Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The meat of it.

I'm glad I picked up Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones, and Butter at the library last week. To be honest, I'm kind of burnt out on the whole celebrity-chef-memoir genre (next, Not Without My Crocs: The Mario Batali Story.).

However! Even if you do feel similarly, Hamilton's memoir is definitely worth reading, because even though she is a chef, she's also a writer - and it shows in her unusually well-crafted book.

Does every cook have that moment when the clouds part, the angels sing, and they realize their life's calling is to wear unattractive footwear, do copious amounts of drugs, and make dubious life choices while hanging over a six-burner?

For Anthony Bourdain, it was summers in France. For Ruth Reichl, it was learning to pound schnitzel paper-thin from her family's housekeeper. If anyone asked me why I learned to cook, I'd have to trace it back to being fed things like incinerated fish and bleeding meatloaf. I come from a long line of women who cannot cook, and by cannot cook I don't mean things like, they're not really into cooking but you are probably not going to die from eating their food. I mean things like, you are going to be served a combination of raw and/or carbonized food (sometimes in the same dish!) that even the dogs are not going to want.

I can understand not liking to cook or not being particularly creative in the kitchen. That's why I like baking - there's less room for error, and as long as you have a dependable recipe, you're golden. But there really isn't an excuse for not being able to figure out, after several decades of cooking, how to cook a potato so it isn't still crunchy when it hits the plate.

Hamilton opens her memoir in rural Pennsylvania, where she lived in a disintegrating mill with a slew of siblings, her charming raconteur artist father, and her chic French mother, Madeleine. Madeleine is a superb cook, and Hamilton recalls the family's annual lamb roasts and Madeleine's genius in the kitchen in shimmering and tangible prose.

Hamilton's parents divorced as she hit adolescence, and neither parent seemed overly concerned about how their children were fending. Hamilton lies about her age and takes a series of waitressing jobs in local restaurants, then heads for New York City at sixteen, where she becomes a waitress at the fabled Lone Star Cafe. Hamilton falls into job after job in the restaurant industry, always the most unglamorous (catering companies, cooking for a children's summer camp) before finding the abandoned French bistro that would become her tiny and famous restaurant, Prune.

Hamilton's memoir is interspersed with a number of sometimes-rants about the restaurant industry and, in the age of reality shows and Top Chef, the cult of the chef-as-celebrity. I found Blood extremely refreshing - unlike Bourdain, who purported to strip the pretension and glamour from cooking and instead became enamoured with his own bad-boy image (yes, we get it. You did coke. Congratulations.), Hamilton appears to really, truly believe in working hard, making good food, and not asking your staff to do anything you wouldn't do yourself - which leads to a dry-heave inducing encounter with a maggoty rat.

Blood slows down once Hamilton opens Prune, lingering lovingly over the tiny restaurant's menu, interior, and the workings of the staff, but Hamilton is still searching for home, to recapture the security of the summer lamb roasts, which leads her to Apulia and her Italian husband's family before her marriage dissolves.

Blood can sometimes frustrate. Hamilton explains her improbable marriage as a sort of cheeky joke, and she writes about her strained relationship with her mother with the same opacity. The reader must remember that Hamilton, with her MFA in fiction, is probably more skillful at manipulating the narrative than your average hash-slinger, and I sense that much is glossed over or left out.

But Hamilton's skill as a writer is undeniable - tactile, often disgusting, quite frequently superb.

1 comment:

  1. Cooking? Food? Our family is challenged in the kitchen department. In so many ways.... Our grandmother couldn't cook but it's rumored that her husband could. Too bad they were only married 5 or less years. She made cookies that weren't fit to eat. She ruined Eggplant. Our own sainted mother refused to follow directions or believe the recipes. There were the blueish-green shortcakes that would choke a horse, bloody fried chicken, burnt pumpkin pie (you should have been there for the Pie Wars) - the list could and does go on and on.

    I like to eat and learned a thing or two from someone outside the family. Having a decent stove/oven is a plus. You have more to overcome than you know.

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