Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef - Gabrielle Hamilton

Summary:  Before Gabrielle Hamilton opened her acclaimed New York Restaurant Prune, she spent twenty fierce, hard-living years trying to find purpose and meaning in her life.  Above all she sought family, particularly the thrill and the magnificence of the one from her childhood that, in her adult years, eluded her.  Hamilton's ease and comfort in a kitchen were instilled in her at an early age when her parents hosted grand parties, often for more than one hundred friends and neighbors.  The smells of spit-roasted lamb, apple wood smoke, and rosemary garlic marinade became as necessary to her as her own skin.

Blood, Bones & Butter follows an unconventional journey through the many kitchens Hamilton has inhabited through the years: the rural kitchen of her childhood, where her adored mother stood over the six-burner with an oily wooden spoon in hand; the kitchens of France, Greece, and Turkey, where she was often fed by complete strangers and learned the essence of hospitality; the soulless catering factories that helped pay the rent; Hamilton's own kitchen at Prune, with its many unexpected challenges; and the kitchen of her Italian mother-in-law,who serves as a link between Hamilton's idyllic past and her own future family -- the result of a difficult and prickly marriage that nonetheless yields rich and lasting dividends.

Blood, Bones & Butter is an unflinching and lyrical work.  Gabrielle Hamiltonn's story is told with uncommon honesty, grit, humor, and passion.  By turns epic and intimate, it marks the debut of a tremendous literary talent.  (Summary from book, image from

My Review:  Book flap 'blurbs', like the one above, can be hit or miss.  This one completely hooked me and it's pretty spot on. That might be all you need to hear to throw this book on your TBR list and, if so, have fun!  For those who need to know a little more, I'll continue...

Blood, Bones & Butter is one of those rare books that, curiously, left me both satiated and starving by the time I reached the final page.  I was nearly done in by the first paragraph and reveled in the entire first chapter as she describes growing up in rural Pennsylvania, the children in her family running amok in the forests and fields like a pack of wild dogs while her French mother whipped up tantalizing home-cooked meals for her large brood.  That vision of a carefree childhood, scratch-made food, and aromatic, sizzling, lamb roasts, was so whimsical and romantic, I could hardly stand it.  I was a goner-- thoroughly enchanted and eager for more.

Unfortunately, Gabrielle's happy childhood crumbles to dust with her parents unexpected divorce. Where previously she had reaped the benefits of her mother's culinary abilities, Gabrielle must now forage for her own food in the increasingly empty cabinets and wild, untended gardens of the house her mother fled and to which her father rarely deigns to return.  With surprising skill, she concocts new recipes using her own imagination and the knowledge gleaned from her absentee parents, until necessity forces her to find other ways to get by.  Gabrielle tries her hand at a variety of odd restaurant jobs, educational opportunities, and even travels abroad, sampling the delights of Europe in the off-season.  As she tries to find her footing in the world, things get pretty dark for a while (and by 'dark' I mean illicit and kinda messed up) but each place she visits and job she takes adds to her culinary expertise and brings her a step closer to finding her niche in life.   Each of the Gabrielle's experiences, cobbled together, inform and influence her beliefs about food -- how it should be cooked, served, and consumed -- so that when the opportunity to turn a small, rundown, cockroach infested rental space into a gleaming NYC restaurant falls into her lap unexpectedly, Gabrielle can envision it all clearly, down to the smallest detail. She knows what she wants and, when her mind is made up, sets about doing what she needs to get it.  I loved watching it all come together.

When Gabrielle's dream of opening a restaurant comes to fruition, her journey is far from over.  Blood, Bones & Butter also winds through the early stages of the restaurant, with the hurdles and craziness that comes from managing her own kitchen, and the complexities of maintaining a relationship while running the show.  Eventually, Gabrielle marries an Italian, has a few adorable bambinos, and ends up spending her hard earned vacation days in southern Italy.  I loved the relationships she developed there, learning how to make pasta and other foods from her mother-in-law, observing her new Italian family, and a completely different way of life. I fell head over heels for her descriptions of the countryside, the villas, food, and little old men with their vegetable carts and was fully content to soak up her summers in Italy, even if she didn't always enjoy them herself.

I really like Gabrielle's style and her taste in both food and atmosphere.  Though I have never been to Prune, her ideas for it seem elegant, without pretense, and utterly inhale-able (a word I might have just made up, but basically means I want to stuff my face with everything on the menu). While I don't agree with every decisions she made to get from Point A to Point B, and so on, in her life, (and I don't have to, as it is not my life) it was nonetheless a frequently riveting, thoroughly mouth-watering, journey.

My absolute favorite thing about Blood, Bones & Butter is Gabrielle's stunning ability to evoke any and all emotions, even physical hunger, with her writing.  She isn't just a supremely talented self-taught chef, people!  She has actual degrees in writing, which she nails with startling efficiency.  For most of the book, I felt like a silent spectator, fully immersed in whatever situation she was in, and thoroughly enjoying just 'being' there.  I'm only sad I didn't actually get to eat the food.  I recommend this book to anyone who loves eating food, reading about food, reading about travel, or reading about other people eating food while they travel.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Swearing sprinkled throughout. There was more than I felt like counting (considerably more than a handful) but it was spaced enough that it didn't feel excessive.  Or maybe I just didn't notice as much because I was too busy drooling. The author engages in some illegal activities as a youth, but eventually outgrows them. She is also a lesbian, though she is married to a man for a good chunk of the book.  Any discussion of her sexual preferences or any sexual activities is only mentioned in passing and without detail.

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