are keeping up with the times, nor giving good service to your devotees." And they folded. I think RR kept them from doing what it would take to stay alive, so I'm sad about that. I wish her well, but the ship sank on her watch.

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  8. http://www.wnyc.org/story/gabrielle-hamilton-and-mind-chef/#commentlist

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  9. !!! http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stanton-peele/anantomy-of-gabrielle-ham_b_831979.html !!!

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