Before Gabrielle Hamilton opened her acclaimed New York restaurant Prune, she spent twenty fierce, hard-living years trying to find purpose and meaning in her life. Above all she sought family, particularly the thrill and the magnificence of the one from her childhood that, in her adult years, eluded her. Hamilton's ease and comfort in a kitchen were instilled in her at an early age when her parents hosted grand parties, often for more than one hundred friends and neighbors. Blood, Bones & Butter follows an unconventional journey through the many kitchens Hamilton has inhabited through the years: the rural kitchen of her childhood, where her adored mother stood over the six-burner with an oily wooden spoon in hand; the kitchens of France, Greece, and Turkey, where she was often fed by complete strangers and learned the essence of hospitality; the soulless catering factories that helped pay the rent; Hamilton's own kitchen at Prune, with its many unexpected challenges; and the kitchen of her Italian mother-in-law, who serves as the link between Hamilton's idyllic past and her own future family -- the result of a difficult and prickly marriage that nonetheless yields rich and lasting dividends.
Nonetheless, that's where this memoir takes us. In a story remarkably free of both whining and bravado, Hamilton simply tells us how she got from Point A (youngest child of a slightly unconventional and definitely dysfunctional family) to Point B (chef/owner of Prune restaurant in Manhattan, writer for the New York Times and Food and Wine). However, she tells it with such unsentimental self-reflection and with such engaging intimacy that I found it impossible not to wish I knew her personally.
If you can imagine a book with some of the tell-all qualities of Anthony Bourdain's writing but with 80% of the cynicism removed you would have some sense of this book. There's subtle poking at the "food as a game" trend epitomized by molecular gastronomy and some not-so-subtle poking at the reverse sexism fashionable among celebrity female chefs but, by and large, there's simply a life story told with warmth and humor against a constantly moving counterpoint of food and cooking.
Through various restaurant jobs, she ends up in NYC, which eventually leads her to meeting her future Italian husband, which is adds another interesting layer, due to the fact she is a lesbian.
Hamilton tells all of this, in a strong no-nonsense narrative, helped by the fact she “really” can write. She earned an MFA in fiction-writing. Her descriptions of food and meal preparations are perfectly appetizing. Recommended.
Blood, Bones, and Butter is prettily written, although the author does some confusing jumping around within her personal timeline and changes tenses in weird places a couple of times. She tells some gross anecdotes that in another voice would sound way too "HI I'M SUPPOSED TO BE SHOCKING!" but they don't read that way at all in this book -- they're just Hamilton discussing another bit of her life that happened to be pretty nasty.
I really enjoyed reading about her dad's parties (Hamilton tells a good story, especially when it involves food) and her interesting and strange childhood, and how she climbed her way up to where she is today, but when the narrative got closer to the present, it became an angry little ode to bitterness.
I mean, I get it, this is supposed to be unflinchingly honest and REAL, but it wasn't the same kind of honesty as in the first half of the book; it was tinged with cold anger, and the anger is never really EXPLAINED, which makes it hard for me to understand why, for example, Hamilton stays away from her mother for twenty years and then acts like a sullen teenager when she does visit her. There are glimpses of the root of her bitterness every now and then, but they're fleeting. Maybe I was supposed to read between the lines or something, but I'm never very good at that.
On the plus side, it sounds like any affection that may have been displaced by anger has been transferred to food. Hamilton comes off as snobbish when it comes to food -- some of it's understandable, some of it's is the stuff eye rolls are made of -- but she also sounds like she knows her stuff, and she writes about food in a hungry-making way. I wouldn't want to live with her, but I'd love to eat her food.
I love it when an author can show the contradictions inherent in humanity, and Gabrielle Hamilton does it well. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to read about food and hard work and who is comfortable dealing with human ambiguity.
The verdict - a wonderfully written book that is aptly named for the blood and bones the author bears to the reader. The butter, as is nutritionally responsible, is tucked in here and there for sweet bursts of creamy goodness.
As an aside: I had always wanted to be a chef when I was younger, but when I signed up for the cooking program at Vocational Technical school my guidance counselor pulled me aside and told me I was too smart to be wasting my life in that sort of profession. I ended up going to college for a major I really hated and ended up failing miserably in. I regret believing him to this day.
