With the scars to prove it

NEW YORK – “I love my scar,” Gabrielle Hamilton said the other day. “I am covered in scars.”

Hamilton, 45, was sitting at a kidney-shaped table in the basement beneath the dining room at Prune, the 30-seat restaurant on East First Street that she has run since 1999. She was talking about a reddish line on the left side of her face. She got it, she said, in that same year, when she was spending a weekend in Michigan.

There was a driving accident. Her car careened in the morass of a freezing fog. “I totally spun out,” she said. “And I wasn’t wearing a seat belt.” Her head smashed through the windshield and then was yanked back into the car.

“On the way back in,” she said, “I ripped open my face.”

As is clear to anyone who has met her – or anyone who has plunged into the heady rush of her memoir, “Blood, Bones & Butter,” which Random House has sent into a third printing even before its official publication recently – Hamilton is not someone who has much use for dainty conversational censorship.

Her duel with a windshield doesn’t appear in the book, but almost everything else does, it seems, whether it’s the emotional fallout from her parents’ divorce, her stomach-churning peek at the catering business, the fugue states that envelop her when her blood sugar dips, or her memory of once encountering (and disposing of) a maggot-filled rat cadaver on a stairway outside Prune. “I wrote a book in a way that I would like more people to write books,” Hamilton said. “I’m not afraid of the real truth. There is nothing you can tell me about yourself that is going to make me clutch my pearls.”

On the page and in the kitchen, Hamilton can be charming, tempestuous, persnickety, vulgar, poetic, provocative and mothering, sometimes all in the course of a single flurry of sentences. Whatever scars she has, she is not inclined to cover them.

Indeed, her menu at Prune could be seen as a companion memoir to “Blood, Bones & Butter,” with dishes that have their roots in her own life, from her freewheeling upbringing along the Delaware River in New Hope, Pennsylvania, to a borderline-starvation backpacking trip through Europe and Turkey. (Consider one Sunday brunch offering: the Youth Hostel Breakfast.) Both Prune and the arc of Hamilton’s life come across as a series of happy (and miserable) accidents. “Blood, Bones & Butter” took half a decade to finish. She first sold the book idea to Penguin Press in 2005. Creatively blocked, and swamped with work and family responsibilities, Hamilton wound up giving back her advance. Soon after, in December 2008, she signed a new contract to write the book for Random House. “Who cares,” she said. “It’s done. Here it is.”

Prune, too, had a messy genesis. When she first glimpsed the space that would (after much hard labour) morph into Prune, it was the foul-smelling and apocalyptically abandoned crater of a restaurant that had failed. “There were legions of living cockroaches,” she writes in a section of the book that calls to mind a culinary Cormac McCarthy. “Twenty-five pounds of apples had rotted away to black dust.”

At the time, Hamilton was a budding novelist and occasional line cook with barely a flicker of interest in being a chef, but a vision began to take hold. She knew something of hunger. Suddenly she dreamed of opening a place that would, in its modest and neighbourhoody way, fill bellies and souls.

“I’d always wished that I could go to this restaurant that I wanted to be in existence,” she said, “so I just made one. It’s not like I invented anything. There’s already an omelette. The love song was already written, man. I’m just singing it.”

Prune was an East Village ballad of longing for monkfish liver and anchovy butter and veal and eggs Benedict, for cocktails like the Negroni and the sidecar, for a sound system flush with Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello – for elements of what Hamilton sees as an integrated, albeit unconventional approach to the concept of wellness.

“This is a health-food restaurant, in a way,” she said. “People feel well here. In the sense that there’s no guilt, there’s no denial, there’s no self-deprivation.” There’s no orthodoxy, either. “She’s got a knee-jerk hatred of the mainstream and food trends in general,” said Ned Baldwin, Prune’s chef de cuisine.

“I fear that people have lost a common-sense ability to decide for themselves – sometimes I’m not even sure they know what they want to eat,” she said. “I’m always very clear about what I’m hungry for, and what I’m not hungry for.”

Having watched her in the weeds, you might wonder aloud why Hamilton even bothers to cook for customers anymore, or why she lives in a one-bedroom, one-bath tenement apartment in the East Village.

She wonders herself, especially when she shows up at a food festival and sees fellow chefs decked out in designer clothes, pulling up in chauffeured vehicles. She’ll put her own fingers to her nose and smell garlic and onions.

“I often feel like I haven’t figured this out,” she said. “Maybe I’m still taking the hardest route possible because it’s habitual.”

Hamilton might scoff at fussy, doctrinaire belief systems when it comes to eating, but it’s safe to say that she does have a life philosophy, one that might be boiled down to the following roux: Life is messy. Get used to it.

“Books, movies, music, restaurants, advertising: Something’s happened to us,” she said. “We’re not telling the truth. We don’t stink. We don’t have yellow teeth. We don’t have crooked teeth. We don’t have to suffer disagreement or pain or setbacks anymore. You can go to your doctor and get a pill – you don’t even have to be melancholy anymore, right? I mean, it’s just incredible what the new way of being is. We’ll see how that works out.”

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