"Gabrielle Hamilton approaches storytelling the same way she does cooking—with thoughtful creativity that delights the senses."
—Daniel Boulud
The Hamilton Family

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Audio Book Excerpts

Audio Excerpt #1: Childhood

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Audio Excerpt #2: Grad School

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Audio Excerpt #3: Prune

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Audio Excerpt #4: Female Chefs

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Audio Excerpt #5: Alda

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We threw a party.  The same party, every year, when I was a kid.  It was a spring lamb roast and we roasted four or five whole little guys who only each weighed about forty pounds over an open fire and invited over a hundred people.  Our house was in a rural part of  Pennsylvania and was not really a house at all but still a domicile built into the burnt out ruins of an nineteenth century silk mill and our back yard was not a regular yard but a meandering  meadow, with a creek running through it and wild geese living in it and a Death Slide cable that ran from high on an oak to the bank of the stream and deposited you, shrieking, into the shallow water.  Our town shared a border so closely with New Jersey that we could and did walk back and forth between the two states several times in a day by crossing the Delaware River. On weekend mornings we had breakfast at Smutzie’s in Lambertville, on the Jersey side, but then we got gas for the car at Sam Williams’ Mobil on the New Hope side.  In the afternoons after school on the Pennsylvania side, I walked over to the Jersey side and got guitar lessons at Les Parson’s guitar shop.

That part of the world, heavily touristed as it was, was an important location of many events in the American Revolutionary War. George Washington crossed the Delaware here in the victorious Battle of Trenton,  trudged through the snowy woods and surprised the British in spite of some of his troops missing proper shoes, their feet instead wrapped in newspaper and burlap.  But now my hometown has become, mostly, a sprawl of developments and subdivisions, gated communities of small mansions that look somewhat like movie sets which will be taken down at the end of the shoot.  Each housing development has a “country” name—Squirrel Valley, Pine Ridge, Eagle Crossing, Deer Path—which has an unkind way of  invoking and recalling the very things they demolished when building them. There is now a McDonalds and a K-Mart—but when I was growing up, you had to ride your bike about a mile down a very dark country road thick with night insects stinging your face to even find a plugged-in Coke machine where you could buy a vended soda for thirty five cents. Outside Cal’s Collision Repair in the middle of the night that machine glowed like something almost religious. You can now buy a Coke twenty-four hours a day at half a dozen places.

But when I was young, where I lived was mostly farmland, rolling fields, rushing creeks when it rained, thick woods, and hundred-year-old stone barns.  It was a beautiful, rough but lush setting for the backyard party my parents threw with jug wine and spit-roasted lambs and glow-in–the-dark Frisbees. The creek dividing the meadow meandered and, at its deepest bend, was lined with small weeping willows that grew as we grew and bent their long, willowy, tearful branches down over the water. We would braid a bunch of the branches together to make a Tarzan kind of vine rope we could swing on, out over the stream in our laceless sneakers and bathing suits, and land in the creek.  That is where we chilled all of the wines and beer and sodas for the party.

We were five kids in my family, and I am the youngest. We ran in a pack–to school, home from school, and after dinner at dusk—like wild dogs. If the Mellman kids were allowed out and the Bentley boys, the Drevers and the Shanks across the street as well, our pack numbered fifteen. We spent all of our time out of doors in mudsuits, snowsuits, or barefeet, depending on the weather.  Even in “nature,” running around in the benign woods and hedges and streams, diving in and out of tall grasses and brambles, playing a nighttime game that involved dodging the oncoming headlights of an approaching occasional car, bombing the red shale rocks down into the stream from the narrow bridge near our driveway to watch them shatter—we found rough and not innocent pastimes. We trespassed, drag raced, smoked, burgled, and vandalized. We got ringworm, broken bones, tetanus, concussions, stitches, and ivy poisoning.

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 an infamous 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 one 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, his youngest son, went away to college and then to art school. He came back with a moustache, a green Mustang, and a charcoal gray suit and installed himself there, in his hometown.  In 1964 he bought the old roller 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 bandsaws and canvas and paint. We would run up and down mountains of rolled black and blue velour, laid out like in a carpet 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.

We made our Halloween costumes out of lighting gels, backstage black velour curtaining, scrim, and  Mylar.  When we went with our father to see the actual circus at Madison Square Garden, we spent almost the whole show backstage where we met Mishu: The Smallest Man in the World,  and petted the long velvety noses of the elephants in jeweled headdresses.  We met Gunther, the lion tamer, and marveled at his blond blond hair and his deep deep tan and, giggling like the children we were, his amazing ass—high and round and firm, like two Easter hams—in electric blue tights.