Sometimes after I read a novel that's been made into a film I'll complete the experience by watching the movie. In the case of 'Blood, Bones & Butter' I decided the best capstone experience would be to have a nice dinner at Gabrielle Hamilton's restaurant in the East Village, "Prune". I went with my gal and we had the quail, pork shoulder, a negroni, sardines & crackers, goat cheese & bread, mascarpone ice cream with caramel & croutons, and olive cake. Our meal was absolutely first-rate. All criticisms aside, this woman knows what she's talking about when it comes to food.
Instead, here's what I know about Gabrielle Hamilton: she hates women who shop at farmer's markets. She had lesbian relationships until she married an Italian guy. She is terrible at relationships - she had an affair with said Italian guy while dating a woman, who she broke up with by informing her she was getting married. She married the Italian so he could get a green card. (Although ultimately who is in that marriage for more than that, and who is most disappointed by the whole thing, and who is more at fault and why are we still talking about it is all up for debate.) She thinks people who let their kids cry it out are miserable excuses for human beings, but she will yell "things I'm not proud of" at her fussy toddlers in the car when she's hungry. She is a chef, but cannot correctly pronounce "turmeric" or "pho." She also has a habit of pronouncing "a" like "ay," including at the beginning of the word "another," so that I felt like she was reading to a particularly slow 4-year-old. I mean really - who says "ay" person and then "ay"nother?!
I suppose the bottom line is, I did not like this woman, and I felt like the book focused on all the wrong things in all the wrong ways. I wish she had stuck to cooking and skipped the MFA.
Hamilton begins at age 8 and works her way up to her early 40s. While food is definitely a highlight of the book (her descriptions will make you literally drool), the main focus is family. From growing up with her four siblings, eccentric artist father, and mercurial French mother to trying to find her place in her husband's "Italian-Italian" family, it's clear that even though she's proven she can do just fine on her own, Gabrielle wants nothing more than a close, loving family.
The language and structure of this book is beyond reproach. Gabrielle's descriptions, whether it be of food, setting, or event, is lavish and rich without being cheesy. She generally stays in chronological order, but makes huge arcs with the plot, so that just as soon as you think she has lost her original train of thought, she loops back around and connects everything together. Many author's whose works I've read have tried to use this device and failed miserably. Hamilton pulls it off and makes it look effortless. It's not surprising to learn that she's earned her MFA in fiction writing.
I wanted to love this book. I expected to love this book. And yet, I do not love this book. I like the book. I like it a lot. Gabrielle and I have a lot in common, and I enjoy her voice (both her actual voice, and her "writing voice"). Unfortunately, the book got so far away from her chef experience in the last section, I got disinterested. Yes, reading about the downward spiral of her marriage and desperation to truly become a part of her husband's family was captivating, but almost in a "tabloidy" way. I felt a little guilty knowing so much about the intimate problems of this non-intimate couple. Although the relationship has certainly helped mold Gabrielle into the person (and chef/owner) that she is, I would have much rather read more stories about the happenings behind the scenes of Prune, her restaurant.
While she talks about cooking and food, this is by no means a recipe or how-to book. It did make me crave some of the dishes that she talked about - Crepes Bretonnes, for me! - which sent me off searching my cookbooks.
People come and go a bit too quickly for me, and I'd personally wish for some more explanations of some of her relationships, but I loved this book for the food and wine and glimpses of a chef's life.
The default television channel in my house is “Food Network” – not so much because I more than passable cooking skills, but because the preparation and description of food feels to me nearly as gratifying as eating. Reading about food has nearly the same effect. The appreciation of food of high quality, with love and care behind the cooking of it, came late in life to me…but not to Hamilton.
“from him (her father) 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.”
From her French mother, she learns much of how to make the most of food – either in flavor or by using every last bit. But as wonderful as these aspects of her young life may have been, her teenage and young adult years are anything but magical.
“I hastily grazed through the menu of adult behavior and tried on whatever seemed attractive, for whatever inchoate reasons, as they occurred to me…” Until, “I knew that I did not want to go to that juvenile detention program because I had an intuitive sense that it would turn me irrevocably into the kind of character that I was only now rehearsing to be.”
For the rest of the book, Hamilton yearns for the sense of family, the sense of togetherness that she once seemed to posses. With food being such a large part of so many family events, she starts to draw people in with her cooking, and then with her restaurant. She creates the family she so longs to have, the one she so wants to nourish and satisfy.
