The Picaresque in the Kitchen

Blood, Bones & Butter

In the subtitle to the refreshingly unvarnished memoir, Blood, Bones, & Butter, Gabrielle Hamilton describes herself as “a reluctant chef.” This descriptive phrase refers only to her membership in the profession that has spawned a niche market in the publishing world that shows no sign of letting up: ‘celebritiy’ chef-writer. The details of Hamilton’s life story would make good copy in a number of other milieus, among them, as an insightful chronicle of alt-ac (alternative academic) career options for creative writing MFAs (she went to the University of Michigan), or as a behind-the-scenes exposé of the mind-numbing conditions endured by catering service temporary workers.

 

In this blog post, however, I would like to discuss the specific ways in which the memoir as it is structured parallels and corresponds with a cheeky literary genre from another date and time: the picaresque novel that emerged in Spain during the sixteenth century. By advocating a reading of Blood, Bones, & Butter as a twenty-first century female picaresque narrative, I acknowledge the sophistication of Hamilton’s writing style evident in the framing of this tale in three distinct and emblematic sections, which attests to her literary training in college and graduate school. Whereas in my post on Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat I advocated a male genealogy of bad-boy writing chefs and traced its origins to the Anthony Bourdain as the intellectual patriarch of this group and the runaway success of his ground-breaking Kitchen Confidential, here I suggest that Hamilton’s equally gritty urban chronicle grows out of a different literary lineage, one that begins with the Lazarillo de Tormes and which details the somewhat comic adventures of an abandoned street urchin (pícaro) as he makes his way through all levels of society, while in the employ of various cruel, corrupt, or abusive masters in an effort to survive his poverty.

 

In Blood, Bones, & Butter, two dissolved marriages, first her parents’ and later her own, book-end the events of Gabrielle Hamilton’s life, thus setting in motion a journey that is at times humorous, at other times troubling, and always a struggle for direction, guidance, and a steady source of income. She first occupies the urchin subject position the summer after her parents’ traumatic divorce, when all the members of her large family headed in different directions to nurse their wounds and no one paid any mind to the two youngest children:

 

that first summer after their divorce, my seventeen-year-old brother Simon and I were left alone—and this I remember acutely—for weeks.  This may have been an oversight, like leaving your cup of coffee on the roof of the car while you dig out your keys and then drive off. Or wishful thinking on my parents’ part that their two youngest children were old enough to fend for themselves. Either way, Simon and I were on our own. And we were better off, we seemed to agree without discussing it, each to fend for himself. (28-9)

 

Even before discussing the series of kitchen jobs the twelve-year-old talks her way into getting that summer in order to earn enough money to eat, Hamilton here resorts to food imagery to convey the isolation of her situation.  Comparing herself and her brother to a cup of morning joe, so strongly ingrained in one’s morning routine that it is brought out to the car but then forgotten on the roof when the keys prove difficult to find, Hamilton acknowledges the fact that she was not willfully abandoned by her family members but rather that the shocking realization of loss—not of keys but of the family’s way of life—disrupted the normal routines of filial duty. Although her father was somewhere in the periphery of her life during that summer, considering she and Simon had returned to the family’s home after a brief involuntary exile in the Vermont cabin to which their mother had retreated, so it is the abandonment of the mother that haunts the young urchin up until she finds a stable and reassuring emotional replacement in her Italian mother-in-law, Alda, decades later.

 

In her article analyzing the gender dynamics of the picaresque novel genre, Anne J. Cruz argues that maternal abandonment is at the root of this male arc of adventure and self-discovery:

 

The picaresque genre’s narrations of the misadventures of rogues have tended to privilege the masculine gender of its protagonists, and the male-centered plot of these canonical novels is further evinced not only in the maternal abandonment suffered by the young boy and his contact with a series of amoral father figures, but through the mature pícaro’s failed amorous relations with women.

 

Hamilton never recovers from her family’s disintegration, and angrily refuses to forgive her mother for bringing it about. The descriptions of her hungry, scheming and cavalier younger self call to mind the picaresque “rogue” protagonist, an “innocent” introduced to petty crime by a series of self-serving masters.  As she gains experience working on both sides of the professional kitchen —the back as a dishwasher or short order cook and the front as wait-staff—  she becomes more adept at performing the menial tasks expected of her by employers. Her fellow employees, however, teach Hamilton how to exploit the system to her advantage. By the time Hamilton had graduated early from high school and moved to New York city to attend NYU, she learned first-hand about the excesses of the 1980s by working as a waitress:

 

Obviously, I had learned to work my fucking tables. Everybody was working their fucking tables, I soon learned. The girl at the door was selling tickets for the show while keeping half the ‘sales’ for herself. The waitresses were not getting lost in the mayhem and accidentally not writing down drinks on their dupes and the bartenders were not supplying those unrecorded drinks unwittingly. They were in business together.  I too, learned to sell them at the table, to keep the cash from the sale of a drink that didn’t, on paper, exist, and to share that profit with the bartender, trough tipping.  (48)

 

Bartenders, fellow waitresses, and other employees introduced her to the various tricks of the trade. Hamilton was working as an underage waitress, a ruse she had first resorted to during the summer following her parents’ divorce.  This circumstance was the one of the key reasons she was able to avoid prosecution when she was caught stealing from the restaurant by working “her fucking tables.” The solution was for her to leave the state, and give college another try.

 

By this time, Hamilton had also followed in another of the pícaro’s characteristic traits, engaging in a series of “failed amorous relations with women” (Cruz).  Gabrielle mentions first “my gorgeous androgynous girlfriend” (67) with whom she lived in New York, and then the “big butch Michigander” with whom she moved back to the city after graduate school. Both of these relationships end, the last one disastrously, but thanks to the heterosexual affair that ended things with the Michigander, Gabrielle meets Alda, the woman who would become her mother-in-law and model the relationship Hamilton wanted to have with both food and children.

Blood, Bones & Butter’s narrative finally deviates from the arch of the picaresque novel when Gabrielle Hamilton decides to take a chance and see whether her mentor is willing to continue their relationship despite the fact of her divorce from Alda’s son.  The answer, luckily for both Hamilton and us readers, is a definitive yes. And, in bringing together her personal and professional lives, Hamilton finally has both the material and the emotional distance and wisdom to write down her life story and share it with the world.   

 

 

 

Gabrielle Hamilton. Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. 2011. New York: Random House Trade Paperback, 2012.

 

Cruz, Anne J. “Figuring gender in the picaresque novel: from Lazarillo to Zayas.” The Free Library 22 September 2010. 23 July 2013 http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Figuring gender in the picaresque novel: from Lazarillo to Zayas.-a0279462529

 

 

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