Thursday, September 08, 2011

Review: Blood, Bones, and Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton

Full title: Blood Bones and Butter: The Inadvertant Education of a Reluctant Chef. Look, you know that the self-selected memoirs of anyone who has been lucky enough to find they've received an inadvertant education, and land a somewhat prestigious creative job are going to be just a little bit precious. I mean, who is even able to discover the things that really satisfy them, never mind make a successful (dual) career of them? It might be something you usually get from memoirs), but quite a lot of my investment here is puzzling out just how much I like and trust Gabrielle Hamilton. (I am struggling that I might having be a sexist reaction, but to be fair, I brought in similar suspicions about Anthony Bourdain's famous book, to which this one most easily compares, and while I find his self-deprecating sarcasm a slightly more palatable contrast to the underlying ego than her unremitting authenticity, the key difference between the two reads is that Hamilton is a much more personal and composed--that is, better--writer.) It's a hell of a story: a suddenly neglected kid in a 1970s suburbia that I can relate to, a teenage cokehead with a chip on her shoulder that I can't quite connect with, a talented serial dropout (at least she doesn't bullshit us that she's not also a writer), an itinerant American, a lucked-into career boost, a difficult marriage of convenience. It reads like so much self-mythologizing, but on the other hand, Hamilton's writing is very approachable, entertaining, and impeccable in the basic-but-elegant mode she's aiming for, and she doesn't offer any simple arcs for the development of her character. She is not unaware (nor is she apologetic) about the role she herself has played in the challenges she writes about, and she is thoughtful enough to keep turning around and questioning her instincts and understandings about her own story. It's the sort of honest exploration which really warms up this reader, and this sort of analysis was much appreciated. If I found myself occasionally annoyed to hear about some of the breaks, then the difficulties with people brought home a believable balance of both tragedy and a sort of privilege.

No, being left (possibly, arguably) alone for a summer as a thirteen-year-old, a big feature of the first third of her story, is no break, and it's hard not be taken aback by that one. On the other hand, let's not pretend that she's missing the chance to brag what a badass she was, and as she tells it, she (more than once) managed to push the resulting self-destruction just to the point of Reversible Damage, only to then get things together, not without the help of some timely benefactors. All that life experience, and considering the mean streets she roamed, few of the scars. When it comes to a cooking philosophy, she's turning the authenticity up to eleven as well. She takes on a book-jacket-worthy viewpoint of well-crafted simplicity, of real food, culled from an experience of growing up with it, from living poorly among it, of constantly falling back into the restaurant business, in environments ranging from deep integrity to the bullshit fads of the high-end catering world of the 1980s. Detouring a year of your life to work food service among the primitive farms in France, or living in a hut on tiny island in the Aegean will no doubt tune you in to real eating, genuine local character, close to the source, but from my lowly vantage, it's as unattainable as all the foo-foo technical cuisine that I also can't afford. You haven't had an egg until some wine-buzzed Frenchman with hay on his sweater yanks it warm from the nest and brings it to your door that morning, etc. Well, it is a wonderful inspiration, even if she often realizes the downsides too (not for dilettantes), but it's noted that it is one which sets me just as firmly among the have-nots.

And needless to say, it is probably with a conscious effort that she approaches writing with the same outlook, with a genuineness that she feels is missing from the joyless context-heavy anaysis that her finally-successful graduate education swam in. The fact that she's effective in writing with this earthy but artful style also makes me want to eat her food.

I've never realized how affirming it is to read a memoir from someone of your own generation (Hamilton is only a few years older than me). Long-time readers of this blog will understand the resonance I might feel of living through a transitional neighborhood, one caught in the moment between farmland and sprawl, with a soft spot for the few surviving geezers that kept the simpler life going for a bit longer than everyone else. I didn't want to live like that either, but on the other hand, I was pretty damn happy that my parents patronized the old folks as much as hers did. It's still interesting to me that American food chic has evolved, in a way, to a version of the source purity I remember, which, now that the lifestyle has all but disappeared, is considered a luxury, and I sort of wished Hamilton had somehow managed to fully Americanize her foodie inspirations (although maybe pulling from polyglot European country influences is Americanizing it). Of course my parents' friends didn't include legions of artists, and they didn't have theme parties, or Kerouac-style bashes with stream-cooled jug wine and mountains spit-roasted lamb either--even at nine years old, Hamilton is more authentic than you or I will ever be--but damn, I sure wish they did. I can see why the author would be driven to re-create that with her own family in her own life, and how she would be driven to write by the resistance she finds in everyone else. I mean, I don't think I needed the teen drug years, but that sort of missing adult experience is killing me too.

Thursday, September 01, 2011


As many of you know, I'm looking for a new job. While the Doomsday Clock ticks inexorably down on the current one, I've begun to desperately expand my range of options, and I ask, not for the first time, what if there were a way to somehow merge my expensively utilized labor and my time-wasting hobbies into one single well-regarded career? How awesome would that be? Well...