There are descriptions of food and of place (Italy, Greece, New York) that draw the reader in, filling the senses with smells, tastes and color. Some of the dishes she makes and tries are ones that I would never be brave enough to attempt, but was able to experience them through her words.
I finished the novel, however, profoundly sad. I was very impressed with who she has become and what she has accomplished given the path of her childhood…but felt a sympathetic emptiness at the conclusion. As rich as most of her life is as a successful restaurant owner, mother, friend…there is more she yearns for and has not yet discovered.
Complaints aside, it is admirable that Hamilton stays on topic throughout the entire book. Blood, Bones & Butter isn't so much a memoir as it is an extensive autobiography, starting with Hamilton's earliest memories and ending at present day. She does not get sidetracked (unlike Anthony Bourdain) by dedicating entire chapters to food and everything that goes along with it. The passion for her bread of life is there, but it infuses her life story, rather than strives for its own sections.
This passion is the beauty of the read. There is not a single page that does not relate Hamilton's culinary tastes to her life in general. Food is by far the most important thing in her existence, which should not be taken as a sad statement. Meals become holy in this book, something to be worshiped. Home-cooked food is the mainstay of her childhood, representing the one constant in her life. She's poetic about her subject, even when most would shy away from her disgusting culinary findings, such as near-rotting meat in France:
"Pheasants...hung for a few days until their necks finally gave out, and you could see, physically, a kind of perfect ripeness to the meat when it became tender enough to pleasurably chew, as if the earliest stage of rot itself was a cooking technique."
Unfortunately, the poetry, while very moving, might actually detract from some of the more interesting aspects of Hamilton's life. For example, her mother's decision to leave her husband and take all of her children with her is an abrupt transition in Hamilton's life, even though her parents' relationship had been on the rocks for a long time. Her mother quickly becomes demonized and despicable in Hamilton's eyes, but not with the justification one would expect. Hamilton herself struggles with identifying concrete reasons for hating her mother for most of her life, so much that she severs all ties with her for decades. Don't get me wrong: I'm not hoping to de-emphasize the impact any divorce can have. I'm just saying, compare this to what you'd expect in most memoirs discussing childhood turmoil, and it is not nearly as moving.
Perhaps this is due to Hamilton's hyper-awareness about what she eats. Seemingly every meal, even minor ones, throughout her entire life is described in explicit, delectable detail. She is a master at food writing, managing to tease one's taste buds, without crossing over into "food porn." I don't fault her for these descriptions at all--they are a mainstay of this memoir--but the lack of detail concerning other major life decisions eventually creates a sense of dullness throughout the read (for example, the first time she tries cocaine is quickly brushed over, whereas family meals are discussed for nearly entire chapters).
Food is Hamilton's saving grace for many domestic problems in her life, which is why it takes precedence over the troubles themselves. While I was perfectly satisfied with this for the Blood and Bones sections of the book (the book is divided into the three nouns of its title, respectively), Butter grated on me. Not only did it irritate me, it outright bored me and I kept checking my page count, hoping to finish soon so I could move on to something else.
The boring bits begin with Hamilton's marriage to her Italian immigrant husband, Michele. The situations of the marriage itself are thoroughly entertaining, and the bizarre nature of the relationship give one pause for thought (the two lived separately for most of their years together). This is all part of what makes Blood, Bones, and Butter entertaining; however, the multiple chapters dedicated to descriptions of the couple's yearly visits to Michele's family in Rome, ripe with the continuous long dedications to homemade food and descriptions of their marital spats, become so trite that the last fourth of the book blends together to form one boring chunk that could be summarized in half the amount of space.
What starts out as a memoir that delivers everything it promises, ends as a horrible flop. This is a shame considering I really loved reading the larger portion of this book. It's unfortunate that it left such a bad taste in my mouth, because I hate recommending books solely on sections, but that's exactly what I'm about to do. If this is the first book you want to read about a chef's life, I'd steer clear of it until you get some other reads under your belt. However, if you enjoy these types of books, by all means read this. I'll go so far as to saying you need to read this. Just be prepared for the latter portion of the book.
Just - WOW
The lesson peeking out of Gabrielle's life accounts is that your career and work ethic are shaped early-on. No need to run from a trade you are inherently good at, rather embrace the trade for all of its nuances. Even after 20+ years of not cooking alongside her mother, Gabrielle is humbled to discover so much of her strength as a chef was shaped by this very woman presenting a simple roast chicken.
You will eat up these pages.