Anthony Bourdain’s reputation causes people to take notice when quoted on the cover of a book as saying, “Simply the best memoir by a chef. Ever.” The book that caused such a reaction is Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef (Random House, 2011, $30) which chronicles Gabrielle Hamilton’s rise to becoming a renowned chef and acclaimed author. The memoir opens with an enchanting account of her upbringing in rural Pennsylvania. From her French mother she learned kitchen skills and how to pronounce French dishes properly; from her American father she learned how to throw elaborate parties — outdoor spring lamb roasts, Valentine’s Day feasts, winter soirées inspired by Dr. Zhivago. Visiting an Italian butcher shop each year with her father to collect fresh lambs, she recounts how “the paraphernalia of butchery may be repulsive to some. But to me, hacksaws, cleavers, and band saws all looked manageable and appealing.” This early knowledge became a driving force and a chronic memory for Hamilton, for over thirty years.
Unfortunately, charming family life only lasted as memories — her parents divorced when she was eleven, she started working restaurants at thirteen to make her own money, and moved to New York City fresh out of high school, meagrely living on a jar of change for three months until landing her first waitressing job. Laced with corruption and drugs, that first job introduced her to a high-living lifestyle that left her with less money than she had arrived with and facing felony charges for stealing from the restaurant. She was only seventeen, the charges did not proceed and she was relieved to find herself as a college freshman with no criminal record.
Later in life, as a freelance caterer, she worked long, hard shifts, and as a summer camp cook prepared meals for camp kids, who turned out to be the pickiest of eaters; she writes, “I felt more distressed by a nine-year-old’s disgust with a fleck of basil in his tomato sauce than I had in the entire previous decade when ostensibly more serious failures had occurred.” She paints a picture of hard-working drudgery at weddings and corporate events, but the menu planning, food ordering, and kitchen cleaning at the camp sound like pleasant, outdoor work, reminiscent of the family lamb roasts.
Aside from cooking, Hamilton ached to be a writer, but was too tired after freelance cooking to put in the effort. About her cooking career, she writes, “What had started as a quick and urgent necessity … had become a lifetime, a life style, and a life lived gazing over at the greener pasture. I had wanted to do so much more, somehow, than spend my days with my hands thrust into a bowl of micro-greens lightly dressed with aged balsamic and garnished with toasted pumpkin seed and roasted apricots. I had always wanted to contribute in some way.” These thoughts urged her to quit the catering scene, to enrol in an MFA program, and to get the backing to become a writer. Surrounded by academics, she felt like an outcast around the other students and immediately yearned to be in a kitchen again. A few years later she opened Prune, her restaurant in New York’s East Village, doubting she had the credentials to take on such a venture, but believing in a vision of what her restaurant would become.
As much as this book is about her food world, it is also about Hamilton’s lifelong pursuit of meaning in life and efforts to fit in with both her blood family and her marital family. Even more unexpected than opening a restaurant was how her marriage snuck up on her. The family life of her pleasant early memories is not what Hamilton stumbles into when starting her own family (with a hastily-planned wedding to an Italian doctor, resulting in a functioning marriage but a husband who does not live in the same household as her and their two sons). She even admits her mother-in-law, who they visit in Italy every summer and is proficient in old school Italian cooking, is “a very compelling reason to stay married to him,” mostly because the women’s only form of communication is through the names of Italian food.
Even with a successful restaurant, the call to write stayed with Hamilton, as a longing to leave her words behind as a legacy. She wanted to be more than temporary menus that came and went with daily dinner service. Thankfully, she pursued that goal and crafted a storytelling talent matching her culinary prowess. Her memoir tells delightful stories from a breadth of experience as a chef, restaurateur, caterer, and camp cook, as well as wonderful insights as a world traveller, a daughter, a wife, and a mother. As important as Hamilton’s New York restaurant is, her engaging and honest writing puts everything into perspective.
Darin Cook is a freelance writer based out of Chatham, who keeps himself well-read and well-fed by visiting the bookstores and restaurants of London.