Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef
This memoir was the February selection of “The Huffington Post” book club. I anticipated that this would be a similar book to Heat, Bill Buford’s hilarious account of his year of apprenticeship in a New York restaurant kitchen. Gabrielle Hamilton’s book is much more, however. It is a coming of age story, a search-for-life’s meaning memoir and a primer in food preparation all rolled into one delectable package.
Blood, Bones and Butter is divided into three more or less distinct sections. In the first part, the author describes a counter-cultural upbringing. Her mother is French and loves to cook. She has an almost magical power of being able to create a meal out of any available ingredients. Her father is an artist of sorts, working as a set designer for theaters in northern New Jersey. Gabrielle is exposed to a Bohemian lifestyle of backyard parties featuring roasted lamb, fancy pasta and vegetable salads prepared by her mother as well as large volumes of wine and marijuana. Gabrielle and her siblings are abandoned by their parents when she is about 12. A divorce sends her mother into an emotional shell. Mom eventually retreats to a new home in Vermont leaving the “care” of the children to her irresponsible ex-husband. Gabrielle attends alternative education schools popular in the 70s and finishes secondary school at age 16. She supports herself with a series of jobs in local restaurants, starting out busing tables and mopping floors. She also begins a drug habit and supplements her meager income by shoplifting. After graduation Gabrielle moves in with her older sister in Manhattan. She works in bars and learns how to skim money from the customers by destroying some charge tickets and pocketing the money. She also learns to recreationally enjoy cocaine and realizes that she is a lesbian. She is eventually caught stealing by her boss and reaches a plea bargain since she was underage for working as a barmaid. Gabrielle straightens herself out to some degree, at least enough to complete an undergraduate degree, all the while working in more restaurants and learning how to cook on the fly. Following college she travels the globe for the better part of two years, experiencing many new and different things, particularly unique food and food preparation. When she returns to New York, she incorporates much of what she learned on these travels into her cooking career. She works as a contract chef for large catering companies in New York, a job which consumes eighteen to twenty hours per day and leaves her creatively and professionally unfulfilled.
Gabrielle describes her life at this point as “a piece of performance art.” She feels no sense of purpose and decides that what she really wants to be is a writer. She has a glorified view of what the life of a poet/artist/writer would be like (undoubtedly influenced by her upbringing) and applies to multiple MFA programs. She is accepted to and decides to attend the program at the University of Michigan, even though she had never been to the Midwest. She develops a resentment towards the other students in her program, finding them to be effete pseudo-intellectuals. Gabrielle takes another chef job to help ends meet and finds herself catering huge tailgate parties. Her culinary creations are limited to barbecue, big slabs of beef and sandwiches. She finishes the MFA program but quickly decides she misses “The City” and moves back to New York. She finds herself absorbed back into the hectic contract chef business when an opportunity to open her own restaurant presents itself. She works night and day to figure out how to run a small business and opens her now famous restaurant “Prune” in the East Village. The story digresses here a bit as Gabrielle writes of the difficulties of being female in a business dominated by males. This concludes the second section of Blood, Bones and Butter.
It is in the third section of the book where the author’s creative writing talent really shines. She describes the endless, grueling work running Prune but her sense of accomplishment rings through here as well. One of her regular customers, a male Italian research physician begins to court her and, to everyone’s surprise they marry. They maintain separate residences and careers but manage to conceive two sons. Gabrielle and her husband take off every July and travel to Italy to spend time with his family. Over the years Gabrielle learns the simple pleasures of country Italian living and especially cooking. She describes one shopping trip in the small town:
“Then I go to the market. On this, the first day back in Leuca, I am happy to see some my old favorites again: the puntarelle, the Leccese green beans, the small dense zucchini, and the eggplant. I buy big bundles of all of them and lots of peaches and a watermelon. Alda eats fruit after each meal and I think my kids will eat the watermelon. The meat is dismal as usual but there is a fish stall with some good-looking stuff. I get an octopus. A ranzino. A few pounds of head-on shrimp.”
Despite a language barrier she forms a very strong bond with her mother-in-law Alda. It is in this extended family of eccentrics and very uncomplicated but contented folks that the author finds peace with herself, her own family and her career.
This book was a total joy to read. The images that the author creates of Italy are outstanding. She draws very detailed character sketches using a paucity of words and descriptions. I would recommend this book highly to anyone who enjoys food, cooking, travel and in particular, fine writing