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

by Gabrielle Hamilton

Rating: 3.4/5.0

Publisher: Random House

I can empathize with Gabrielle Hamilton. The tag line on the jacket of her book reads, “The inadvertent education of a reluctant chef.” To be clear, we have virtually nothing in common, different generations, different appetites for risk, different everything, but I can empathize. I know what it is like to meander and then stumble into a chosen profession only to find out you were meant to be there all along, and I understand that realization comes with a good deal of reluctant thinking. Over the course of Hamilton’s memoir, Blood, Bones and Butter, she lays out the winding path she took to being a critically lauded chef-owner of Prune in New York City. The path to that acclaim is decidedly one that is of the “road less traveled” variety. Of course, I’m not a chef, but what I do know is that Hamilton’s unique ability to render her journey in a way that is relatable to anyone that has walked the bumpy path from their twenties to their thirties and beyond is what makes Blood, Bones and Butter so compelling.

Her route from working as an underage, coked-out waitress in early ’80s New York to the entrepreneurial, quasi-celebrity restaurant proprietor in today’s New York is littered with a lifetime of experiences that contrast sharply from one to the next. Whether it be her childhood idyll in rural, eastern Pennsylvania that was exploded by divorce or her stated preference for women being interrupted by an affair with an Italian doctor that produced two children, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to invoke the cliché of her life being akin to a roller coaster ride.

Her experiences are punctuated by vivid memories of the food that insinuated itself into many of her life’s seminal moments. At the moment the idea of her parents’ divorce becomes a reality in the kitchen of her youth, memories of the food that framed the scene are paramount. Upon witnessing her parents’ final marital dust-up, she describes her father’s petulant emptying of the contents of the table, “…the bread knife, the bread, the hunks of dry cured salami, the Jarlsberg cheese, the radishes, his beer bottle, butter, hard boiled eggs and cornichons were suddenly scattered across the kitchen, and I was on all fours gathering it all up.” Later on, in her own marriage, the metaphor she uses for her husband’s ravioli is a candidate for the most seductively written sentence ever committed to paper in the food category: “They were small and delicate and a beautiful yellow from the yolks in the pasta dough and you could see the herbs and the ricotta through the dough, like a woman behind the shower curtain.”

It is through food memories like these and their indelible indent on her psyche that Hamilton’s philosophy is shaped. Her solo backpacking trip across Europe dominates the middle part of the work and is, perhaps, the only set piece in the book without a contrasting experience to counterbalance it. In Greece, broke, hungry, alone and rattled near the end of her trip, she finds solace in a simple meal of fried eggs, crusty bread and milk blended with apple and honey, served by a friend of her sister’s she had met only moments before. It was a moment that repeated itself so many times over the course of her European adventure, “To be picked up and fed, often by strangers, when you are in that state of fear and hunger, became the single most important and convincing food experience I came back to over and over… wondering how I might translate such an experience into the restaurant I was now sure I was about to open.”

While lovingly delivered images of meals and ingredients abound throughout the memoir, it is no mere chef’s autobiography, meant as a love note to a person and their craft. She is able to pull universal details from her life and relate them as well as she describes any life-altering dinner, and that is what separates Hamilton from some of her other peers who have attempted autobiographies. Her description of the frustrated writer resonates as much as much anything in the book. Well before she was an acclaimed restaurateur, she was a mercenary caterer and found herself on the outside looking in as she served lunch to a writer’s conference: “But what began as a nagging discontent… turned into a full-blown crisis as I was wheeling a proofing cabinet of two hundred boxed lunches… A roomful of people who did just the kind of work I wished I could do. For the first time in my twenty years in the kitchen I felt a real sting to be feeding, and not mingling with, the roomful of people.”

The last third of the book deals with the realization of her vision in the opening of her restaurant and her frenetic affair and then marriage to the charmingly frustrating Dr. Michele Fuortes. Her depiction of falling in love with his southern Italian family and their pastoral compound plays off the decline of what started as a torrid affair. As it begins to cool off and emotional distance sets in, her description of the deterioration proves apt, smartly calling back to the seductive ravioli described before: “Over the years, he has never once raised his voice to me; rather he has quietly and steadily, item by item, withheld the glitter, the motorcycle rides, the sandwiches, the spinning classes back-to-back, the sunset negronis, the cold apricot juice and hot coffee in the mornings, and now like that long ago plate of courtship ravioli, I am left with the inedible contents of those gorgeous little packets. Undernourished.”

If I could find one exception to Hamilton’s handling of her life story it would be in the dismissal of her longtime, unnamed girlfriend, described as the great love of her life, after her affair with the Italian doctor. Swept aside with a single paragraph, it is clear she has no desire to delve into the underlying reasons in any great depth. This is nitpicking though; even her short treatment of the separation catalogs the kind of devolution into familiarity and dullness that anyone who has been in a long term relationship can identify with.

What you come to understand by the end of Blood, Bones and Butter is that for all of the ups and downs of Hamilton’s life, it is through her restaurant that she finds stability. It’s telling that she named her restaurant Prune, harkening back to one of the earliest scenes of the book when, as a kid, she sat on her mother’s lap at the kitchen table, her mother calling her “Pruney” as she exhaled from her cigarette. It recalls the last time in her life when she had security, the time before her parents’ divorce spent roaming her pastoral home, barefoot with her siblings. Decades later, after winning the 2011 James Beard Foundation award for the Best Chef in New York, she mused on the attention that the award and the book had brought her: “I just want to be wearing ratty clothes in my apron again. I’m rewarding myself for the book by cleaning Prune. It’s all I want to do – lose myself by cleaning and scrubbing Prune, looking like shit. I am fantasizing about it, in fact.” After a life spent riding the ups and downs, Gabrielle Hamilton has constructed a landing pad for herself, a place to step off the proverbial roller coaster.

by Tom Volk

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