I associate my dad almost exclusively with that Lamb Roast because he could dream it up and create the “scenery” of it. My dad has an “eye” for things. He can look at the stone rubble covered in scaffolding that is the Acropolis, for example, and without effort, complete the picture in its entirety, right down to what people are wearing, doing, and saying. In his mind’s eye, out of one crumbling Doric column, he can visualize the entire city, its denizens and smells, the senate’s agenda and the potted shrubs. Where the rest of us saw only the empty overgrown meadow behind our house, riddled with gopher holes, with a shallow, muddy stream running through it and a splintering wooden wagon that I had almost outgrown, he saw his friends: artists and teachers and butchers, scenic painters and Russian lighting designers, ship captains and hardware merchants all with a glass in hand, their laughter rising high above our heads and then evaporating into the canopy of maple leaves; the weeping willows shedding their leaf tears down the banks of the stream; fireflies and bagpipers arriving through the low clinging humidity of summer; a giant pit with four spring lambs roasting over apple wood coals; the smell of wood smoke hanging in the moist summer night time air. I mean it.  He sees it all romantic like that.

He says, about all of his work, “Everybody else does the bones and makes sure the thing doesn’t fall down.  I do the romance.”

It must have been my mother, the cook,  who was in the kitchen with the six burners and the two-bin sink making the lima bean salad and the asparagus vinaigrette and the all-butter shortcakes, counting out the stacks of paper plates with the help of my older sister—the two of them doing “the bones” as my father called it.   But it was from him—with his cool long sideburns and aviator sunglasses, his packet of Camel non-filters, and box of watercolor paints (and artist’s paycheck)—from him we learned how to create beauty where none exists, how to be generous beyond our means, how to change a small corner of the world just by making a little dinner for a few friends. From him we learned how to make and give luminous parties.

There was a Russian Winter Ball, I remember, for which my dad got refrigerator-sized cartons of artificial snow shipped in from Texas and a dry ice machine to fog up the rooms and make the setting feel like a scene from Dr. Zhivago.  And there was a Valentine’s Day Lover’s Dinner, at which my father had hundreds of choux paste éclair swans with little pastry wings and necks and slivered almond beaks that, when toasted,  became their signature black. He set them out swimming in pairs on a plexiglas mirror “pond” the size of a king’s matrimonial bed with confectioner’s sugar snow drifts on the banks.

“Swans,” he pointed out, “mate for life.”

For a kind of Moroccan-themed party my parents threw, my dad built low couches from sheets of plywood and covered them with huge fur blankets and orange velour brought home from the studio. By the time the candles were lit and the electric lights extinguished, the whole house looked like a place where the estimable harem of a great pasha might assemble to offer their man pomegranates, pistachios, and maybe more carnal treasures. There were tapestries and kilims stacked as tall as me, where adults stoned on spiced wine and pigeon pies could lounge. By the time that party really got rolling, I remember walking from room to dimly lit room feeling acutely the ethos of the era—the late 1970s—as if it, too, was sprawled out on the “scene shop” couch wearing long hair and a macramé  dress, barely noticing how late it was and that I was still up.

But the Lamb Roast was not a heavily themed and elaborately staged one-off. It was, as parties in our family went, a simple party, thrown every year, produced with just a fire and a sheet of plywood set over sawhorses for the carving of the lambs.  We built a fire in our shallow pit, about eight feet long and six feet wide.  It’s possible that my dad dug it alone, but if there was an available sixteen-year-old around, like his son, my oldest brother Jeffrey, it’s very likely that they dug it together. At each end of the pit they set up a short wall of cinderblocks with a heavy wooden plank on top, looking like the head and base boards of a giant bed, where the long wooden poles onto which the baby lambs had been lashed would rest. The baby lambs, with their little crooked sets of teeth and milky eyes, were slaughtered and dressed up at Maresca’s Butchers, then tied onto ten-foot poles made of ash because the branches of an ash tree grow so straight that you can skewer a baby lamb with them easily.

