Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef - Gabrielle Hamilton

Garbrielle Hamilton brings a unique voice to the genre of chef memoirs.  Having read two of Anthony Bourdain's books last year, I was expecting something more along those lines: graphic descriptions of the underworld of cooking.  Hamilton took me by surprise with an entirely different route and one that I found altogether more pleasant than Bourdain's approach.
I'll admit that the first few chapters of the book, "Blood" had me a little confused at first, though not in a bad way at all.  Hamilton spends the first part of her memoir talking about her childhood - first the magic of it, and then the dis-function as her parents divorced and her siblings dissipated around the globe.  She gives stunning descriptions of the food her mother made for the lavish, themed parties her father threw.  These stories seemed to have very little to do with cooking, yet they were entirely enchanting.  Hamilton's writing is superb.  She weaves details into the story in an elegant, unforced way.  Her tales of her family and adolescent years are both intoxicating and heart-breaking.  My confusion stemmed from the fact that Hamilton took a very roundabout path into the culinary world.  She waitress-ed and worked for catering companies and then went to Michigan to study creative writing.

The middle section, Bones, is much more along the lines of what I initially expected from the book.  Hamilton tells the story of her transition into chef/owner of her NYC restaurant, Prune.  There are a few passages about the state of the abandoned space that became her restaurant that may make your stomach turn, but to see what she turns that space into is nothing less than astonishing.  It's easy to see why Prune is successful.  Hamilton talks about food in a no-nonsense way that makes you wonder why everyone doesn't cook like her.  Of course ingredients should be fresh and handled with love.  Why wouldn't they be?  Hamilton knows no other way at Prune or in her home kitchen.  Some may call this snobbery, but the woman is clearly unwilling to settle for anything less than excellent. I find that admirable, particularly after she spent so long in the catering industry, an place ripe with pretense and false advertising.

I especially enjoyed her chapter about being a female chef in the industry.  Hamilton describes her thought process during her participation in a panel of celebrity female chefs.  I resonate so strongly with her approach, not just in the culinary industry, but in all industries.  Why are we even classifying between male and female anything?  As Hamilton puts it:
"Even though I can't understand for one second what the difference is between a male chef and a female chef - the food has to be cooked and we all just cook it.  I simultaneously soar and cringe to be called one of New York City's top female chefs."
"Butter" transitions back to more of Hamilton's personal life.  Here she is a wife, a mother, an absorbent of her in-law's Italy.  Hamilton spends chapters talking about her family's annual pilgrimage to Italy to see her husband's family.  Her description of the enchanting experience, and then as it becomes stale with her marriage, are executed flawlessly.  There were multiple moments, especially in the final chapters, where all I could do was stare at the page in admiration of Hamilton's skill as an author.

This book is excellent.  Everything you could want from a chef's memoir.  Hamilton captures the spirit of the culinary world with the skill of an accomplished writer.  The marriage of the two skills is beautiful, inspiring, and perfectly executed.  Thank goodness she's not a musician as well, because then Hamilton would have conquered every aspect in my aspirations of creative success.  Even the title is a stroke of brilliance.  Blood - the examination of family life.  Bones - the framework of life.  Butter - the delightful things that make life so pleasant.  Hamilton explores all of this in some of the finest writing I have seen in a while.  I highly recommend it to foodies and fast-foodies alike.

Pages: 291
Date Finished: February 29, 2012

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