Tag Archives: chefography

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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The Flavor of Global Blackness

Yes, Chef: a memoir By Marcus Sameulsson 27book

Marcus Samuelsson’s recent chefography, Yes, Chef, does more than serve up the usual coming of age story arch that characterizes the genre: child helps grandma cook and falls in love with food, goes to culinary school, slaves away at a series of windowless professional kitchens through the expected hang overs, until he catches a break and makes a name for himself. The book also chronicles Samuelsson’s gradual awakening into race consciousness writ large, a process set against a truly global landscape including stops in Scandinavia, Europe, Africa, Latin America and the United States.

The literary merits of this autobiography lie in its thoughtful meditation upon the complex ways race develops as a social construct whose valences differ depending on geography and history. He discusses the effects of the linguistic terms people use to convey derogatory implications about “blackness” as an identity category, scrutinizes his own life when his actions appear to uphold stereotypes about black men, and examines how the attitudes of other kitchen professionals towards him as a person of color convey either institutional racism, active prejudice or some combination of both. As a transnational adoptee (born in Ethiopia and adopted by Swedish parents), and naturalized citizen of the United States, Samuelsson enjoys a degree of objectivity that makes him uniquely qualified to speak about the constructed nature of identity formation in general. This sense of belonging both everywhere and nowhere at once allows Samuelsson the narrator to portray the events in his life as a series of choices or decisions, though not all of these were of his own design, rather than interpreting the same as the inevitable result of either fate or history. This freedom to choose both who to become, and where to live, is made possible through the culinary skills he cultivates and develops over time. In what follows, then, I will pause to consider how Yes, Chef uses examples from the world of food or the kitchen to tackle stereotypes, handle racial slurs, and witness first-hand how people negotiate the experience membership in overlapping communities: diasporic (Habesha, African) and ethnic (African American).

“I have no big race wounds.” (36)

With this statement, Samuelsson warns his American reading audience not to impose their own sense of race relations in their national framework upon his very personal experience of growing up in Sweden as part of a mixed race family. In these early pages, Marcus describes his mother as someone attuned to regional and historical particularities, a caring person who wanted each of her three adopted children to grow up knowing something about the heritage they inherited from their birthparents. She used music to connect the kids to these larger communities—Jamaican reggae from Bob Marley for the oldest sister, Anna, and African artists as a nod to Marcus and his sister Linda’s, ties to the continent. For Marcus, his mother’s loving attention to detail affirmed his individuality and his membership in the Samuelsson family unit.

Years later, when he confronts the fact that he has fathered a child out of wedlock and chosen not to be an active part of her life, it is his mother’s unwavering commitment to make her granddaughter grow up knowing her family and, thus, her place in the world, that makes Samuelsson believe he can overcome his past neglect and forge a budding relationship with his daughter one day. Samuelsson eventually brings his mother along when he finally travels to meet his daughter in Austria. While there, he cooks for her every day of his stay, drawing upon a combination of the dishes from his own childhood, and the ones which helped him make his name as the chef of Aquavit, the Swedish restaurant in New York. However, this gastronomic display of riches comes at a cost; although he uses his skills as a head chef to impress his daughter, Samuelsson acknowledges that while he was paying his dues in the kitchen he hid all information about her from his employers and acquaintances for fear of the negative impact such information might have had on his career.

No one at work had any idea about my daughter Zoe. On one level, I didn’t want people to think I was nothing more than a cliché—the absentee black father. On another, I was afraid the information could somehow hold me back or limit my opportunities in a way that would, in the end, not only harm me but make it harder to meet the slim responsibility of financial support my mother had assigned me. (192)

Samuelsson’s willingness to bare so much of his private life before reading audiences, and to explicitly invoke the experience of double consciousness—his combined fear and awareness of the potential for others to dismiss him as a racial stereotype—in the larger context of his immaturity as a father and his professional ambitions, open up a textual space for rational conversations about race and its implications for interpersonal relationships. By admitting that the stereotype of the absentee black father resonates even with someone who did not grow up in the United States, Samuelsson’s autobiography attests to the global circulation of such rhetorical constructs about race, how they transcend regional boundaries and come to signify in other contexts.

