Prune, the first cookbook from Beard Award-winning chef Gabrielle Hamilton, is not what I was expecting. But how could it be? It's unlike any cookbook I've ever seen. First announced in 2012 in the wake of the critical and commercial success of Hamilton's memoir Blood, Bones & Butter, Prune is in Hamilton's own words "[a] recipe companion book to the memoir." An apparent facsimile of the kitchen recipe binders from Hamilton's New York City restaurant of the same name, Prune has no introduction, recipe headnotes, or index. "This is a cooking book, it's just a cooking book," Hamilton told Eater when Prune was released. "There's nothing else going on here."
Indeed, it doesn't look like the cookie-cutter chef cookbooks we've come to expect, heavy volumes full of saturated photos of farmers' market vegetables next to tales of learning recipes at grandmother's knee. Instead, Prune has faux-stained page treatments, handwritten notes admonishing line cooks for sloppy plating, adjusted quantities for cooking recipes in bulk, and advice on which particular rectangular pan to use for this recipe (but not that recipe). It's a deep dive into the restaurant: at 250 recipes, the book requires you to spend time with it in order to decide which dishes to cook. Seemingly the book was ripped straight from the restaurant's kitchens, with no interference beyond the addition of photography (done by Eric Wolfinger, who shot Tartine Bread, Vietnamese Home Cooking, and others). The language is aimed at cooks working in Hamilton's kitchen; for home cooks, it reads a bit like a prop with which to play restaurant.
The recipes in Prune are split into chapters for each meal: Bar Snacks, Dinner Small Plates, Dinner Vegetable Sides, Dinner Dessert, Brunch, etc. Dishes range from extremely complex (Deep-Fried Sweetbreads with Bacon, Capers and Brown Butter Sauce) to those that are more shopping than cooking (Canned Sardines with Triscuits). The sweet spot for home cooks lies between these extremes, and there are plenty of recipes here that are satisfyingly challenging but not impossible: Chicken Braised in Hard Cider, Stewed Pork Butt with Creamed Hominy and Salsa Verde, most of the soups and cocktails. Fans of the restaurant will have fun playing with these, recreating the Prune experience at home.
I tested recipes from Prune, although not as many as I normally would. (It seemed rather beside the point; more on that later.) The dishes turned out well: I had success with Braised Lamb Shoulder with Lemons, Tomatoes and Cinnamon, and the Cauliflower, Salami, and Fresh Flageolet Salad. A celery-heavy ragu seemed better on paper than it turned out to be. Some of the recipes call for ingredients specific to the restaurant: who knows what constitutes "our oil blend"? Overall, though, the instructional aspect of the recipes is sound.
The book is meant to be read cover-to-cover: not as a collection of recipes, but as one giant recipe for a restaurant.
But I don't think recipes are the primary thing Prune has to offer. I realize that's maybe a strange thing to say about a cookbook, but in this case the value lies not in the food you make with this book, but in the lessons you can learn from it as a whole. The book seems to be meant to be read cover-to-cover: not as a collection of recipes, but as one giant recipe for a restaurant.
David Lynch famously (and somewhat controversially) chose not to include chapter stops in DVDs of his films because he didn't want people skipping around within his movies, watching their favorite parts individually. He wanted the films to be experienced start to finish, as he made them. The lack of index in Prune functions in a similar manner. You can't really just flip straight to the recipe you want to make for dinner tonight, you have to page through the book to find it, stumbling over other recipes on your way. It's a way of forcing the reader to experience more of the book than they would if they just opened it straight to the bloody mary mix recipe every time. You have to read the whole thing to find out that the leftover vinaigrette from one recipe gets used later in another, to understand that the pan for the brunch banana bread is also used for the cornmeal pound cake.
While the book's authenticity as Prune's kitchen bible (and the importance of that authenticity) is debatable, taken at face value this is the most complete picture of a restaurant I have ever seen. Eventually over the course of flipping through Prune the book, you begin to familiarize yourself with the ways of Prune the restaurant. You understand how the instruction not to get "restauranty" with plating the sardines is somehow the same as Hamilton's admonition to "Please don't quenelle - we don't want to send that message." You get an intuitive feeling for why carrots need to be peeled in "long fluid strokes...do not chisel away at them." You learn the language of the restaurant. You get a sense for its style.
"Please don't quenelle - we don't want to send that message." What's wrong with quenelles?
But how useful is it to learn a restaurant's style? For home cooks to consider what their plating or flavor profiles or techniques say about their personal cooking style, it would be helpful to know the reasoning behind Hamilton's stylistic choices. Where Prune contains the restaurant's idiosyncratic details and rules for plating and technique, it misses out on an opportunity to explain why Hamilton has her staff do these things. In other words, what's wrong with quenelles?
