When Anthony Bourdain exclaims that he is “choked with envy” about the quality of another chef’s memoir, well, you know it is likely going to be one hell of a story if not an exceptional work. Gabrielle Hamilton’s “Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef” is better than exceptional… if there is such a thing.
The metaphor of the “blood, bones & butter” is the only predictable thing about the book. I, for one, was eagerly anticipating a couple hundred pages of cooking trials and food porn. Instead the book is an expertly crafted autobiography of a woman who happens to be the chef owner of a restaurant; that fact that she is a chef is almost ancillary. Hamilton herself, irrespective of her station at any given moment of her dizzying journey, is the thing that grips us. Her life story is both compelling and engaging, often bordering on the unbelievable. Her writing is simultaneously exquisite and alarmingly vivid, so much so that when she writes about having to deal with fecal matter in an unexpected place on the premises of her restaurant, I can honestly say I physically reacted.
Without giving too much away, the author has not led a “Leave it to Beaver” life in any respect, and thank goodness for the reader’s sake. She has done her fair share of drugs and spent time with people of questionable repute. The one thing that she seems to have been involved in quite a bit in her youth was shoplifting and theft. Many people have pasts where they have done wrong like Hamilton. She is in no way proud of those actions, but I never felt any sense of remorse on her part. And that bothered me. A lot. A part of me disdains to feel the admiration that was marinating as I read her story. Nevertheless, I remain in awe of Gabrielle Hamilton, wishing that I were as worthy as she is in so many respects, if not at least as fearless.
I have never met Gabrielle Hamilton. However, I have seen her busy at work in her restaurant, Prune, the several times I have eaten there. I remember one night in particular, she must have been past the 36-week mark in one of her pregnancies, yet she was calmly and meticulously expediting. Perhaps at that point it was too difficult to work the line, her belly forcing her whole body back from the heat as any chef is otherwise accustomed. Maybe she routinely toggled between cooking and expediting, and that night was just like any other. I’ll never know. But she was magnificent to watch, just as her food was delectable to eat, which proved to be a satisfying, symbiotic experience. Reading her memoir has urged me to return to Prune so I can more fully appreciate eating in her restaurant, a higher form than I had known before.
My only complaint about “Blood, Bones & Butter” is that it ends too abruptly. I was literally angry when I read the last word, exclaiming “Is this for real?!? This is it?!?! She cannot just leave me hanging like that!” All I wanted was more–another page, another day in her life, just one more colorful description of anything she encountered. Yet Hamilton’s ending, so cleverly structured in both metaphor and self-realization, left me feeling like I had evolved along with her. The book was so delicious that, even having eaten Hamilton’s food many times, I am left wondering: is Gabrielle Hamilton an even better writer than chef? Or is she Midas with apron strings and Microsoft Word? Whatever she is, she is splendid.