My parents seemed incredibly special and outrageously handsome to me then. I could not have boasted of them more or said my name, first and last together, more proudly, to show how it directly linked me to them. I loved that our mother was French and that she had given me that heritage in my very name. I loved telling people that she had been a ballet dancer at the Met in New York City when she married my father. I loved being able to spell her long French name, M-A-D-E-L-E-I-N-E, which had exactly as many letters in it as my own. My mother wore the sexy black cat-eye eyeliner of the era, like Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren, and I remember the smell of the sulphur every morning as she lit a match to warm the tip of her black wax pencil. She pinned her dark hair back into a tight, neat twist every morning and then spent the day in a good skirt, high heels, and an apron that I have never seen her without in forty years. She lived in our kitchen, ruled the house with an oily wooden spoon in her hand, and forced us all to eat dark, briny, wrinkled olives, small birds we would have liked as pets, and cheeses that looked like they might well bear Legionnaire's Disease.
Her kitchen, over thirty years ago, long before it was common, had a two-bin stainless steel restaurant sink and a six-burner Garland stove. Her burnt orange Le Creuset pots and casseroles, scuffed and blackened, were constantly at work on the back three burners cooking things with tails, claws, and marrow-filled bones - whatever was budgeted from our dad's sporadic and mercurial artist's income - that she was stewing and braising and simmering to feed our family of seven. Our kitchen table was a big round piece of butcher block where we both ate and prepared casual meals.
My mother knew how to get everything comestible from a shin or neck of some animal; how to use a knife, how to cure a cast-iron pan. She taught us to articulate the "s" in salade nicoise and the soup vichyssoise, so that we wouldn't sound like other Americans who didn't know that the vowel "e" after the consonant "s" in French means that you say the "s" out loud.
And yet I remember the lamb roast as my father's party. I recall it was really his gig. With an art degree from Rhode Island School of Design on his office wall, two union cards - stagehands and scenic artists - in his wallet, five able-bodied children, a French wife, and a photograph torn from a magazine of two Yugoslav guys roasting a lamb over a pit, he created a legendary party - a feast that almost two hundred people came to every year from as far away as the townhouses of New York City and as near as our local elementary school.
My dad could not cook at all. He was then a set designer for theatrical and trade shows and he had a "design and build" studio in Lambertville - the town where he himself had grown up, the town where his own father had been the local country doctor. We kids were forever running into people who'd say, "Your granddaddy delivered all three of my sons!" Or, "Your granddaddy drove a Cadillac! One of the very few cars at the time in Lambertville!"
After growing up in that small rural town, my dad, the youngest son, went away to college and then to art school. He came back with a mustache, a green Mustang, and a charcoal gray suit and installed himself there, in his hometown. In 1964, he bought the old skating rink at the dead end of South Union Street with its enormous domed ceiling and colossal wooden floor. In that building he started his studio, an open work space where scenery as big as the prow of a ship could be built, erected, painted, and then broken down and shipped off to the city for load-in. Every year when he got the job to build the sets for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus there, we would go after school and zip around on the dollies, crashing into the legs of the chain-smoking union carpenters and scenic artists who were busy with band saws and canvas and paint. We would run up and down mountains of rolled black and blue velour, laid out like in a car- pet store, and dip our hands into oil drums full of glitter. Prying back the lid on a fifty-gallon barrel of silver glitter - the kind of barrel that took two men and a hand truck to wheel into the paint supply room of the shop - and then shoving your hands down into it up to your elbows is an experience that will secure the idea in your heart for the rest of your life that your dad is, himself, the greatest show on earth.
Excerpted from Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton. Copyright © 2011 by Gabrielle Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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