I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that, so far as careers go, writing is a lot like cooking. It's one of those things that lots of people think they can do well, whether or not they actually can, and it tends to garner some kind of amped-up mystique as a countercultural endeavor, you know, along the lines of, "yeah, I'm going to get the hell out of this place and live my dream of" (a) "opening a restaurant," or (b) "finally writing that novel." It's something that looks easy when you are not actually doing it. In reality, of course, things go differently, and the notoriously low success rate of new restuarants is re-learned in the usual hard way (or if making the food's your goal, then welcome to the factory version of prep, and also to an established career ladder that's got to look pretty vertiginous from down there by the dishwasher), or agents or editors give you an unwelcome bit of honesty about your great American epic, and even if you do manage to get in, then welcome to a world of unappealing effort-to-reward ratios and inadequate credit. As a career, professional writing is probably even more swamped with dreamers and hacks, given that there's no tradition in chefdom, so far as I know, of getting in the door by sending in unsolicitated of samples food. Although on the other hand, chefs appear to sometimes get laid, which has to be something of a draw.

[Oh hell, I've been here before, haven't I? The chef analogy is the product of my upcoming book review, and I'm only going to take it a little bit further here. Last time, it was a comparison to musicians. I think if we're going by nookie potential, then the order goes something like, rock star > live musician > chef > session artist > concert musician > line cook > novelist > journalist > ghost writer > scientist > blogger > bottle polisher > vagrant > me. Not that I'm bitter.]

Anyway, what's different about those posts and this one is that several years later, I'm looking at the idea a lot more seriously. The AAAS (publishers of Science magazine) has a series of blog posts on science writing and editorial careers, as do a few other sites, most of them garnered from gentler economic times, which is alarming enough it its own right. It might take different sorts of people to throw themselves into science writing than onto the fiction slushpile, but the tone of the advice sure sounds damn familiar, including the old nostrum of "if you can stop doing this, then you probably should." These posts paint a picture of a similar writing field, this one teeming with (other) hopeful refugees from the business and academic worlds, either unemployed or unfulfilled, and just as disrespected by the working writers. Much as I instinctively loathe the condescension of career advice columns, and much as I recognize the tendency of other narratively-inclined people to write things as their own personal Odyssey, reading those blog posts has been helpful, as it has given me some of the required language to put in my cover letter. [Adaptability to jargon may well be the most important science writing skill there is, and you know, you'd think that with ten years of doing this very thing, I would gone through this exercise a little more carefully before I started dashing off formal inquiries into the high-level positions.] Even among the current job listings I've trolled, a "science career off the bench" is reduced to something of a buzzword. Working scientists and engineers often need to be reassured that an alternate career is still an intellectually valid one (we have lots tied up in this conception of ourselves as the few truly indispensible members of society), but fuck it, I'm over that part. Writing about the good stuff still beats performing research on the uninspired stuff, and even though the confluence of science and English skills is less rare than popular prejudices suggest, doing both does at least access my fuller skill set.

I am merely competent at manipulating the physical elements. Usually, my bigger strength has been in manipulating the story about those things. Putting together a plausible narrative around what information I can gather at the last minute, or, better, to make a convincing argument in a field I just learned, is where I have occasionally shined. I say on my cover letter that I write maybe ten research proposals in a year, and on the order of twenty technical reports, which account for all of my real deadlines. Sometimes I mention blog posts and papers and patents too, and for some reason I fail to disclose the endless presentation slides. I think it's because I'm ashamed of all the time I spend with PowerPoint. So far as time management, seriousness, and meeting deadlines goes, that's the area where it's natural, and I don't worry a hell of a lot about that part of a potential job. If I do offer an advantage over all the other people who do this, it's that, unlike them, I'm a top-notch generalist and a congenital rationalizer. For your benefit, I'll leave off the play-by-play of how important it ends up being to understand and evaluate research in almost any field (I like to tell the editorial people that, and needed a little nudge that I should), but when you get down to it, verisimilitude is what I do.

I'm slowly gathering that one should be choosy about which sort of writing/editorial position to chase. A substantial pay cut looms for just about all of them, and if it provides other benefits, such as not being miserable, I may be okay with that. Here in Massachusetts, as usual, I'm set back by competition from the young college recruits facing a terrible job market, and the the biomedical industry that has taken over the local publishing sphere as well. The more legitimate writing jobs include, in approximately increasing order of appeal, writing manuals and regulations, ghostwriting your way through the terrible papers and reports of your more stereotypical technician, summarizing content for the for higher-ups or writing literature reviews the "real" scientists, and various flavors of journalism. A few of the advertisements seem to be data-entry sweatshops, and one place called an internal summarizer position a "research scientist" which really did manage to offend me. I'm really angling for a full-time university position where I can write or edit content (and maybe take the opportunity for some classes to improve my technical skill set too). There are a few of these out there, and they're my best hope just now.

Journalism, a lot like cooking, has taken a weird trip in this country from a trade into a profession, with arguable results. They like to peddle college degrees for what used to be job skills. The official outlets speak to credentialism, because after all, most of these folks have been credentialled themselves, and it counters other advice I've had about the skills needed in the field. Still, there are several science writing programs in the country (two of the best ones are in Massachusetts), which appear to provide an excellent sorting function. (The MIT one is run by one of the better Balloon Juice contributors, still blogrolled here.) I mean, I don't doubt that I'd learn better skills going into the program, and I'm mulling over the idea as a means to network, practice, and actually get a job, but again, I've already been doing this sort of thing professionally, if you accept my job description, for a decade or more now. Can I get in with my present resume? I guess I'll keep passing it around.