Jeffrey had a driver’s license and a 1957 Chevy truck with a wooden bed and a big blue mushroom painted on its heavily Bondo’d cab. It had big dangling side view mirrors and torn upholstery over which we threw a mover’s blanket, but it ran.  So on this bluish early summer weekend, Jeffrey drove his new jalopy out the winding country roads, past Black’s Christmas tree farm, and past the Larue bottle works. I rode in the back bed of the truck, in a cotton dress and boy’s shoes with no socks, hanging on as tight as I could to the railings and letting the wind blast my face so hard that I could barely keep my eyes open. Even with my eyes closed, I could tell by the wind and the little patches of bracing coolness and the sudden bright sunshine and the smell of manure when we were passing a hay field, a long thick stand of trees, a stretch of clover, or a horse farm. We passed brand new deer emerging from the woods and standing in herds of forty in the wide open corn fields. Finally we got to Johnson’s Apple Orchard where we picked up our wood for the fire.

The orchard, the Christmas tree farm, the butcher shop and the dairy farm, are still oddly, in business, hanging on like grave markers in a sunken and overgrown cemetery—historical “by-the-ways” for the tourists on their way to Bowman’s Tower and Washington’s Crossing.  Four separate places for four separate things, though now everybody just goes to the Shopping Plaza to get all of them in one big harshly-lit store—milk, apples, meat, even the Christmas tree—while the kids wait in the car and eat fries in the back seat.

At Johnson’s orchard, in season, they sold yellow peaches and half a dozen kinds of apples in wooden bushel baskets. But at the time of the lamb roast, it was still too early in the year to buy fruit.  They had pruned all the trees back for the season, and we filled the truck with the trimmings, piling the apple wood branches high above the truck bed which we’d extended with two eight foot sheets of plywood. This green wood would burn longer and hotter, hissing all night long as the sap dripped down into the flames. On the way back home, I sat up in the cab of the truck between my brother who was driving and my dad who had the window rolled all the way down and his elbow hanging out.  He said, “That’ll burn with the fragrance of its fruit, you see.”

The paraphernalia of butchery may be repulsive to some.   But to me, hacksaws, cleavers and bandsaws—all looked manageable and appealing.  I loved going to Maresca’s, the Italian butcher shop up the road on the Jersey side, and always asked to be taken along on errands if Maresca’s was on the list.  There was no “artisanal” at this point, no “organic” or “diver-picked” or free range or “heirloom” anything.  In 1976, there was no such thing, even, as 2 percent milk.   We just had milk.  And the Marescas were still just butchers., father and sons butchers,  Joe, Joe Jr., and Emile, working in a shop with sawdust on the floor.  The father Joe,  and his son Joe, looked exactly like butchers—with girth, flannel shirts under their long jackets and aprons, and greasy, beefy catcher’s-mitt hands.  Emile, on the other hand, looked like he could have been a chemist in a lab or a home ec teacher—in an apron, always, but with a v-neck sweater vest over his flannel shirt and a pair of nice brown corduroys.  He wanted to be a baseball player, I had heard, but ended up in the family business.  Emile spent most of his day in the old kitchen open and adjacent to the butcher shop, skewering and marinating cubed meats and making all the shop’s sausages and cooking the daily lunch for the family.

All three Marescas knew as much about an animal as anyone could. They could judge how old an animal was when it was slaughtered by touching the cartilage, how often and what it was fed by examining the fat deposits and marbling in the meat.  Pointing out a thick streak of fat in a side of beef, Joe said, ”Here you can see the “lightning bolt” where the rancher started to feed him fast and furious at the end to fatten him up, but what you really want is steady feeding so the fat is marbled throughout.”

Outside the shop were two huge forsythia bushes, bursting optimistic and sunny yellow branches.  Inside,  the refrigerated enamel cases were packed with bloody meat, ground meat, tied meat, and birds, whole and in parts.  On the long white tile wall behind the cases,  where the Marescas did their actual bloody work, was a giant mural—in friendly colors, depicting a roly poly and mustachioed butcher in a clean white apron, frolicking in a round green curlicue fenced-in pasture, with cottony white sheep with little soft pink ears and porky, bristle-less pink piggies, smiling while sniffing the yellow buttercups. The sky overhead was robin’s egg blue, the few clouds were pure white, and the birds and the butterflies went about their song-filled business even though the butcher was wielding a giant cleaver in one hand, headed for one of them. To the right of the mural, hanging from pegs were all manner of hacksaws, cleavers and giant knives.

