Good Books: Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones, and Butter
So you want to read about being a chef? Here's a rare find—a straightforward memoir straight from a talented writer who's also an incredible chef.
You won’t find many books by professional quarterbacks who also happen to be good writers (George Plimpton, after all, never really played professionally). When it comes to eating, the same is true. Compelling farm lit is rarely written by farmers—the philosopher Yi-Fu Tuan writes in Topophilia that hardly any agrarian books in the history of mankind have been written with callused hands—and great chefs are rarely great writers.
Which is what makes Gabrielle Hamilton’s debut memoir Blood, Bones, and Butter so refreshing. Not only is she is a competent chef, but she is also an extraordinary storyteller. Hamilton, the chef and owner at Prune, a tiny, unpretentious restaurant in lower Manhattan, takes us chronologically through her life—growing up in New Jersey, attending grad school for creative writing, traveling the world, and finally opening a restaurant.
She's no stranger to telling difficult truths about what really goes on behind kitchen doors, or about the real passion it takes to cook professionally. In 2008, one of her memorable essays, “Line of Sight,” which appears in Amanda Hesser’s excellent book Eat, Memory, recalls the time she let a blind line-cook work at Prune, an experience that tested her patience and our culture's ethical boundaries. (It elicited a stinging rebuke from advocacy groups for the visually impaired.)
Blood, Bones, and Butter showcases her talents with stories that are at once provocative and entertaining. The book opens with a family lamb roast and spirals into a whirlwind adventure of divorces, dish-washing, and Dutch hostels. When she starts her own restaurant, it’s out of happenstance—as if, hey, this could happen to anyone on a hectic morning in the city. What's clear throughout: She's writing and cooking out of a genuine love for food. She's not afraid to love an old Italian vecchio who sells her produce in Puglia, compare brunch service in Manhattan to the Indy 500, or talk about the pressure of cooking for Jacques Pépin.
If the book has any shortcomings, it’s that Hamilton strikes a particular tone—the uncompromising, knowing voice of someone who's seen it all—early on and maintains it over many chapters. Reading the book in one sitting can feel a bit like listening to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on repeat. That said, it's a rare chef memoir that rocks at all.