Book review: 'Blood, Bones & Butter'

Posted Wednesday, July 27, 2011 in Culture

Book review: 'Blood, Bones & Butter'

BLOOD, BONES & BUTTER: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

by Gabrielle Hamilton

Random House, 2011

291 pages, $26

ISBN 978-1-4000-6872-2

reviewed by Lee E. Cart

In her debut memoir, chef Gabrielle Hamilton takes the reader on a culinary adventure from her childhood home in “the burnt-out ruins of a nineteenth-century silk mill” to sipping a negroni (an Italian cocktail) and looking at the sea from the balcony of “an actual giant villa by the actual sea in Italy.” Spanning more than 25 years, Hamilton’s cleaver-sharp prose cuts to the bone of her life, filleting open her childhood loneliness, her longing for connections with her estranged family, and the awkward acceptance into her new Italian family that came with her green-card marriage to an Italian man.

Hamilton’s roots in cooking stem from her parents’ lavish dinner parties under the night skies of Pennsylvania. The sweetness of roasted lamb prepared over an open fire and beers stored in the nearby cold stream were the training ground for Hamilton’s love of food. But Hamilton is also willing to share the bitter essences of the cooking life. She works in run-down cafés where everyone is on the take and/or high on drugs and alcohol, and freelances for large catering factories cranking out volume food for hundreds in airless, windowless kitchens by chefs who are nothing more than “a revolving and ever-interchangeable warm body in a rented chef coat who [knows] not one thing about what a homemade mayonnaise might be.”

As she searches for the perfect blend of ingredients, whether in France where eggs sit at room temperature for crêpe batter, or in Italy where the black-eyed peas are “so tender and young that their ‘black eyes’ [are] actually pinkish purple,” Hamilton finds some meaning to life in the simple things. She discovers “the smell of cured Italian meats and scamorza and dried oregano,” and the taste of handmade orrechiette and a “sgroppino — that lively dessert drink of prosecco and vodka and lemon ice cream.” But even as she satisfies her physical hunger, Hamilton is still searching — for love, for connections, for something more than just cooking. She writes her way through a master’s program in Fine Arts at the University of Michigan and finds satisfaction in the mix and swirl of words.  

With a novel-in-progress in her apron pocket, Hamilton unexpectedly turns another corner in her life, leaving the arena of freelance chef for that of restaurant owner/operator.

Hamilton is undaunted by the task of transforming a former bankrupt restaurant — its coolers full of rotten 2-year-old food, its floors so covered in rat droppings that they grabbed like “old glue traps,” and “cockroaches crawling over bread baskets and sticky bottles of Pernod” — into a New York City bistro, Prune, complete with an antique zinc bar, mirrored walls, and tiny hexagonal tiles on the floor. With this business come new headaches and responsibilities but also the refreshing knowledge that this is where Hamilton belongs, bringing her clients “just the salty, sweet, starchy, brothy, crispy things that one craves when one is actually hungry.”  It is here, at Prune, that Hamilton meets her Italian husband and becomes the mother of two young boys.

Hamilton’s writing has appeared in publications such as “The New Yorker,” “Bon Appetit” and “Food and Wine.” She has also appeared on Martha Stewart's TV show and on the Food Network. In this memoir, the reader is taken on a culinary journey that comforts the heart and pleases the stomach like a three-course meal at a five-star restaurant, leaving one satiated and yet dreaming of the next meal to come.

The New Maine Times would like to welcome Lee Cart, who is an intern book reviewer under our regular book reviewer, William Bushnell. Please send any comments to editor@newmainetimes.org and the editor will see that she gets them.

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