Besides meat, the Maresca’s sold canned goods, and in the summer, a few of the vegetables that Mr. Maresca grew in his garden behind the shop. They were always arranged casually, in a plain carton or basket, on the floor by the refrigerated case, with a handwritten sign on the back of a piece of brown paper bag advertising the price: PEAS 20Ë/lb.

I spied those fresh peas in a bushel at the end of the counter. While my dad and the guys were talking and leisurely loading the four whole dressed lambs onto newspaper in the back of the truck, I snagged a handful of sugarsnaps and hid behind a display case.

I love how you can snap a pea’s stem and pull the string and how it leaves a perfect seam that opens easily under your thumbnail.  And then you find those perfect, sweet, starchy peas in their own canoe of crisp, watery and almost sugary pod.

When Mr. Maresca found me eating the pilfered peas, instead of scolding me, he grabbed the hem of my dress and pulled it out to make a kind of pouch into which he placed a big handful of sugarsnaps for me to eat, not in hiding but openly, in the sawdust-floored shop. Every time his son Joe opened the heavy wooden cooler door, I caught a good eyeful of carcasses hanging upside down with their tongues flopping out the sides of their bloody mouths and their eyes filmed-over, milky, and bulging, along with disembodied parts—legs, heads, haunches, sides, ribs, looking like something in an Edgar Allan Poe story. I wanted  to follow him in there. I wanted to be in with the meat and the knives and to wear the long bloody coat.

That night we slept by the fire in an otherwise pitch-black meadow, five kids vaguely chaperoned by my brother Jeffrey who was well on his way to becoming a teenage anthropologist, hunter-gatherer, and naturalist.  He collected the deer and raccoons that had been hit and killed out on the dark country roads and dragged them back to hang from the trees bordering the  meadow until they bled out.  Then he cleaned the hides, burned off the hair, saved the teeth, scraped the sinew from the bones and dried it to make thread with which he’d sew his pants made of deer skin and raccoon fur. I was enthralled by him and his fastidious, artful, freakish habit. And in love with his boarding school good looks  dressed down by the chin-length of his hair and new habit of wearing dashikis.   I hadn’t totally understood, with the 11 years between our ages, that he had also gotten into the habit of dropping a hit of acid a day and that there was a psychedelic reason he could go so long without blinking. My parents hadn’t totally understood this either, probably, because on that night, the night before the big party, Jeffrey was left in charge of the fire. He worked the stumps and branches into a fierce burning domed pyre.

My brother Todd was with us but would have preferred being up in his room, with the door closed—you always had to knock to enter—counting his money, or losing himself in his few but in-good-working-condition acquisitions: his brand new electric guitar, his reel to reel tape recorder, his dual cassette deck, his electric amplifier, and his brand new soldering iron.  With coils of solder and copper paper clips,  he fashioned quirky little uninspired sculptures of boats and trains and skiers. Todd, the second oldest, lay in his sleeping bag tuning us out, playing air-guitar Led Zeppelin while listening to his headphones that he bought himself with money earned busking in town for the tourists. A loan of five dollars was never denied; it was breezily granted but came with interest and was entered into Todd’s ledger.  He hired me to give him leg massages after work with my lucky rabbit fur, a half hour I found uniquely intimate and a responsibility I took very seriously,  and he paid me in dollar bills and mixed tapes.

Simon, who was closest to me in age, was having a pretty bad pre-adolescent, very high IQ, low attention span, pissed at everybody and everything summer vandalism spree. Every cop car he saw was an opportunity for a five pound bag of white sugar in its gas tank. Glass panes in empty houses gamely blown out with rocks accurately pitched.  He was turned on by his badass-ness and was waiting sullenly until we all fell asleep so he could sneak out of his sleeping bag and go relieve his boredom by walking into town and leaving his mark on it overnight.

My sister Melissa, the middle child, was only a teenager  but already was responsible and professional enough to have a negative white tan mark on her arm from her wristwatch and a job as a lifeguard.  A wristwatch at fourteen!  She had the incomprehensible ability to open a whole scrumptious sugary package of chocolate-covered graham cookies, put two of them on a paper towel, reseal the package neatly for another day, and only eat those two crackers.  Left to my nine-year-old devices, I would be sick on the whole package within ten minutes. Melissa would be the one in the kitchen with our mother the next day, dutifully shelling lima beans and cutting butter into flour and sugar while I was in the master bedroom rifling the jacket pockets and handbags of all of our guests, helping myself to twenty dollar bills and quarters that I would later spend on Dr. Pepper, Italian meat hoagies with oil and vinegar and hot peppers, and individually wrapped Tastykake iced fruit pies.

