At the beginning of Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter, the New York City chef describes an annual lamb roast held at her childhood home in rural Pennsylvania. The description is an introduction to Hamilton's relationship to food and to her messy, lovable, dysfunctional family. But the most arresting thing about these first pages of the memoir is Hamilton's voice. There's a concentrated, virile, saturated quality to the prose, an almost claustrophobic intensity to the perch from which we observe Hamilton's life.
About a trip to the local butcher Hamilton writes, "Every time Joe opened the heavy wooden cooler door, I caught a good eyeful of carcasses hanging upside down with their tongues flopping out the sides of their bloody mouths and their eyes filmed-over, milky, and bulging, along with disembodied body parts — legs, heads, haunches, sides, ribs, looking like something in a Jack London story. I wanted to follow him in there. I wanted to be in with the meat and the knives and to wear the long bloody coat."
The book takes us from childhood, through the disintegration of Hamilton's parents' marriage and, in turn, family, into a lawless and untethered adolescence. After her mother, a French powerhouse of a home cook, leaves her father, Hamilton's world of family and food unravels. During an unsupervised summer in her teens, Hamilton finds self-sufficiency in the kitchen, and goes on to have an unglamorous culinary career, mainly as a caterer. After 20 years of life in the kitchen, Hamilton emerges as a tough, scarred, cigarette smoking, foul-mouthed cook. In fact, it's hard to reconcile the pretty 40-something blonde in her press photos with the persona she creates in the book, although it becomes increasingly clear that Hamilton's identity is all about dichotomies.
Eventually she lands in her current position, as owner and chef of Prune in New York's East Village, a tiny, highly personal restaurant that has gained international recognition over the years for its unpretentious brand of international comfort food, where you're as likely to get monkfish liver on toast as you are deviled eggs.
In recent years, food memoirs have become plentiful and, in many cases, tiring. If memoirs by definition are a study in artful narcissism, food memoirs seem particularly doomed: "I ate these wonderful things and had this wonderful life, woe is me, aren't you jealous?" But Hamilton avoids the standard pitfalls, mainly by delving way deeper than the average memoirist.
"If you look at the models, I thought, 'Who writes about this stuff?'" Hamilton says of chronicling the end of her childhood, her abandonment by much of her family, and the consequent years of aimlessness, drugs and theft. "What are my options? I mean you can be bitterly funny. Like David Sedaris is hysterical, right, but he reveals some stuff where you're just like, 'Whoa.' But I'm just not that funny. Or you can be overly earnest, and I was like, 'Well that's not my speed, either,'" she says.
Instead, Hamilton found her voice through the act of writing itself, which she says she did while cooking on the line at Prune, nursing babies and in the middle of the night.
"I would sit down to write a story that I knew so well, and had been told so many times over the years and it felt so tired and old to me," Hamilton says. "I had to dig so much deeper, and when I did dig deeper I realized that they had exactly the opposite feeling or emotion or outcome than what I had been telling for years."
That lamb roast, for instance, was a story she'd told over and over. But when Hamilton sat down to write it, she overturned a newer, truer meaning to the experience. "It has to be 30-something years I had told the story of that lamb roast with a tone of, 'Ah, fuck it all,'" Hamilton says. "And it was only in the writing of it that I realized I loved my family. I didn't even know it, I'd been telling it for so long, in a very jaded, defensive kind of way. I realized that we tell stories in a way that we can package it so we feel comfortable. Even if it's our failures, we've figured out a way to tell those stories very humorously, or in a very calculated, self-deprecating way, and I just jettisoned all that old stale crap and dug deeper, deeper, deeper down where the water was still clean and sweet."
Hamilton's nontraditional upbringing and personal life — she married and has children with a man she has never lived with — mirror her nontraditional route to her position as celebrated chef. She travels and cooks, but mainly finds herself working in catering kitchens or at summer camps. The food experiences that ultimately build the philosophy behind Prune are culled mainly from childhood, friendship and self-discovery, not in the classroom of a culinary school or at the apron strings of some master chef. When writing about her life as a chef, Hamilton pulls no punches. One of the book's most memorable passages involves human excrement and a maggoty rat carcass — hardly the food porn we've come to expect from culinary memoirs.
Blood, Bones & Butter is a book about becoming a chef, but it's also a book about becoming a writer. In her 20s, Hamilton moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., for a masters of fiction writing program at the University of Michigan. Throughout the experience she works at a catering company and struggles with the question of whether she fits in with the school's writers and academics. In the end, her strongest bonds are made over the steel tables of the prep kitchen and not in the reading circles of her fellow students.
The life Hamilton chronicles has been a battle between her need for autonomy and the urge to re-create the comfort of the family she lost. It's obvious how the dysfunctional world of the kitchen — where toughness, independence and camaraderie are valued above all else — could provide that dichotomy. It's less clear how writing a memoir would achieve either goal, until you take into account Hamilton's take on writing. At one point in the narrative, during a particularly dramatic poetry reading she attends for grad school, Hamilton observes of the poet, "she still thinks writing is about self expression." So what is writing about for Hamilton, if not self-expression?
"I tried to write very much the way I learned to cook and work in the service industry, and that is I'm here to take care of you," she says. "My job is to make sure you have everything you need to relate to the story and understand it. My job is to recede, not to say, 'Hey look at me.' I know that's a weird thing to say when you just wrote a memoir."
Weird or not, Hamilton gets away with it. Blood, Bones & Butter achieves a generosity in its revelations that feels very much like nourishment.
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