Celebrity Chef’s Memoir: Gabrielle Hamilton’s “Blood, Bones, and Butter”
“I was sad to put the book down but glad not to be married to its author” (from the San Diego Union Tribune)
With over-the-top blurbs from Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali, excerpts in The New Yorker and praise in The New York Times, Gabrielle Hamilton’s “Blood, Bones & Butter” is on its way to the best-seller lists and deservedly so. This celebrity chef’s memoir follows the path of Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” and is likewise divided into three parts identified in its tripartite title.
“Blood” begins in childhood with the summer parties her hippie parents would host in rural Pennsylvania, where tables consisted of plywood and sawhorses, jug wine cooled in the creek, and paper lanterns illuminated the night. In those heady days, hundreds would come: both their workaday neighbors and glitterati from New York. Then one day, out of the blue, Hamilton’s mother (a French cook and former ballerina) announced she was divorcing Hamilton’s father (a set designer for New York theaters). Hamilton remembers that moment in a peculiar way: “The diced onions and paprika and wine and cubed beef my mother had arranged. … His Kronenbourg beer and his salami and a hunk of Jarlsberg.”
With parents headed in opposite directions, 13-year-old Gabrielle was effectively abandoned for the summer at the Pennsylvania farmhouse; she cadged food by working in a local restaurant. Already a prodigy at independent living, she then relocated to New York at the age of 16 and continued waitressing until she was caught with her hand in the till. Then, to escape the clutches of the district attorney, young Gabrielle enrolled at Hampshire College, where, she reports, university life consisted of yurts, Ultimate Frisbee and discussions of Third World feminism.
“Bones,” the second section of the book, might be called “What I did after graduating.” Summers, she worked as a cook at a summer camp where she learned kids will eat anything as long as they are shaped into nuggets. The other nine months she was employed in “the worst corner of the food industry”: catering weddings and large events, prepping thousands of appetizers in factory kitchens in downtown Gotham. But one day Hamilton was catering the fall conference of the National Book Foundation, and she saw “all those writers in there” (Grace Paley, Galway Kinnell, Jamaica Kincaid) and thought she wanted to be in there too, sitting down. So, after winning a fellowship, Hamilton moved to the University of Michigan to earn a master’s degree in creative writing.
Ultimately, these flashbacks and others lead to today’s celebrity chef Gabrielle Hamilton and her famed Prune restaurant on the Lower East Side — though the price of glamour, she strenuously emphasizes, is a killer workload of 15- and 20-hour days. So, it is close to miraculous that she found the time to meet her Italian boyfriend, Michele, then to wrestle with the notion that — despite her longtime lesbian partner — she might have been a closet heterosexual all along. Half guilty, she imagines her wedding as only a skit so Michele can get his green card. Soon there are kids and a making-up with Mama: Gabrielle takes her kids to see their grandmother, and no one can think of any reason why they have not talked for the last 20 years.
“Butter,” the third section, concerns her other family, her Italian in-laws. Gabrielle is like the character played by Tilda Swinton in the movie “I Am Love,” the Outsider Wife who is slowly admitted into a perfect Milanese family. Every July, countless family members assemble at the ancestral home in Puglia, and Gabrielle en famille flies into their world of afternoon meals on long tables outside and a life she describes as full of aioli and diapers. Here, she happily joins her in-laws in the kitchen.
Nonetheless, Gabrielle sometimes feels out of place in the world of her in-laws (where everyone is comfortable with each other and speaking Italian), and this discomfort spirals inward until she is carrying on imaginary conversations with herself and harboring resentments. These interludes of injured soliloquy recall earlier episodes of unpleasantness — including the 15 days when her husband got the silent treatment because when she expected an expression of affection from him, he asked, instead, if he could buy an iPhone. Indeed, she often grows inwardly indignant when she imagines others have slighted her, but that reflex often says more about her martyred imagination than others’ behavior.
Nearing the end of the book, Alda, the grandmother, grows weak and the summer finally comes when she surrenders the kitchen in Puglia and the family cooking to Gabrielle — who, it should be said, takes the reins in an unseemly way (rearranging the furniture and everything else according to the way she believes they “should” have been for years). Gabrielle becomes conflicted. She wants to be in charge, but she feels like hired help; she likes Michele using “Mamma” to refer to both her and his mother, but she observes that the custom has sucked the last ounce of amore from their relationship. And here is what you need to understand: none of this comes as inadvertent revelation; nothing escapes Hamilton; she is both patient and all-seeing psychoanalyst.
So, this is a terrific book and one I have been pressing on my friends. My own experience with it came in three phases. First, inspired by its delicious prose, I spent hours looking for eggs with deep orange-colored yolks. Then I changed my summer vacation destination from Ireland to Italy. Finally, I was sad to put the book down but glad not to be married to its author.
Originally appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune (April 10, 2011).