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

What inspires a famous chef to prepare those meals that satisfy us – both visually and gastronomically?
What training, background, and mentoring meld together to make the creative provocateur of food?  In the case of Gabrielle Hamilton, it’s not what you think.  In her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, Hamilton reveals her unconventional path to becoming the chef and owner of the renowned New York restaurant, Prune – referred to by the New York Times as “the small restaurant with a large footprint.”

Divided into three sections, “Blood” introduces Hamilton’s bohemian family and wild youthful days.  Before her French mother, ballet queen of the kitchen in heels, apron, and cigarettes, divorces her artist father, Hamilton describes a bucolic life in Pennsylvania with her parents’ giving parties with Spring lamb roasted on spits.  Afterwards, life is difficult but free for a thirteen year old left to take care of herself.  She stumbles through lonely years in a haze of drugs – dropping out of schools, smoking cigarettes, stealing cars, and working in kitchens as a dish-washer or waitress to survive.

Life gets better as she “jumps ahead” in the second section, “Bones.”  By now, she has graduated from college, backpacked through Europe, finished her Master’s degree in creative writing at the University of Michigan, is working as a freelance caterer for upscale events during the season, and a cook at a children’s camp in the summer.  At each phase of her life, Hamilton finds someone who can cook well, and she learns something different from each.  She stores it all away until later; when she opens her restaurant all her experiences seem to converge.  As she converts a deserted rat-infested hovel into the best place to have brunch on Sundays in New York City, she recalls the influence of her mother’s cooking and later, her Italian mother-in-law, who does not speak English and cooks by feel rather than recipe.

When she leaves her lesbian lover, and marries an Italian doctor to save him from the INS; her bridesmaids are her restaurant workers…

“If you want to feel like the most glamorous woman in the world on your wedding day, just be the only one dressed in a good heel and a vintage couture dress…my lesbian friends wore suits…to cover their tattoos…”

It’s easy to like Gabrielle Hamilton; she is frank, unaffected, and clearly loves food, cooking, and most people.  It’s easy to laugh with her as she recalls the day her father taught her to kill a chicken (note the book’s cover art):

“There are two things you should never learn to do with your father: learn how to drive and learn how to kill a chicken.”

and the night the drunk camp counselors who felt sorry for the lobsters she had planned to cook for the end of the season party, placed them all in a tank full of fresh water, effectively torturing and killing them…

After burying thirty dead lobsters…I shut down the kitchen for the season…I bought ten boxes of Kentucky Fried Chicken, left it at the fire pit, and drove off campus for good…I hoped the bear would find the KFC and the counselors and eat them both.

and her husband asking her which silk tie he should wear, as she is in labor, waiting to get to the hospital to give birth to their first son.

In her last section, “Butter,” Hamilton describes her annual summer visits to her Italian in-laws in Rome, followed by three weeks in their villa by the sea.  Cooking becomes the universal language, as she connects with Alda, her old-school mother-in-law.  Her mouth-watering descriptions of food will have you salivating.

I’m not usually a fan of memoirs, but Blood, Bones, and Butter does not pretend to be an accurate accounting; Hamilton weaves her personality into her story and fictionalizes when it’s better than what really happened, but, at least she is honest about it – and she applies her degree in fiction to share her readable and amusing memories.   In her author’s note, Gabrielle Hamilton assures the reader…

…{I} have made up the names when I couldn’t remember them.  I have airbrushed a couple of people right out of scenes…I have compressed, contracted, and subtly rearranged time…and I have conflated several recurring, similar events into one for clarity, drive, and momentum…

It doesn’t matter.  Gabrielle Hamilton gets it right, using self-deprecating humor mixed with introspection – focusing on the important pieces of her life, while sending a message not only to aspiring chefs but to bright women trying to juggle family and career.   My favorite line in the book has her responding to being introduced as “the top, one of the best female chefs in New York”  with

“Now, if we could only get that word ‘female’ out of the sentence.”

Savor the book slowly, with a glass of “an excellent Bandol” and some nutty Gouda. Gabrielle Hamilton is a chef worth getting to know.

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