A small disclaimer: I'm not a food snob. Of the three or four dishes I can cobble together with some confidence, my omelets are a pinnacle, even if they normally resemble a sort of Dadaist collage. I don't watch the Food Network, nor would I pick up anything by Anthony Bourdain or other chefs whose names I wouldn't recognize. And so I came reluctantly to Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones and Butter. A memoir about food and its demanding preparation, I thought this would be just another foodie tell-all lining the Crate & Barrel bookshelves. It turns out to be far from it.
Founder and proprietor of Prune restaurant in New York, Hamilton has written a multifaceted memoir that goes well beyond its anticipated subject, beginning with her quirky, culinary childhood in Pennsylvania in the 1970s. Soon after her parents' divorce, she finds herself on her own at the age of 13, committing petty acts of vandalism and scoring a local job as a busser, only to flee to New York and acquire a few waitressing gigs at dives and diners.
It's around this point that Blood, Bones and Butter becomes something riveting and entirely un-put-downable.
With tersely eloquent prose and a hankering for exploring her own desperation and anger, Hamilton excels at filling her story with extreme insight. Even while attending creative writing classes, first at New York University and then on to Hampshire College and the University of Michigan, Hamilton is never far from a kitchen, picking up insanely challenging gigs at catering services that would lead to cooking for a summer camp in Massachusetts. Her voice is intermittently mean-spirited, snarky, proud and modest, sad, ebullient, rueful and moody. And that's just a sampling of a few pages. From a vivid remembrance of her parents' lavish lamb-roasting extravaganzas, through the frustrations of memorizing arcane lit-crit babble and on to raising two children, her perspective is always cathartic and expeditious.
This is a memoir of luminous self-discovery. Hamilton deconstructs her years of identity crises, leading to an obligatory trek through Europe uncovering exotic foods, and culminating with her return to America and her decision to open her own restaurant. The decision inevitably provokes a new set of problems: the 18-hour days, the weltering heat, her marriage to a disengaged Italian man, pregnancy and the under-acknowledged gender politics of the business. A to-do list of the author's daily routines superbly summarizes the overwrought routines of her entrepreneurship:
Get w/AT and limit menu
Train CR on a 2-man line
Call Rhode for fill-in
Tell brunch crew vinaigrette too acidic
Pick up white platters
Change filters in hoods
Figure out pomegranate syrup
All in all, Hamilton covers a lot of emotional ground, and 95 percent of it is incredibly absorbing. Her personal relationshipswith her girlfriend, her husband, and her mother-in-law, who acts as a sort of stand-in for Hamilton's own familyoften cast her in an unlikable shade, but this only seems to magnify the authenticity of her story. Occasionally, tangents dead-end her enlightening tone, but they are few and brief. Otherwise, this book is a no-holds barred account of a dedicated chef and writer: sometimes chatty, often funny and filled with exquisite rage and persistence.