“Negerboll” (38)

However, Marcus confronts the limits of such essentialism earlier in the narrative, when he recalls a painful childhood interaction in which a playmate used a racial slur against him. Samuelsson explains both the culinary pun—since the invective is also the name of a beloved Swedish pastry—and also the perils inherent in trying to understand the situation from strictly from an American set of assumptions about hate speech:

Although it sounded like nigger and Boje spewed it with that level of venom, neger was the Swedish word for Negro. There was even a Swedish cookie called negerboll, or in English, Negro ball: It was made from cocoa powder, sugar and oats. But Boje was not calling me a cookie. And he had thrown a basketball at me, which I took as its own kind of loaded symbol. It was the early 1980s, the dawn of the Michael Jordan era, and most Swedes associated that orange ball with dark-skinned men. (38, italics in original)

When narrating, Samuelsson is at his best as a cultural translator, mediating between his American readers and the Scandinavian, European, and African cast of characters that share his life story. His comments demonstrate the kind of sensitivity and nuance which has surely made him a success in the hospitality business. Unlike Eddie Huang, another chef/owner of a New York restaurant which I discussed in a previous blog, Marcus Samuelsson avoids the easy assumption that the audience shares the prejudice and racism he encountered along the way. His didactic comments are inclusive, rather than antagonistic.

Samuelsson’s behind the scenes reminiscences of working inside professional kitchens shed yet more light on the entrenched racism that pervades the world of gastronomy. As the newly promoted chef de partie (senior chef who manages a particular station) of a hotel restaurant in Switzerland, Marcus is thrown back when he hears the head chef use pepper his normal German with the colloquial French term for blacks when discussing how many runners they’ll need to staff a particular banquet.

“Twenty-one,” Stocker calculated. “We’ll need twenty-one nègres for this.” He used the French kitchen slang for underlings, which literally translated to “blacks,” and which also meant “negroes.”
I froze in my spot. I was the only nègre in the room. Not even the darker-skinned Tamils were represented in Stocker’s small office, not even an Italian. No one looked over at me. Was it good or bad that I was so invisible? Was it actually a compliment that no one made the connection between the term for a near-worthless employee and this newly promoted chef de partie who stood among the ranks? (129-130)

In the basketball/cookie incident of his youth, Marcus had felt hyper-visible since the down side of the popularity of African American sports icons was to reinforce the notion that all men of color should be able to demonstrate their athletic prowess. Here, the situation was the exact opposite. The language the chef used conjured up the idea of blackness but emptied it of all humanity; in this context nègres conveys a person’s lowly rank in the hierarchy of the kitchen staff rather than any particular skill s/he might possess. If the double consciousness Samuelsson experiences as a young chef trying to make it is a nod to W.E. B. DuBois, then this meditation upon the invisibility of black men calls to mind Ralph Ellison’s landmark novel. Because Samuelsson does not merely stop there, but pauses to consider whether the kitchen staff’s indifference to the chef’s reference to nègres might be the first signs of a post-racial future, the memoir foreshadows the key role that President Barack Obama would play later in Samuelsson’s professional development, when the White House chose him to prepare the first state dinner for the Prime Minister of India.

“I came to see my race as an opportunity rather than a burden” (215)

Samuelsson is careful not to anoint himself an expert on American race relations. Availing himself of the privilege of that most American of subject positions, that of the immigrant, he proclaims the limits of his own ability to weigh in in any meaningful way on the long history of oppression which preceded his own arrival in New York:

I’m very much an immigrant when it comes to American racial history: I come here from a European place, and don’t have the sophistication about race and identity that my American-born friends have; you can only learn so much from MTV. (213)

I contend that these allusions to literature, politics, and popular culture are not accidental, but the result of careful considerations on Samuelsson’s part. After all, the chef/owner of the Red Rooster Restaurant in Harlem has revived a beloved institution, and remade it in his own inclusive image, as a place where he could “guard the history of black cooks in America while starting new conversations in food” (283). This memoir does more than that; it expands the framework for substantive and necessary discussions of how blackness is performed and constructed around the world, and how those configurations enrich our understanding of the limits of race as an isolated framework through which to understand identity. Within its pages Yes, Chef gives us a glossary of terms through which to understand race and difference, racism and inclusivity, diaspora and nativism. The inclusivity of Samuelsson’s vision of the world as a kitchen—where men and women, straight and gay, culinary school graduates and those who have risen through the ranks due to their hard work and dedication, can cook and eat together as one—is worth sharing.

Samuelsson, Marcus. Yes, Chef: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 2012.

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