While we were all lying around the crackling and sparking pit, wondering how late it was and how late we would stay up, Jeffrey invented a little language and a nomenclature for our family. He started with my dad “The Bone.”  This was not his own invention.  Some of the carpenters at the scenery shop had started calling my dad “The Bone” behind his back. Playing with words and language as they do, schoolmates had changed Hamilton to Hambone ever since the 8th grade.  He hated being called Hambone and worse, being called Ham, as that is what his own father was called, by his own mother, no less. But someone clever at the roller rink had just cut to the chase and started calling him, “The Bone.”  Have you seen “The Bone?”  Where’s “The Bone?”  You better make sure “The Bone” signed off on that.  “The Bone” is never gonna  go for that.

From “Pa-Pa Boner”, the lewdness and double-entendre of which can still to this day put Jeffrey into a breathless laughing fit, it took nothing to get us going, and soon we were dubbed from oldest to youngest, J Jasper Bone, T-Bone, Bonette Major , Sly and the Family Bone, and me, finally, Bonette Minor.  Our battered Volvo station wagon became the Bone Chariot.  Something authentically, uniquely my Dad’s—like the dimmer switches in our house never working, or the house almost being auctioned off at the sheriff’s sale because he hadn’t paid the property taxes in a year—was “Bone-afide.”  Real, expensive champagne at Christmas in spite of the lien was “Bone-ificent.”  And parties—all of my dad’s parties—became “Bone-a-thons.”

Decades later, when Melissa and I were in our separate homes with our own families, she left me a message about a bone density study that was being done at her local hospital, and all I could hear in the background of the message was Melissa herself, howling and shrieking into the phone “Bone Density”! Bwa ha ha ha ha ha bwa ha ha ha ha ha! “

I won’t pretend that I was a humorous or clever part of this little word game we were playing out in the dark meadow by the big fire. Being the youngest, I had to work very hard to understand the joke, or to make like I understood, and as often as not I got caught up in my own mind, my own puzzle, my drifty imagination.  I was the one out of the five kids who was always thrown in the car and taken on long errands with my parents because I was purely content to sit in the car and wander around my own mind.  Watching the world itself, the people in it, and my whole internal life was more than enough to keep me entertained. My parents have an understanding at this time about disciplining me: Do not send that Scorpio girl to her room for punishment because she loves it there. So whatever it was that had them all cracking up—whatever jokes and jabs and teasing Jeffrey—now JJ Bone–has got going, like referring to my mother as the one who “got Boned”— I wasn’t really getting it. I had no idea.  I held on to the leash of their banter which ran like a rowdy sheepdog twice my own weight, but I would not let go.

I quietly thrilled to be packed into my sleeping bag right up next to them.  I felt cocooned by the thick crescendoing song of the crickets, that voluptuous blanket of summer night humidity, the smell of wood smoke, the heavy dew of the tall grass around us, the necessary and anchoring voices, giggles, farts and squeals of disgust of my older siblings.   This whole perfect night when everyone is still, pretty much, intact and wholesome, is where I sometimes want the party to stop.

In the morning the sun will come up and the rest of  life will resume—where it will become cliche to admire the beauty of the stars, facile to feel transported by the smell of wood smoke, childish to admit to loving your siblings and weak to be made secure by the idea of your parents still married up in the house –and we will awaken and kick out of our sleeping bags and find in the pit a huge bed of glowing coals, perfect for the slow roasting of the lambs.

But on this last night that we all spend together fireside, being ravaged by mosquitoes and uncomfortably dampened by the dew absorbed by the cotton army-issue sleeping bags, –where we have not yet even eaten the lambs–all that yet troubles us is whether when it rang you answered the Bone Phone or should it be called the Bone Touch Tone.

When we woke up, the mist was burning off as the sun got strong. My dad was throwing huge coils of sweet Italian sausage onto the grill.  He split open big loaves of bread to toast over the coals, and for breakfast, instead of  cocoa puffs and cartoons, we sat up in our sleeping bags, reeking of smoke, and ate these giant delicious, crusty, and charred sweet Italian sausage sandwiches.

