A Review:


Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, was the first impulse purchase I made on my Kindle after being wooed by its free sample. I have found the Kindle samples to be invaluable as I have never been one to stand in a bookstore reading from the book I eventually end up purchasing. I buy because I’m a sucker for good cover art, a bargain, or the shop’s clever display of a title. This willy-nilly way of book buying has led to many beautiful, but not beautifully written books, ending up in the never-read section of my shelves.

The Kindle samples have opened up a whole new world to me and spared my wallet in the process. Downloaded in seconds, I love being able to see, from the comfort of my beach chair, if an author’s prose resonates with me or if I empathize with the story’s protagonist. Books I thought I would love because they are on the bestseller list or friends have recommended them have ended up to be total duds once I have finished the sample. I delete then search again, ready to find the next gem. Hamilton’s memoir was my most recent find.  A Kindle Editors’ Pick for  the Cooking, Food & Wine category, I was curious about their endorsement and decided to check it out for myself.

I fell under the spell of chef memoirs six or so years ago after reading Anthony Bourdain’s gross, but engrossing, Kitchen Confidential. Never having considered myself much of a cook nor having ever worked in a restaurant, I devoured Bourdain’s prose and gnarly, behind-the-scenes accounts.  The rise of bloggers like Julie Powell, who chronicled her one-year challenge to cook all of the Julia Child’s recipes from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and its subsequent adaptation to a film starring Meryl Streep, has made books about cooks the new “it” lit.

Like our parents’ generation that took home cooking to new heights in the 1970s, my generation has fallen in love with all things kitchen by first reading about it.  This comes as no surprise to me given that young adults are more educated than ever before. Taking the book approach first to a subject then diving in to the hands-on aspect (fully prepared with top of the line accoutrements from William Sonoma, naturally) makes total sense to me.

Hamilton’s memoir is gritty like Bourdain’s in the sense that it throws back the curtain to the happenings in the New York kitchens of the 1980s. Those sultry kitchens were dens of inequity that schooled both of them in how to be chefs. What I like about Hamilton’s memoir and don’t remember about Bourdain’s, is the personal side. A passage I found to be particularly well-written described Hamilton’s childhood evenings spent sitting at the table on her impeccably dressed, French mother’s lap:

“For a period I was too young for after-dinner chores – clearing, washing, drying – and possibly too favored, and so I eagerly crawled up and took my place in her lap, barefoot and drowsy. I leaned back into her soft body and listened to the gurgling as she chewed and swallowed. I breathed in her exhale: wine, vinaigrette, tangerines, cigarette smoke. While all of the others were excused from the table, I got to sit, alone with my mother and father as they finished. I watched her oily lips, her crooked teeth, and felt the treble of her voice down my spine while she had adult conversation and gently rested her chin on the top of my head. “

Hamilton’s hippie, artist father, nicknamed “The Bone”, cobbled a living together for his wife and five children before the marriage dissolved when Hamilton was twelve. Hamilton and her 17-year-old brother Simon were left behind in the family home to fend for themselves while their elder siblings and parents scattered to different locales.

Like many messed up things that happen in childhood, it’s only later, via the wisdom and maturity of adulthood, that one sees how utterly strange and wrong something was. Hamilton shares this sense of bewilderment, yet pride, that her parents basically abandoned her and her brother, but she and Simon rose to the challenge and forged an adult-like existence for themselves with little to no guidance.

Hamilton’s memoir reminded me of a romantic relationship. You are introduced to someone and charmed by some immeasurable aspect of their being – their looks, your mutual chemistry, their vulnerability – whatever. A relationship begins, ascending to great heights until things eventually plateau. Layer by layer they allow you a glimpse of their human, sometimes imperfect nature and this once, seemingly perfect person, is revealed to have faults. You debate whether you can continue, negotiating whether these discovered faults are deal-breakers. Bored occasionally, thrilled sometimes – having invested the time – you decide to continue. The story closes with the rest of your lives yet to be lived and the reader (of your eventually-penned tale) left to wonder what happens as your lives unfold.

Hamilton hooked me from the start, which was why I eagerly bought her book after downloading the sample. I loved reading about her unconventional childhood and forays into the restaurants and kitchens of her teens and twenties. When she hit her thirties, attended grad school for writing and opened her now famous NYC restaurant, Prune, I was impressed by her vision and long hours. After reading about how she met her eventual husband and father to her two boys, I was disappointed in her apparent apathy (that sometimes veered a bit close to loathing) for the man. The book had hit its plateau.

She redeemed herself in the descriptive (if long) chapters about her husband’s family and ancestral home in southern Italy. Having traveled to Italy numerous times myself, I felt transported back there by her description of the lush vistas and evocative scents. Admittedly, I was also a bit saddened that the restaurant food I ate there as a tourist could never hold a candle to the texturally rich and history-laden meals Hamilton and her mother-in-law crafted in the family kitchen.

A stand out aspect of the latter chapters of the book was when Hamilton described being on a panel of female chefs aimed at speaking to female student chefs at the Culinary Institute of America. Hamilton did an admirable job of mentioning but not fixating on her bisexuality in the book and at this chef’s panel she wanted the fact of her being female to be similarly minimized.  Though she agreed to be on the panel, knowing the topic was about women chefs, I could appreciate Hamilton’s position:

“Identity politics never ends up going the distance for me. The categories tend to fall apart on me when I rely on them too heavily – gay people, women, whatever. Every time I think I can rely on a group or a category – like my sister women in the industry or my sister lesbians or whatever – Ruth Reichl frosts me at an event, for the seventh time, or the women on my panel say ridiculous things about women’s superiority or the lesbians go out and start voting Republican – and the whole thing caves in for me, and I start to mistrust my own kind. Especially when they start saying things like “Women are better than men.”

Essentially, her paraphrased stance of, “Can’t we remove our gender from this equation and focus on crafting really good food?” resonated with me. Her familiarity with being on the periphery of society because of her sexuality, leading to her resultant distaste for placing her gender front and center, was noted and applauded.

I don’t want to give away too many glimpses of the book, Hamilton’s mid-life encounter with her mother, for example. Rather, I will encourage you to read her candid tale for yourself. Hamilton’s book had its faults, but is still something I would heartily recommend. Despite the impulsivity of my purchase and my occasional frustration with Hamilton’s nature in the book, it was like a good, if not perfect relationship in that I walked away inspired and having learned a lot.


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