Quick Takes: Gabrielle Hamilton, Prune

Tiny little profiles of larger than life people and places and things.

July 7, 2016 ● 3 min read

QUICK TAKES: Collected observations that probably mean nothing, but might very well mean something.  

Gabrielle Hamilton has this buoyant, owlish fizz of a laugh, which sounds like: hoo-HOOOOOOO-hOO-hoo!  

It makes people’s eyebrows shoot up with delight when they hear it, perhaps because they are not expecting this tough-ass East Coaster — who cooks like a French matriarch and writes like Joan Didion with daggers for teeth, or Kerouac with tighter structure — to have such an infectious laugh. 

The first time you witness this is sometime before dinner, on a night when the air is thick with a freakish heat. Hamilton orders a gin and tonic with Tanqueray-if-they-have-it and lots of lime; if she notices the way the staff is smiling a bit wider than normal, hovering over the table in this city that is not her own, she doesn’t let on. 

Later, when courses begin to come out too fast, she will say so, in a very direct way that makes the server suck in their breath nervously. You, trying to keep up with all the different dishes along with the rest of the table, are suddenly reminded that life could be very civilized if only you spoke up every once in awhile. The courses trickle out slower.  

In conversation, she listens in the distilled manner of someone who is used to many voices clamoring for her time; her kids, fans of her books or fans of her food or fans of both, her staff. Which is to say, with a patient laser-beam quality that makes you think you should probably bring your fucking A-game, because her face will tell you right away if she has checked out.

She likes first questions, and then follow-up questions — which she will ask immediately, like she's been holding onto them for too long already — and then two or three follow-up questions after that. To her, this volleying exchange is the only thing to do while on the planet; you can go to work or you can get drunk or you can have friends or have sex, she says, but is there really any other thing to do on Earth rather than examine it? (The answer, clearly, is no.)

The next night, while she waits her turn to speak as the headliner at a La Cocina event on labor in the industry, she sits in a sprawl — sneakered feet planted firmly at 90 degrees, slumped far enough that her head meets the back of the chair. (Her face confirms that she has not checked out, posture be damned.) Onstage, when she looses The Laugh on the packed room, it boomerangs to the back wall, leaving a trail of goofy grins in its wake. Her tone feels improvised, even though you caught a glimpse of her hunched over a sheaf of notes a half hour before.  

For Hamilton, joy cuts a wide swath; it can be found in suffering, or starving, or hurting, or raging or being raged upon. It’s found in unexpected contradictions and the
destruction of stereotypes — maybe that skinhead-looking dude with the pit bull is actually a modern dancer, for example. Joy is no longer found in the exuberant preening of the food world, whose mention only prompts a weary sigh. She’s watched food come out of her kitchen at Prune for 16 years, she tells you. She doesn’t wonder anymore if it’s a good restaurant. She knows what they’ve done. 

Writing, though. That still does it. Even now, after two New York Times bestsellers have allowed her to be seen and acknowledged in the one way that always mattered most to her — as a writer — excellent words maintain their grip. (Mediocrity, on the plate or the page, is not so much a character flaw as it is a serious offense.) In a world that demands blurbs, she'd prefer ten pages. 

While driving home one afternoon a few weeks later, she explains it like this:

There's nothing else I would ever do. I couldn't live if I couldn't write shit down. I was born to do this, and this is all I could ever want to do—
to cook, to clean, to create in this way.

The only thing that's changed is that I don't fuck around with the month of procrastinating and self-loathing. I show up, and I do my best work. Instead of going to the shrink's office and lying on the couch and crying and drinking, it's like, you know what baby? Just shut up and put some words down on the page. 

Cassandra Landry | Illustration by Roman Muradov