Monday, March 7, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

The hype which preceded the publication of the Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter was so loud and so long that by the time it appeared it was tempting to diss it.  Who, though, has the guts to contradict Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, and Mimi Sheraton. Anyway, to do so would be to ignore the prodigious writing ability of Hamilton who is chef/owner of the New York restaurant Prune, and who has a Masters of Fine Art in fiction writing from the University of Michigan.

Hamilton is one of those people who is totally unafraid to voice her perception of the truth.  If she is sometimes hard on her staff, she is even harder on herself, both physically and critically. Anyone who has ever worked in catering will recognize the cast of characters and the iffy sanitation practices she describes.  Even this combined with the ringing endorsement of so many culinary heavy weights , the meaty narrative of Blood, Bones & Butter  does not really come across as a true food/restaurant memoir.

Certainly Hamilton has a finely developed and very specific appreciation of food.  Her food world does not include molecular gastronomy but it does include swooning over Andre Soltner's omelette making skills.  Her culinary view is predicated on the culinary lessons learned at her mother's knees. Still, Hamilton's most lyrical writing is reserved not for food itself  but for the relationships that are acted out around the dining table.

This is more Paradise Lost as memoir in which food is first the glue that holds Eden together.  Later it becomes the substance which will bring it all back together. Hamilton's lost paradise  was an haute-Bohemian life lived in a large family on the Pennsylvania/New Jersey border. Home was a repurposed factory where her French-born former ballerina mother presided over a six burner stove.In the heyday of convenience foods, Gabrielle Hamilton's mother was serving up marrow bones. No fast foods passed her children's lips.  There were woods and an icy stream in which to play.  Family social life culminated in an annual party for hundreds in which the centrepiece was a whole lamb, spit-roasted over apple wood.  Her set designer father presided over this extravaganza.

The idyll came to a halt one Sunday morning when her mother, confronted with a husband hidden behind a newspaper,one suspects yet again, suddenly and irrevocably swept everything on the table onto the floor.  Chunks of sausage and shards of glass swimming in a pool of mustard signaled the end of Gabrielle Hamilton's childhood.  She was 12.  Of course, she had never suspected there were any problems.

After a brief attempt to live with her mother in rural Vermont, Hamilton did not see her for two decades.
Predictably, bad behavior followed. Alongside the acting out, the seeds of a fine work ethic and common sense which would stand her in good stead as a restaurateur, took root. Between unfiltered cigarettes, joy riding, and lines of cocaine, she managed to finish school and m in the hospitality industry, she always managed to support herself.  All the while she held fast to the family ties which bound her to a sister and brother.When she faced a charge of grand larceny, Hamilton's brother, by then a highly paid Wall Street trader,underwrote  the talented lawyer who got her sent to college rather than jail.  It was a wake up which after a long apprenticeship--or perhaps sentence-- in catering and a detour to the Midwest for the MFA finally led to the restaurant which bears the nickname which her mother bestowed on her.

Although it has none of the polemics of early feminist literature, Blood, Bones & Butter does have some of its elements:  the hardscrabble life, strong relationships between women forged in difficult work situations, the obligatory lesbian liaisons, and the drive to create family, whether by blood or choice.  For Hamilton, the new nuclear family became reality when she married a male Italian customer in need of a green card. More than the husband, it is the ensuing Italian holidays, her connection with his mother in spite of language differences, and the two sons she bore with him that finally fulfilled her need for family. Ultimately, she finds that she cannot make a foreign culture become her own.

This is a book that speaks most obviously to women and to the children of divorce.  It should impart great hope to parents of children who have gone spectacularly off the rail;  most of them right themselves. It is a true testament to Gabrielle Hamilton's writing ability that the Bourdains, the Batalis, and the Bouluds of the world will also find resonance in her story.

Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton
Hardcover, $30, 304pp
Reviewed by Jennifer Grange

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