Blood, Bones and Butter

One chef’s unlikely path to culinary celebrity.

Blood, Bones and Butter By Gabrielle Hamilton Random House 291 pp.

Food memoirs have become rather predictable. Most seem to blend quaintness with family recipes, a passion for flavors and words, and often a love story evoked by the writer’s skill in the kitchen. Gabrielle Hamilton, owner and chef of Prune in New York City, has written a food memoir that defies this kind of cuteness. Instead Blood, Bones and Butter delivers the story of a life shaped by food with the intensity of a blast of hot air from a 500 degree F. oven.

Hamilton does share family memories centered on food, but these simmer with an underlying fury. There is a slow realization that food is central to her life, but this comes almost as an afterthought. There is love, of various kinds, peppered with ambiguity, dissonance, and loss. And there are no recipes.

Instead Hamilton includes jarring details so casually that they rattle like the clatter of kitchen plates crashing to the floor. But there is also delicious prose and there are tender images such as Hamilton holding her nursing child. Mostly “Blood, Bones and Butter” vibrates with such a relentless creative drive that its moments of resolution bring the reader immense relief.

Hamilton is the youngest of five. Her French mother, a former ballerina, was a talented cook who wore black eyeliner and high heels every day and kept a well-scrubbed and organized kitchen. She took Hamilton with her everywhere – to pick up milk in her antique Mercedes-Benz, to forage for chanterelles in the forest, and once even on a vacation to the Greek islands. Hamilton’s father was a set designer for large productions, including the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, who recruited his band of children as extra sets of hands when deadlines pressed down. They lived in a huge rambling house nicknamed “the ruins” on a country road in New Jersey and threw themed parties and hosted lamb roasts that drew hundreds of guests.

And as quickly as this magical bubble of idyllic delight rises from the first pages of “Blood, Bones and Butter,” it bursts.

By the time Hamilton is 12, her parents have separated. For some unexplained reason, Hamilton is left alone for weeks in the house with her next oldest sibling, Simon. The instincts that emerge that summer – survival, extreme independence, and rage at being abandoned – skipper the helm of Hamilton’s ship as she careens forward into unknown waters. She crosses two decades before she contacts her mother.

Alluded promiscuity, drugs, brushes with the law, and a solo trip around the world all transpire before Hamilton begins to center herself at the free-form Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts and much later in the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Michigan. All the while Hamilton is working food industry jobs – serving tables, assembling colossal trays of catered food, cooking at a summer camp – wondering about her path. Hamilton clings so tightly to the order she finds in industrial kitchens that she almost doesn’t recognize it as her lifeline.

Back in New York and trying to write a novel, Hamilton opens a restaurant almost on a whim, simply because a decrepit, abandoned storefront down the street from her apartment stoop has been idly waiting for its next creative visionary. She has no idea how to run a restaurant, she admits, but the name of the place appears without effort. “Prune” was a childhood nickname her mother had for her.

“[T]here I was, pacing around my apartment, puzzling out how I could harness a hundred pivotal experiences relating to food – including hunger and worry – and translate those experiences into actual plates of food and wondering if eight dollars was too much to charge for a wedge of aged Gouda cheese and a couple of warm salted potatoes,” writes Hamilton.

“Harness” is hardly word enough – “wrestle,” “bind,” or “truss” perhaps. Prune opens as a success, and remains so today. Ever unpredictable, Hamilton eventually marries one of her customers and bears him two sons, though they never live together. Her Italian husband has an affectionate
elderly mother and summer visits to the family home in Puglia at the tip of Italy’s boot heel are one place the memoir mellows with romance.

This is not a story that neatly wraps up into a sugary ending. But like any meal constructed with passion and daring, the minute you finish reading Hamilton’s searing, fascinating life in food you will immediately want more.

Kendra Nordin produces the Monitor’s food blog Stir It Up!

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