Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Review: "Blood, Bones & Butter" by Gabrielle Hamilton

 Gabrielle Hamilton has never been to a culinary institute or apprenticed herself to a professional chef. She learned to cook from the lessons taught by two sublime tutors: Hospitality and Starvation.

After her parent's divorce, Gabrielle is left behind--literally--in an empty house to fend for herself. She offers herself up to the restaurant life, relying on bravado and the cooking skills learned at her mother's elbow to hide the fact that she is only a cigarette-smoking thirteen-year-old who steals cars.

By force of will and a healthy amount of luck, Gabrielle survives her teenage years. She wanders through urban hotspots and European villages, where the alternation of desperate hunger with the generosity of strangers forms her dream of the eclectic, all-embracing restaurant she will someday own. Vagrant, dropout, activist, she toys with a dozen different identities, but in the end she always wanders back to her passion and to her gift: cooking.

  3 out of 5 stars

I have never yet found a chef memoir to surpass Bill Buford's Heat, but that doesn't stop me from enjoying the search! In Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, Gabrielle Hamilton offers a vivid and often comedic--if scatterbrained--picture of her own  unorthodox road into the professional kitchen. And out of it. And then back in again. Repeat as necessary.

Hamilton writes luscious descriptions that make my mouth water. However, her memoir is best treated as a series of unrelated anecdotes than as a cohesive narrative. She moves forwards and backwards in time without rhyme of reason. Missing chunks of time become potholes, jarring the flow of the narrative. ("Wait, when were you in India?" I asked, and received no answer.) Late in the book, she returns to her childhood and casually drops a bombshell about mental illness and abuse--significant details that were left out of her first version of events. It's certainly a lively saga, but it does not make for smooth reading.

Hamilton offers herself up in the memoir without much flattery. (Let's assume a line between Gabrielle-Hamilton-the-subject and Gabrielle-Hamilton-the-living-person.) Reading it, one gets the impression of a flighty, adventurous, self-centered young woman who doesn't learn from her mistakes as much as one might hope. The character of Gabrielle Hamilton seems like the kind of person one would enjoy meeting at a party, but not welcome as a trustworthy friend. On the other hand, that's what makes memoirs so fun: all of the juicy anecdotes of a person's life, none of the personal investment.

But let me return to the talk of food--which is what we really want from a chef's memoirs.

Most of the "meat" of the book--and the clearest narrative thread--revolves around the development of her restaurant Prune. Hamilton's globetrotting years have a strong influence on her relationship with food and hospitality. When planning a restaurant of her own, she falls back on the wealth of memory:
I didn't have an ounce of what typically matters, but I had all that [memories of food.] And I wanted to bring all of it, every last detail of it--the old goat herder smoking filterless cigarettes coming down the mountain, crushing oregano and wild mint underfoot; Iannis cooking me two fried eggs without even asking me if I cared for something to eat; that sweet, creamy milk that the milk wallah in Delhi frothed by pouring in a long sweeping arc between two pots held as far apart as the full span of his arms from his cart decorated with a thousand fresh marigolds--into this tiny thirty-seat restaurant. I wanted the lettuce and eggs at room temperature. The waiter to bring you something to eat or drink that you didn't even ask for when you arrived cold and early and undone by your day in the city. 

I wanted the toasted manti from a Turkish wedding I'd been part of in Göreme-Nevşehir, the butter and sugar sandwiches we ate as kids after school for a snack, the tarnished silver and chipped wedding china from a paladar in Havana, and the canned sardines I ate in that little apartment on Twenty-Ninth Street. The veal marrow my mother made us eat as kids that I grew to crave as an adult. We would have brown butcher paper on the tables, not linen tablecloths, and when you finished your meal, the server would just pull the pen from behind her ear and scribble the bill directly on the paper like Margarita had done. We would use jelly jars for wine glasses. We would put a rubber band around the middle of the wine bottle like I had done with Kostas and Iannis in Athens, and if you wanted to drink only half, you could pay for just half. 

There would be no foam and no "conceptual" or "intellectual" food; just the sweet, starchy, brothy, crispy things that one craves when one is actually hungry.
I'm not convinced that I, personally, want all of that in my restaurant experience. Canned sardines? I attempted to recreate her first meal in Greece--apple, milk, and honey foamed together in a blender--and found that it's better to imagine than to eat, unless perhaps you are homeless and starving at the time (as Hamilton was.) However, it's a mouth-watering series of flavor images.

Hamilton does not use her powers of descriptions only for good. Even the hardiest of readers will flinch when she tells about her first excursion into the boarded-up venue that eventually becomes Prune. The abandoned diner is a virtual crypt, left sealed for years while dough ossifies on the pastry station and lamb shanks decompose in the powered-down freezers. At a summer camp which Hamilton caters, teenaged counselors murder thirty lobsters in a marijuana-fueled attempt to rescue them. (Pro tip: ocean-dwelling creatures don't thrive in tap water.) As Hamilton says, "forty-five pounds of massacre of anything is hard to stomach, [even] giant stupid seabugs."

Occasionally, she whips out a brilliant turn of phrase, flexing her poetic muscles. Some of my favorites: As a child, laughing along without comprehending her siblings' off-color jokes, she "holds on to the leash of their banter, which ran like a rowdy sheepdog twice my own weight, but I would not let go."

Later, enduring marriage counseling, she offers this scathing analogy for the limitations of "I feel" statements: "having a constantly full bladder but never being allowed to let it out, but for a tablespoon at a time."

Her stylistic downfall is the aside. Hamilton squanders em-dashes to a degree that puts even me to shame. Page after page--heck, paragraph after paragraph--I lost the train of her sentences in a maze of lengthy tangents.  The evocative yet disjointed prose mirrors the book's flaws as a whole. It's a small confirmation that Hamilton did the right thing in forsaking her intended career as a writer to follow her greater talent as a chef.

Considered as anecdotes, or as a compilation of (undated) journal entries, these scenes from Hamilton's life are memorable and fun to read, but the lack of cohesion makes it suffer. Even "true stories" need a sense of linkage and purpose to guide the reader through the minutiae of another person's rise and fall. Still, I enjoyed the memoir, flaws and all. I'm happy to add it to my shelf of foodie memoirs, and happy to recommend it to other vicarious would-be chefs among my readers.

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 3/5
Strength of Characterization: 4/5
Logic of Plot Development: 2/5
Evocation of Setting: 4/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 2/5
Resolution of Conflict: n/a
Emotional Engagement: 3/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast:  pass
Content Warning: child abuse, animal death

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