This is where headnotes would have been helpful. I'm presuming Hamilton and her editors hoped the recipes (and their built-in annotations) would speak for themselves, and I would have been delighted if they had. There are nuggets of wisdom to be gleaned, for sure, but headnotes serve a purpose; they provide a bridge for the layman to understand Prune's professional recipes. According to the publisher, this book was written "with as much instruction, encouragement, information, and scolding as you would find if you actually came to work at Prune as a line cook." But the vast majority of readers are not restaurant professionals. What will they make of jargony exhortations not to "flash [meat] under the sally"? At times the restaurant patois is charming, but not infrequently it's just obfuscation.
Even for cookbooks written for a professional reader, it's still important to give non-professionals some context for the recipes. Why is each dish important? What function does it serve on the restaurant's menu? A chef can certainly achieve this context without dumbing down the tenor of her book. Instead, Prune asks the reader to make so many intellectual leaps it makes itself significantly less accessible. And in the name of what, exactly? Subverting the genre?
I can't shake the feeling of mourning the book that could've been.
Still, I had fun reading this book. I know I am part of a small minority of cookbook readers: I nerd out on strange concepts and obtuse behind-the-curtain glimpses of restaurants, I track the careers of cookbook photographers and pay attention to trends in hardcover bindings. I can appreciate this book as a fun mental exercise. It let me feel like an insider for a minute. But I also can't shake the feeling of mourning the book that could've been. I respect Hamilton's decision not to go a traditional route with her first cookbook: there are enough churned-out, ghostwritten collections of recipes out there. However, Hamilton let the cat out of the bag with her bestselling/critically acclaimed memoir Blood, Bones & Butter: people know she can write. Her packed restaurant (and numerous awards and accolades) prove that diners love her food. There was a potential for her to create a seminal work, a contemporary, East Coast version of the Zuni Cafe Cookbook.
With a few nods to reader utility, this could have been that new classic cookbook. Hamilton is playing with the cookbook format in a way that's exciting, but it's possible to be revolutionary while still being reader-friendly. Even the simple addition of an index — as much as I think her Lynchian trick is nifty — could have done wonders to invite more readers into the Prune kitchen.
Hamilton told Eater that she initially considered the cookbook "a clever way to get around the ‘second book problem.'" She did eventually realize that there was more to be found in a cookbook than just a collection of recipes, though: "I was surprised at how much opportunity there is still for language in a cookbook, and I was very grateful for that," she said. "I thought, ‘Oh, I'll just do a cookbook and no one will have any expectations of it because it's not a memoir, and it's not anything literary.' That's not what happened." It's true: there are literary moments in Prune for those willing to search for them.
But I wish the Gabrielle Hamilton who wrote Blood, Bones & Butter had written this book, that she had realized earlier what an exciting project a cookbook could be, and that she had explored the possibilities — and limitations — of the form more thoroughly. It may seem like I'm asking her to adhere to those traditional cookbook touchstones: headnotes, index, introduction. To the contrary, I wish she had crawled inside these hackneyed standard constructions, recognized their service, and then blown them up from the inside. I truly believe Hamilton is capable of writing an all-time classic cookbook, and maybe she still will. For now, though, instead of getting something revolutionary, we got what she herself dismisses as a "recipe companion book to the memoir."
Prune BY Gabrielle Hamilton
STAR RATING: One and a half stars
SKILL LEVEL: Recipes vary; all skill levels
WHO THIS BOOK IS FOR: Cookbook nerds, Prune regulars, bloody mary enthusiasts, aspiring line cooks, David Lynch fans, people who loved Blood, Bones & Butter.
WHO THIS BOOK IS NOT FOR: Beginners, people who want their cookbooks to be kitchen workhorses, people with limited bookshelf space.
MORE RECIPES TO TRY: Deviled eggs (page 8), Grilled Lamb Sausages with Dijon Mustard and Cornichons (13), Bagna Cauda (70), Sorrel Soup with Salted Lemon Whipped Cream (85), Stewed Pork Butt with Creamed Hominy and Salsa Verde (141), Farmhouse Chicken Braised in Hard Cider (147), Soft-Cooked Zucchini with Green Onion and Poblanos (166), Pumpkin in Ginger Beer with Brewer's Yeast (184), Pear Tarte Tatin (246), Cold Chicken with Valdeon, Tomatoes, Green Onions and Beans (324), Banana Bread (364), Alda's Zucchini Tian (435), All of the cocktails but especially the rightfully famous bloody mary and all 12 of its variations (appendix)..
All photos by Paula Forbes.