Chef cooks up spicy memoir

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 22, 2011

“Blood, Bones & Butter,” by Gabrielle Hamilton. Random House. 2011. 291 pp. $26.”
By Deirdre Parker Smith
With a title like “Blood, Bones & Butter,” who could resist a peek into this chef’s memoir?
Plus, the front cover bears a line of praise from Anthony Bourdain, infamous for his disdain.
Once you open the book, it’s like taking the silver-domed lid off a plate of food that’s familiar and strange at the same time.
Gabrielle Hamilton, chef owner of Prune in New York City, tells about her defiantly unorthodox training, her fraught childhood and her unfulfilling marriage.
Readers may not be able to attest to her cooking skills, but the woman can write. She writes like she cooks — deliberately, intensely, always a hint of nerves mingled with incredible self-assurance.
The first part of the book, Blood, covers her family and its demise. The youngest child in a brood of five, she is closest to her French mother.
The family lives in a ruin, while her father is a set designer, working in a huge, ramshackle building.
Mother keeps her French accent and her European influences, “… she forced us all to eat dark, briny, wrinkled olives, small birds we would have liked as pets, and cheeses that looked like they might well bear Legionnaire’s Disease.”
Hamilton is almost rhapsodic in her description of the lamb roast in their yard, with dozens of friends drinking and talking as the lamb cooks on a spit; her mother and sister in the kitchen grating hard-boiled eggs over the cold asparagus vinaigrette.
Then, one day she’s sweeping up cornichons and salami after a nearly wordless fight between her parents, and the idyll is over.
Her father moves out, her mother moves to Vermont and the children are basically left to fend for themselves. The older ones move on to their own lives, but Gabrielle and her brother become the wild children. Gabrielle, at 13, is shoplifting, smoking stolen cigarettes and even stealing a car. At 15, she finds work at a restaurant — a kitchen being one of the few things she knows. She lies about her age and teaches herself how to survive. Not that she does it that well, but she is independent.
Once she graduates from an alternative high school at 16, she heads to New York City to live in a nasty apartment in Hell’s Kitchen with her sister, Melissa.
She gets a gig as a waitress at the Lone Star Café, and learns how to skim money from the restuarant by a scamming bartender. She spends most of $90,000 on drugs.
Of course, she’s the one to get caught, and when authorities find out she is 16, the trouble deepens. Her now Wall-Street brother Todd hires a lawyer who tells her to get out of state and enroll in school.
She ends up at Hampshire College,where she drops out again.
Back in New York, she ends up slaving away for huge catering businesses, making fun of things served in a shotglass and telling the embarrassing secrets of what you really get for your $100 dinner.
She’s wickedly funny about the food world’s self-fascination, about the elitism of writers, about her own failures.
“…I had never heard of the second person static point of view. And had completely forgotten the meaning of indirect interior discourse.”
When she’s approached to open a restaurant in an abandoned space full of mold and dead rats, “A thin blue line of electricity was running through my body.”
She makes it seem almost easy to become a chef, equip a retaurant, hire staff, create a menu.
But her personal life is never as neatly organized as her food. She loses a “golden girlfriend” when she marries an Italian doctor looking for his green card. It’s an adventure at first, later a chore, then just an idea. They have two sons, whom she adores and she discovers the sated pleasure of the large Italian family they visit in Puglia every summer.
Here Hamilton begins to lose her way in the book. She loves those Italians, yet never learns to speak Italian. She loves their simple, honest food, yet longs to change it.
One of the reasons she’s so successful is she’s not very good at compromise. She works as hard and needs people to do what she tells them,.
She can never express her feelings to husband Michele — at least that’s how she tells it — she never communicates much with her own family, not seeing her mother for 20 years.
And it seems there’s no halfway point. In the memoir, her pain and discomfort show. Put her in front of a stove, and she’s fine. Take her out of her element and the skills she honed for success serve her not at all.
She finds dark comfort in being miserable and wants to share that with her readers.
It’s a definite downer in what had been an exciting, funny, amazing story.
Hamilton adds a note at the end: “I have compressed, contracted and subtly rearranged time in several instances, effectively reducing two or three or four consecutive years into one. And I have conflated several recurring similar events into one for clarity, drive, and momentum.”
That makes the reader pause, certainly. Is she so unhappy, or is that a writing device? Is she Zenlike with her food, or is that how she would like to feel?
Still, the way Hamilton tells the story is compelling, full of luscious food and food talk, written with passion and without secret recipes.
If you like food with a story, this book may be on your menu. If you like a story with some food, I’d still order it, with a side of salt.