In January, local conversation about food devolved into hurling parsnips at one another on Facebook over whether KC is fit for vegetarians. So it's a relief that February begins with an appearance by Gabrielle Hamilton. The New York chef owns the restaurant Prune and has an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Michigan. That combination means that her powerful 2011 memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter, evokes her parents' food-intensive parties with enough visceral force to make a hardcore vegan suck the marrow out of a lamb shank.
Her book is now out in paperback, and at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, February 1, she makes a tour stop at Jasper's Restaurant (1201 West 103rd Street, 816-941-6600). A $50 ticket to the Rainy Day Books event includes a four-course dinner made by chef Jasper Mirabile Jr. and modeled on Hamilton's recipes. Specifically: minestrone with grilled-cheese sandwiches, "Mother-in-Law's Eggplant Parmigiano Casserole," Prune's chicken thighs and braised fennel, and mascarpone ice cream with salted-caramel croutons. Hamilton spoke with The Pitch recently by phone.
The Pitch: I drank too much coffee this morning and just ate something from the vending machine just to add something to my stomach. What's your most recent food regret?
Hamilton: I was on a train platform coming back from upstate New York. Starvation had me eating out of a vending machine. I got chips — Doritos or something. Except by mistake I got the baked version, and I was like, I'll kill you. If I'm going to eat Doritos, I want fucking Doritos. I had four different bags of crap, and I laid them out on my train tray, and I took a picture and sent it to a writer from The New York Times who had interviewed me.
The people I'm meeting tend to be more obsessed with food than I am, more fetishistic. We [Hamilton has two sons] stop at McDonald's. I'm preoccupied by the entire life experience, the social contract. Food happens to be where I spend my day.
In a scene in the book, a conference where being a woman chef is under discussion, you write about what goes through your mind when someone asks, "Is it OK to cry?" One of your thoughts is, "Genuine power makes you gentle." How long did it take for your power to make you gentle?
I feel like I've only just gotten there 20 minutes ago, and I'm 46, and I've been doing this a long time. In the arenas in your life where you're most self-possessed, those are the ones where you're easily gentle but powerful. And in the areas where you're more amateur, new or self-conscious, the older you get, the less amateur you become.
Concurrent with that evolution or development of self, it's also a truth that the longer you're alive and the more arenas you put yourself into — parenting or whatever — you grow a larger surface area. And that's a potential for much more points of contact with humanity. And with that increased exposure comes increased chance for friction and anger.
Where do you still feel an amateur or vulnerable to that friction?
I eat a lot of food, cook a lot of food. I'm surrounded by food. But a magazine couldn't send me to Japan to write an article about tofu. I don't know shit about how tofu is prepared — the science or the technical ins and outs.
And it's very new for me to be — whatever this 15 minutes is that we're doing right now. I've not been public. I'm the cook of a restaurant. I do a little writing. I gotta take care now because people write shit down I say. And I go out in the world a great deal more frequently. People on airplanes recognize me.
You've said in interviews that your sons haven't yet developed sophisticated palates. What are you doing to educate them?
I've actually just completely abandoned the whole project, and I don't give a shit about it, and it's a waste of time and energy. If they have calories in their bodies, that's enough. Those calories tend to be beige and white. The pasta is very good, and I use very good butter. It's not that I don't care. They'll come to food when they need to, but I can't be one of the current style of obsessive mothers who need their kids to eat gourmet food on their way to chess club or trumpet lessons, which is pretty New York, prevalent here in a certain class.
I don't feel as embarrassed now.
I'm not at all judgmental about what people eat or their kitchens. The only thing I do find sort of heartbreaking is when people don't have a sense of their own health and nutrition. I don't care at all if you're drinking Coca-Cola, but I do feel sad when I see someone eating heavily processed "health" food — the Wishbone salad dressing with a third fewer calories because they think it's good for their health.
Yet the abundance of food magazines and blogs and TV programming suggests that people know a lot about food.
I feel not only exhausted but dirty and demeaned by the end of an hour watching some food television or flipping through a food magazine. I feel like I've eaten at McDonald's — it's quantity, not quality. It's so funny — I got a TV recently for the first time, and since I've been on the book tour, I've also been watching food television for the first time. And I didn't understand what was happening to me. I'd return from trips, and three days later I'd feel this unnameable depression. Like, what's wrong? What's wrong with my industry, my people?
But going back to work cures you?
Yes. You get right back in your little utopia of your own creation.