A look ahead at next week’s book club selection, “Blood, Bones and Butter”

(Editor’s note: This is a post from Caroline Jann, aka @gastronomaustin, the Austin cook/writer who is helping coordinating the Feminist Kitchen book club + film series that started last month. At next month’s meeting, we’re talking about “Blood, Bones and Butter” by Gabrielle Hamilton, which is available with a 10 percent discount at BookWoman if you mention the Feminist Kitchen. Here are a few of Caroline’s thoughts about the book ahead of the meeting at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, September 13, at Thrice, 909 W. Mary St.)

When I wrote about being a woman in the kitchen for CNN’s Eatocracy last spring, many responded that I should stop complaining, give up or at least give this issue a rest and move on.  Behind the safety of anonymity, clever nom de plumes and a computer screen, I got to read comments that made me cringe, blush, raise an eyebrow and want to trace a few IP addresses.  Filtering through the prattle, there were some responses that reassured me that people actually read past the feisty title of the article and digested the meat of my writing.  I was especially struck by a direct email mentioning Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir, “Blood, Bones and Butter”.

I welcomed the comments from my new email correspondent not only because she was able to present her criticism in a polite fashion but also because she brought in quotations from Hamilton’s book. The commenter obviously had thought about what she was writing before pressing “enter.” Long email short, the commenter told me that I shouldn’t still be questioning why there aren’t more females in professional kitchens. What is, is and tough chick chefs are out there cooking–not writing articles for blogs.  She brought in a quote from Hamilton to sum it all up: “This topic’s a dinosaur.”

I had only heard many summaries and reviews of Hamilton’s book but had yet to sit down with it myself.  With the email lingering in my head, “Blood, Bones and Butter” quickly jumped to the top of my reading list. I devoured it.

The trick to writing a convincing essay or winning an argument is greatly in the framing of evidence.

Needless to say, if you only quote the beginning of a chapter yet leave out the subsequent pages, it seems like the chef/writer doesn’t budge on her stance. Yes, initially she “can’t imagine that we were still having this conversation, this draining, polarizing conversation about where the women are in the industry” as she prepares for a female chef conference at the CIA (203).

My email commenter did successfully draw me in with the excerpts she chose from “Blood, Bones and Butter”, however, she left out the evolution of Hamilton’s argument.  Just a few page turns after her dinosaur statement, Hamilton admits that “there was some validity to the conference after all.  If there were so few of us visible in the industry that we kept seeing each other at so many events, there must still be a problem with employing female chefs” (208).

Hamilton, the 2011 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef NYC, continues her flow of realization as she recalls a scenario when a restaurateur a few years back “introduced me to his mother as one of the top, one of the best female chefs in New York City.” Everyone becomes silent and awkward when Hamilton calls him out for using “the qualifying word female” (208).  If that encounter hits you as strident, let’s imagine inserting the race of a chef or the socio-economic status of their parents.

I felt like giving a big “Hear, hear!” to Hamilton after reading this. Her experiences are extremely applicable to a variety of industries and I’m sure many women, cooks or not, can relate to her frustration.

Another part of the memoir my email correspondent pointed out was Hamilton’s disapproval of all the women who flaked out and retired to typing up articles for magazines.  The particular spot of reference was this:

“Especially when we know perfectly well where the women are. They jumped into publishing, and are now busy with idolizing the male chefs who made it impossible for them to continue cooking in restaurants and they are so busy writing features and articles about them that they don’t have time left–or column inches–for the female chefs who actually toughed it out” (206).

If this excerpt stood by itself, it can seem like Hamilton is cutting down women in the publishing world for not being in the kitchen.  Did we forget that Hamilton’s bio on the back cover even touts her numerous published articles and features?  If any chef appreciates writing, it’s surely Hamilton who has a Masters in English / Creative Writing from the University of Michigan.  Another tidbit we shouldn’t forget is that her sister was “the food editor at Saveur magazine” right around the time Prune was opening (137).

Hamilton is not criticising the female publishers for their career choice… necessarily. If a woman would like to be a publisher, then so be it. If a woman would like to be a female celebrity chef (like Gabrielle Hamilton these days), she should “get in the kitchen; cook well; and the rest will take care of itself. You can’t be a recognized woman chef if you are working at a magazine” (206).  As for those female publishers who claim to be fed up with a male-dominated culinary industry, yet still enable the spotlight to be focused on male celebrity chefs, I’m pretty sure Hamilton is not a fan. Female publishers who aren’t vigorously supporting women chefs are part of the problem–sort of a practice-what-you-preach situation.

I’ll stop now. Let this sink in and marinate. Although I will be cooking abroad for the next few months, I do hope to be involved with the discussion on this wonderfully lush memoir via Italian Wi-Fi and Addie’s live updates.

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3 responses to “A look ahead at next week’s book club selection, “Blood, Bones and Butter”

  1. I think what resonates with me about Hamilton’s stance is that it’s the middle ground between the blogosphere hand-wringing about the lack of women cooks and the knee-jerk “I’ve encountered very little sexism in my career” response of many female chefs who have made it*. She acknowledges the problem and presents a solution, and though it’s not necessarily fair to blame women for not surmounting the many difficulties they face as cooks in what can often be a hostile environment I can’t imagine that waiting around for men to be less sexist is going to be efficacious.

    I read the “get in the kitchen…” bit as a call to arms. I’m the only woman in my current kitchen, and this isn’t the first time in my career that this has been the case. I love what I do and I like the people I work with, but there are those days when the joshing is a little more infuriating than usual (“Of course you can’t grill, woman!” “You’ve got a lot of upper body strength…for a girl”) and suddenly a job where I get to sit down and maybe have health insurance and not get needled for being a chick sounds like heaven. It also sounds like giving up, though, and I’ve gotten just far enough by now to where I can start to see myself running my own place and being able to hire other women. Even being where I am now I feel like it increases the chances of another woman being hired, because once the dudes get used to a girl hauling stockpots and butchering pig heads the idea of another one isn’t so extraordinary.

    Anyway, just some thoughts off the top of my head. I’m really looking forward to this discussion. Hamilton’s ideas are nuanced enough and the book is amazing enough to spark a lot of feisty debate, and it’ll be nice to be just another woman for once.

    *I attribute this in part to the fact that female chefs are probably pretty tired about talking about how hard it is to be a woman in a kitchen and maybe want to have one dang interivew where the focus is on, you know, their food. I’d blow off those questions too.

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