Then there were a million chores to do, and my dad needed us to do them. I learned that I could drive, work, haul stone, hammer nails, handle knives, use a chainsaw, and tend fires—anything boys could do—simply because my dad was always so behind, so late, so overextended and ambitious and understaffed on every project that he was always in desperate need of another pair of hands, even if they were only a nine-year-old pair of girl hands. All of us had clocked enough hours with my dad backstage at theatres, watching the scenery go up or come down, that by the time he was throwing this party in our backyard and instructing us to light the paper bag luminarias right at sundown, we understood theatre terms like “the fourth wall” and theatrical lighting expressions like “Close the barn doors!” and “ Dimmer 2 segue to 3, please!”

We had to roll up our pant legs and walk barefoot into the frigid stream, build a little corral with river rocks, and stock it with jugs of Chablis  and cases and cases of Heineken and cream soda and root beer.  Having to walk barefoot into the cold stream to get a beer instead of just comfortably reaching into one of those ice-packed bright red coolers that normal people would use was, in our new vernacular, Bone-afide. I had to mow the meadow and rake it, and the smell of fresh cut grass was Bone-ificent.    We had to fill hundreds of brown paper lunch bags with sand and plumbers candles, then set them out all along the stream’s edge under the weeping willows and at  all the gopher holes so nobody broke an ankle or fell drunk into the stream later when it got dark. And we had to juice up the glow-in-the-dark Frisbees in the car headlights so we could play later out at the far dark end of the meadow. Those glowing greenish discs arcing through the jet black night, sent and received by the invisible bodies of my older brothers, were Bone-ificent too.

The lambs were arranged over the coals head to toe to head to toe the way you’d put a bunch of kids having a sleep-over into a bed.  We kept a heavy metal garden rake next to the pit to arrange the coals as the day passed and the ashes built up, moving the spent coals to the edges and revealing the hot glowing red embers.  The lambs roasted so slowly and patiently that their blood dripped down into the coals with a hypnotic and rhythmic hiss, which sounded like the hot tip of a just-blown-out match being dipped into a cup of water.  My dad basted them by dipping a branch of wood about as thick and long as an axe handle, with a big swab of cheesecloth tied at its end, into a clean metal paint can filled with olive oil, crushed rosemary and garlic, and big chunks of lemons. He then mopped the lambs, slowly, gently, and thoroughly,  back and forth with soft careful strokes like you might paint your brand new sail boat. Then the marinade, too, dripped down onto the coals, hissing and atomizing, its scent lifting up into the air.  So all day long, as we did our chores, the smell of gamey lamb, apple wood smoke, and rosemary garlic marinade commingled and became etched into our brains. I have clung to it for thirty years, that smell. I have a chronic summertime yearning to build large fires outdoors and slowly roast whole animals.  I could sit fireside and baste until sundown. Hiss. Hiss. Hiss.

The rest of the meal was simple but prepared in such quantities that the kitchen felt hectic and brimming and urgent.  There were giant bowls of lima bean and mushroom salad with red onion and oregano and full sheet pans of shortcake. Melissa, with a pair of office scissors, snipped cases of red and black globe grapes into perfect portioned clusters while my mom mimosa’d eggs—forcing hard-cooked whites and then hard-cooked yolks through a fine sieve—over pyramids of cold steamed asparagus vinaigrette.  Melissa and my mom worked quickly, efficiently, and cleanly—mother and daughter together in the kitchen, both in bib aprons each with a dish towel neatly folded and tucked into her apron string, “doing the bones” of our Lamb Roast.

Todd gave the lambs a quarter turn every half hour.  Simon parked the cars.  Jeffrey politely kissed the older guests, who arrived more than punctually, on both cheeks.  And I plunged in and out of the stream to retrieve beer and wine and soda.

Then they started pouring in, all these long-haired, bell-bottomed artist friends of my dad’s and former ballet dancer friends of my mother’s, with long necks and eternally erect posture, and our friends, too—the Drevers and Mellmans and Bentleys and Shanks—the whole pack of us dogs, muddy, grass-stained and soaking wet in the first fifteen minutes.  I hardly recognized the washed and neatly groomed Maresca brothers with their father, Mr. Maresca, out of their butcher coats.

Slowly the meadow filled with people and fireflies and laughter—just as my father had imagined—and the lambs on their spits were hoisted off the pit onto the shoulders of men, like in a funeral procession, and set down on the makeshift plywood-on-sawhorse tables to be carved. Then the sun started to set and we lit the paper bag luminaria, which burned soft glowing amber, punctuating the meadow and the night, and the lamb was crisp-skinned and sticky from slow roasting, and the root beer was frigid and caught, like an emotion, in the back of my throat.