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Book Review: Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton

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Prune, Gabrielle Hamilton’s restaurant on New York’s Lower East Side, but now that I’ve read Hamilton’s memoir, I want to spend all my afternoons lounging over a late lunch at Prune’s miniscule bar — because if the food is anywhere near as good as the writing in this book, the food must be very, very good indeed.

The subtitle of Blood, Bones & Butter is “the inadvertent education of a reluctant chef,” and indeed, as Hamilton makes abundantly clear, her kitchen education came the hard way: in hardscrabble restaurants working the grill, slinging drinks as an underage cocktail waitress, managing the kitchen at a kids’ summer camp, pulling double shifts as a catering chef. She says the “new status of the celebrity chef confuses me,” because she’s used to being “the help, arriving by the back service elevator.” She never went to culinary school and never had any formal chef training, but she nevertheless was just awarded the coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef.

As I was reading this memoir, I kept telling friends I was reading a great novel; Hamilton’s sense of pacing and character, not to mention her prose, transcends the usual memoir-voice, which so often toggles between victimization and confession. Somewhere along her journey — after dropping out of two colleges and almost getting arrested for fraud at the bar where she served drinks — Hamilton got an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and her writerly chops are very much in evidence here.

To say that Hamilton writes well about food is an absurd understatement; I read the book in a near-constant state of salivation: lamb being roasted over an open flame, meltingly fresh home-made mozzarella, delicate home-made orchiette pasta — even the simple food she made when she worked as the head cook at the summer camp — all of it leaps off the page in sizzles, smells, and textures. She also writes well about the inadvertent teachers she finds along the way: her French mother, on whose stove were always cooking “tails, claws, and marrow-filled bones … that she was stewing and braising and simmering to feed our family of seven;” or Misty, who Hamilton works for in Ann Arbor, who quietly shows her that a chef could “look things up … solicit the opinion or experience of her staff … learn from any source.”

Hamilton writes equally eloquently about the question that she says plagues her—and the few women chefs who have achieved her status in the cutthroat world of that is New York haute cuisine: being a female chef. She says “she can’t understand for one second what the difference is between a male chef and a female chef…[but] I cringe to be called one of New York City’s top female chefs.” It wasn’t until she owns her own restaurant, however, that she realizes that being female in a high-end restaurant kitchen adds a constant source of pressure: “I had been doing a second job all along … constantly, vigilantly figuring out and calibrating my place in that kitchen with those guys to make a space for myself that was bearable and viable. Should I wear pink clogs or black steel-toe work shoes? Lipstick or chapstick? … Swear like a line cook or giggle like a girl?”

The beauty of the book is Hamilton’s precise prose—swear or giggle, lipstick or chapstick — and her precision sometimes made me laugh, as when she describes herself, thirty-eight weeks pregnant, “down on all fours scrap[ing] pancake batter off the oven door after having just cooked three hundred eggs with a near-constant monologue of fucking fuck of a fuck issuing from [my] lips.” That woman, she says, “is not the woman I meant to grow up to be.” I laughed and then I paused: who among us, particularly if we’re parents, has grown up into precisely the person we meant ourselves to be?

Hamilton’s story illustrates many of the stops on her journey to become, perhaps not the woman she meant to be, but who is still, nevertheless, a rather formidable force. Her memoir does not delve into many of the details that have become de rigueur of the memoir genre: it’s clear, for instance, that Hamilton and her mother have a strained relationship, but we don’t get sordid details about why. Hamilton has long-term relationships with women but then leaves her female lover for an Italian man, whom she eventually marries so he can get a green card; they have two sons together. The marriage isn’t a happy one, but she doesn’t dwell on lovers’ quarrels or recriminations; instead we get long, lyrical passages about his Italian family and their summer vacations in Puglia, which center, naturally, on food.

While I admire Hamilton’s restraint in keeping aspects of her emotional life off the page, I nevertheless wanted details about Hamilton’s parents, wished I knew more about her own marriage, wanted more stories about the world of Prune. Actually, what I found myself wanting, as I came to the end of Blood, Bones & Butter, is just more Gabrielle. I didn’t want the book to end; I wanted her companionship, foul-mouthed stories, commentary about the New York “foodie” world (about which she is fairly disdainful: her cooking is not “precious” or frou-frou).

Hamilton’s compelling stories make great company. I would like to re-read this book, slowly, with a glass of white wine and an avocado sandwich, elbows propped on the tiny marble bar at Prune. If I’m lucky, maybe Gabrielle herself will plop down next to me, munching on her version of egg-on-a-roll.

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