Sunday, December 18, 2011

Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Restaurant Chef, by Gabrielle Hamilton

Despite its subtitle and chapters on the author's cooking at a summer camp, for catering companies, and finally in her own restaurant, Blood, Bones and Butter seems to be more about Hamilton's search for family than her development as a chef. Hamilton was the youngest of five children born to somewhat bohemian parents. Life in the family was, for her, best captured in the huge annual party they threw--the mix of people who attended, the teamwork required to prepare and roast five lambs and create numerous side dishes, the beauty of the evening in rural Pennsylvania.

But then, when Hamilton was 12, her parents divorced and essentially left the children to finish raising themselves. At age 13, Hamilton realized she needed a job to sustain herself and began working in restaurants. She also began smoking, stealing cars, breaking into houses, and...well, you get the picture. As a 16-year-old high school graduate, she moved to New York City with $235 and began working at a restaurant where the staff did copious amounts of cocaine and stole from their employers.

It is something of a relief when Hamilton jumps forward a few years and the reader learns that she has managed to graduate from college and forge a relationship with another woman. She is working in what she calls "the most unsavory corner of the food industry, except for maybe poultry processing"--catering. Her description of this work, as well as her summer job cooking at a camp, is both hilarious and somewhat frightening (thinking about the catered meals I've eaten).

After getting an MFA in creative writing, Hamilton has an opportunity to open her own restaurant, and she jumps at the chance. Surprisingly, the chapters devoted to the restaurant are fairly thin, although it is clear that the restaurant crew is becoming her family (her girlfriend is the bartender).

Enter her future husband Michele, an Italian medical researcher who has worked in the United States for more than a decade. They have an affair and he courts her; when he suddenly has green card problems, they marry although the marriage is far from traditional. They do not live together (although Hamilton's girlfriend has moved out!), and Michele seems to lose interest in any real interaction with his wife, even after they have two sons. Hamilton, for her part, refers to the marriage as "performance art" but also talks about her dream of a "real" marriage. And clearly, she yearns to be enfolded into Michele's Italian family, which they visit every year. While they are welcoming, she realizes in the final chapter that she will never truly be part of the clan.

I'm not a big fan of memoirs, but felt drawn to this one because the reviews I had read suggested it was a book about eating and cooking. Certainly, a chef cannot write about her life without writing about food, but that hardly seems the primary focus of the book and, in the search for family that actually dominates, there are many questions about why Hamilton does what she does that remain unanswered.

Favorite passage:
She [Michele's mother Alda] and I do not speak the same language, and because of that our relationship really thrives. . . . we just hug and cook a lot. Which can seem, at times, like a greater intimacy than the one I have with her son, and a very compelling reason to stay married to him.

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