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.”