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Appealing Food Memoir "Blood, Bones & Butter"

(click for larger version)
January 18, 2012
Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir "Blood, Bones & Butter" has received much well-deserved praise. Hamilton is the celebrated chef and owner of Prune restaurant in New York City. Her outstanding book will not be lost among the fast-growing pack of food memoirs.

Hamilton's writing talents and her appealing voice make "Blood, Bones & Butter" not simply a foodie book but a literary memoir of a woman who happens to be a chef.

Hamilton writes about her work, her childhood and the crooked path she followed to her current success. The genius of "Blood, Bones & Butter" is the way in which Hamilton identifies the many factors that influenced her. She skillfully connects threads from various parts of her life to her work as a chef. The result is a fascinating picture of how experiences, values and accidents combine to create a life.

Hamilton begins by describing an annual spring lamb roast her parents hosted in rural Pennsylvania. She describes doing chores with her siblings to prepare for the party and the feelings of happiness and security she felt with her family. Her memory of the last of these parties is especially prized because her parents divorced soon after.

Although she recalls that it may have taken a year or two to "dismantle the family," she felt "as if I fell asleep by the lamb pit one night and woke up the next morning to an empty house, a bare cupboard."

Gabrielle Hamilton (click for larger version)
In the chaotic years that followed, Hamilton realized she needed money and lied about her age to get work in a local restaurant. Although she did not know how to pour ice water or clear a plate in the dining room, she felt right at home in the kitchen. She "fell into peeling potatoes and scraping plates for the dishwasher like it was my own skin. And that, just like that, is how a whole life can start."

Without ever planning it, Hamilton accumulated 20 years of experience in kitchen work. When she enrolled in a master's program for fiction writing at the University of Michigan, she found a kitchen job there as well.

She soon felt frustrated with the physically idle nature of academic life and longed to get to her catering job where her tasks felt manageable and useful. Hamilton befriended a fellow chef at the catering company who started her own restaurant. This friend became something like a role model, the fiercely independent Hamilton reluctantly admits.

When she was in New York working as an interim chef, a neighbor casually asked if she'd like to take a look at an abandoned storefront restaurant. After looking at the filthy ruins of a former bistro, Hamilton reminded herself that she had no idea how to run a business and that she had never been a restaurant chef. However, "a thin blue line of electricity was running through my body."

Hamilton admits to lacking the traditional qualifications of a chef or business owner. What she did have was what she learned about food when she traveled to Europe for two years with insufficient funds. She recalls the experience of hospitality from the standpoint of the bedraggled traveler: "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."

As her thoughts turned away from doubts and toward her excited plans, Hamilton considered how to convey that sort of hospitality in a restaurant.

Hamilton describes the trials of opening and running a business. She writes with humor of the recent rise of the celebrity chef, having focused graphically on many of the decidedly unglamorous aspects of life in the kitchen. Her strong work ethic and willingness to undertake any unpleasant task is a constant in her story. She is frank about her own shortcomings and sympathetic to others. Readers may hope that writing becomes a permanent part of her busy life.

Gabrielle Hamilton will discuss and sign "Blood, Bones & Butter" at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 31, at the downtown Left Bank Books, 321 N. 10th Street. Call 367-6731 for more information.

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