Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Blood, Bones, and Butter

Warning:  This is one of my rare departures from children's lit, and like most of my rare departures, this is a memoir meant for adults.  As if the book cover didn't already tell you that.

Much like Anthony Bourdain (whose blurb graces this book), Gabrielle Hamilton didn't set out to become a chef, instead she kept falling back into it.  Her mother was a French ballerina who took great care in her home and cooking, and Gabrielle lovingly remembers those simple, yet elegant meals, and writes about them in such a way that readers will be salivating.  After her family breaks up, Gabrielle is left an alone and ambition-less teenager.  The only place that she can simultaneously earn money and cause trouble is the kitchen, so she lies about her age and starts working at diners.  She follows this path all the way to New York bars, where she is busted for serving alcohol underage.  She tries college and fails, cooks again, tries college again and it sticks, but she is not meant for full time academia, rather she needs to be in a chef's jacket. 

The most compelling chapters focus on her small New York restaurant, Prune, and her unusual marriage arrangement to an Italian doctor and his large Italian family.  While the whole book is beautifully written, the ending, spent mostly in Italy, is the highlight maybe because Americans are more comfortable with Italian cuisine than French, or maybe because the love of her adopted homeland is so vivid.  

For all of the good points of this book, I do have some warnings.  I have a high language tolerance, meaning that a few dozen swear words do not faze me--I worked at a car dealership after all.  And honestly, Hamilton does not outright swear so much in this book as she does mention that when working the line her language would make a greasy car salesman blush like a school girl.  Also, her life is not all perfectly plated meals and linen tablecloths.  The bulk of the book is spent talking about her shortcomings, the drug use, bad relationships, hard family situation, and seedy underbelly of the restaurant industry.  One minute you are dying to try her food, the next you are cringing at infestations so disgusting that I dare not write about them or I'll lose my breakfast.  It's not all lovely food, but it is an honest food memoir.

My biggest hang up with this book is that Hamilton seemed overfond of the flashback or aside.  At one point, she is describing a panel she presented with, only to flashback and get inside her head for whole pages, then circle back around to the original point.  It's like going to a Dave Matthew's concert and in the middle of Satellite he does such a long, involved guitar solo that you entirely forget what song is being played in the first place.  (Then again, I was likely the only person at that concert who was not drunk or high--I was only 20 and still pretty innocent at that.)  I apologize for my own reminiscent aside, but now you can see how that can be annoying.

I would recommend Blood, Bones, and Butter to the right reader, but I am not sure who that would be. Some foodies would likely be insulted by the jabs at Food Network.  Restauranteurs would have already seen this before and likely feel that Hamilton has nothing to add.  But wannabe food adventurers like me--people that given the time and money would love to travel and eat crazy food, people who frankly love Anthony Bourdain because you feel dangerous and worldly by extension--will  like this book.  If you want crass honesty about cooking, passionate writing about food, and a general toughness in an author, then Hamilton will serve you well.

Happy Reading!

PS.  I did entirely read this book based on a blurb from Anthony Bourdain.  To see how I feel about book blurbs, check out this post.  

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