Blood, Bones & Butter, a Review
Posted by Degan on May 5th, 2012
I had been wanting to read “Blood, Bones and Butter” by Gabrielle Hamilton for such a long time that when I finally tucked into it, I devoured it. And initially I loved it. Because it’s about cooking – “The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef” is the tag line and it is the memoir of the chef and owner of New York restaurant Prune – and because it’s the perfect, honest, beautiful kind of writing I had been craving after reading too many florid descriptions of 5-star dishes. But into that “inadvertent education” are some fine and fierce years of pure living and I was surprised to find that while being on every page, the book has surprisingly little to do with food.
It’s a memoir, certainly. It’s about Gabrielle Hamilton and her family and her hard life and even about what it was like for her to be a chef, but it’s very real. I had forgotten what it was like to read prose that you could relate to and as she reminisced about her adolescence in bright, vivid memories it made me remember my own. I was always ahead of the pack, always the fastest; my friends and boyfriends always years older than me, so it seems hard to pinpoint the time when I switched from innocence to the other thing. I remember taking sips of my dad’s liquor and calling my friend who had done the same at her house so that we could then jump up and down and in circles (all the while getting tangled up in the telephone cord) so we could get drunk faster. It wasn’t too long after that that I feel down the stairs at her house because I was so drunk and not long after that that we were sneaking out of the window and not coming home. But before Jenn there was Father David, who took me to a crêperie in Paris and got me smashed on kirsch and cider, and before that there was a longing to know my place in the world, to experience every experience, gulping it down in such heady, wide-eyed excitement that even I can’t fail to notice that “innocence” was an experience too. Something I did, once.
I’m not the only one that seems to relate – Anthony Bourdain graciously suggests that is it, “Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever.” But she lives large and has a very down to earth voice (aided by an MFA in creative writing) in which she talks about her desire to cook honest, delicious food. She describes her restaurant as being without “‘conceptual’ or ‘intellectual’ food; just the salty, sweet, starchy, brothy, crispy things that one craves when one is actually hungry” and that is the kind of thing that people can relate to.
But as she gets into more trouble and perhaps more of a rut, she seems to become less interested in cooking and more interested in her own struggle; less passionate and more mean and I hope the similarities I see of myself in her end there.
Ironically, the part where she puts in the most detail is where she’s working shitty waitressing jobs in cowboy bars and working long catering hours and by the time she gets tired of the story is when she’s travelling to Italy on a regular basis and opening her restaurant. These are the parts I want to hear about! And I want her to revel in them. But there are huge gaps in the narrative, like the years of travelling through Europe that she refers to as if we know what she’s talking about, or how she managed to raise enough capital to open a restaurant in Manhattan and there are many pages of complaining.
She is not a sympathetic character. For instance; “People who know me well understand fully what I am saying when I suggest that I am working an appetite and that we’d best be making our move. This means it is time to hit the road before my blood sugar-what’s left of it-crashes to that point where I’m going to ruin your fucking day.” Lots of nice people have low blood sugar, don’t get me wrong, but they don’t write books disparaging their families, and their husband’s families, and complaining about how hard it is to have a successful restaurant in New York, etc. This is her prerogative of course, but at some three-quarterish chunk, I just wanted to be done.
When I was in New York, the first time. I had her restaurant on my list and my sister and trekked down to the Lower East Side – stupidly stopping for THE BIGGEST KNISH I HAVE EVER SEEN – before finding out that they weren’t open on Sundays. We didn’t make it back (and not on our second trip either), but I still want to go. I want to eat her food and hang out in the kind of restaurant that has been an inspiration to so many and that has such an incredible menu. But I’m not likely to read another one of her books.