Talking with Gabrielle Hamilton: Cooking, Storytelling and Guerilla Writing

This Saturday morning, a little too early for my taste, I sat at a table at the library behind a pile of books. Gabrielle Hamilton, author of Blood Bones & Butter, was the featured speaker, and, as she passed me on the way to the podium, she paused, mentioning that she was a little afraid of being heckled. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” I responded. “This is the South. We won’t heckle you; we’ll just talk about you behind your back.”

I guess that’s fair warning that I’m now writing about her talk. It’s behind her back, I suppose, if anything posted on the Internet can really be considered behind someone’s back. But not to worry — I won’t be heckling, not even by blog.

Immediately, Gabrielle announced that she was a little bored with her book, and she wondered if we’d rather just hear her talk instead of listening to a reading. We agreed, and were treated to a fantastic hour that was funny, passionate, and, above all, inviting. It’s clear that Gabrielle is all about forging a connection with her audience, whether she’s reaching us in writing or in person from a library stage. Maybe that’s an inherent trait, or maybe it’s learned from years preparing food for other people. As a chef, you have to be just as (or more) concerned with a diner’s experience eating it as you are with your motivations while making it. Sometimes I wish more authors felt the same.

I found it refreshing that Gabrielle didn’t try to wax poetic about the connection between cooking and writing (like I just did, I guess). It seems like cooking is a job she enjoys and is good at, but it’s writing she’s really passionate about. It’s writing that moved her to tears at the podium, even though she’s given this talk hundreds of times. When she talks about cooking, she’s incredibly knowledgeable and relatable, but when she talks about writing, she really comes alive.

She told us that she’d never planned on writing a memoir. Part of this is because “(there’s this idea that) men write serious novels; women write memoirs.” Never one to do the expected, Gabrielle resisted telling the story of her life. She’d originally planned on writing a collection of essays about food. But that’s not how it turned out. “My stupid life kept spattering onto the page, as it were. Like tomato sauce,” she said.

Sometimes, that tomato sauce was literal. Gabrielle talked about how she’d write the book whenever and wherever she could, sometimes in Sharpie on the brown paper covering her work surface, her words mixed with salt, oil and meat juice. “It was not ‘A Room of One’s Own,’” she says. “It was more guerilla writing.”

Her approach to memoir writing isn’t too far off from novel-writing, because she wanted a story over all else. “A lot of books have lost narrative drive,” she said, and she didn’t want her book to be one of those. She compared a story arc to the comforting rhythm of a meal, knowing the routine, that it always begins with an appetizer, always ends in dessert. “I’m just so attracted to story, actual story,” she said. “(I find it) such a relief.”

When asked if her cooking informs her writing, Gabrielle said, “I experience those as antidotes to each other.” One is almost always solitary, the other almost never. One can stretch on for years, the other must be complete by dinner service. One is limited to the confines of a restaurant in New York City, and the other stretches across boundaries of space and time in that magic way that writing has, crossing all the way to the South, to Birmingham, to a library in Alabama.

Carrie Rollwagen is co-owner and book buyer at Church Street Coffee & Books.





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