From the opening pages of Chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir Blood, Bones & Butter, you are quickly transported into her childhood world of rope swings, lamb roasts, and small town life in rural Pennsylvania. You can almost hear the clanging of pots and pans as her mother, “who knew how to get anything comestible from a shin or neck of some animal,” cooks for the family of seven on her six-burner Garland stove. Or as her father – a set designer – worked on shows like the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, and the kids were allowed to join him on the job and “run up and down mountains of rolled black and blue velour” and “dip our hands into oil drums full of glitter.”
Hamilton’s debut is subtitled, The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. From her early days at her mother’s side in the kitchen, through numerous jobs cooking for Manhattan catering companies, and a couple of years spent traveling her way around the world, working in cafes and bars, her education was perhaps inadvertent, but an education nonetheless. She ultimately opened Prune – a small, yet exceedingly popular restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village.
Blood, Bones & Butter is a deeply personal memoir spanning Hamilton’s childhood, through her tumultuous teenage years – when her parents divorce and she is more or less left to fend for herself – to the time she opens Prune and marries an Italian man with whom she’ll ultimately have two children, through annual vacations to Italy where she, in some respects, finds herself.
At times however, Hamilton holds back just enough information for readers to fill in the gaps themselves. It’s much like an experienced chef that never tells you exactly how their signature dish is made. Do you blanch the vegetables first? Was that sherry vinegar I tasted? Other moments are painfully or poignantly vivid, like, “…the oppressive heavy wet burden of snow slides off the roof of my soul in one giant thawing chunk and suddenly I feel clear, light, and permissive,” written when Hamilton reconciles with her mother after 20-some years.
Much like her father, who said, “Everybody else does the bones and makes sure the thing doesn’t fall down. I do the romance,” Hamilton has woven her life’s story and passion for food into an entertaining, engaging, and romantic book. Yes, there are ups and downs. But even when writing about killing rats, scrubbing floors, and discovering human shit on the back stoop of the crumbling space she will ultimately transform into a restaurant, her striking prose draws you in, even if it sometimes leaves you yearning for more. If I could have it my way, Blood, Bones & Butter would not be just one volume, but a trilogy, where Hamilton writes more in depth and fills in some of the gaps for me.
That’s right, dear readers – I’m giving away a copy of Blood, Bones & Butter. Please leave a comment below listing your Top 3 favorite food books. They can be non-fiction, fiction, memoirs, classics, beach reads, cookbooks, whatever. Just leave your comment by Thursday, March 10th. A winner will be announced on March 11th by noon, PST.
Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of Blood, Bones & Butter prior to its release from Random House Publishing. I read it and reviewed it for my column in the Seattle Weekly. Then, they sent me another (complimentary) copy upon its release. Two copies! Of a book I’ve already read. That’s good news for you, because one of them can now be yours.
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