Saturday, June 25, 2011

Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton is an expertly written memoir. In it, Hamilton gives insight into her fond childhood memories and her long wanderings before becoming a New York restaurant owner. It was our June Kitchen Reader selection, chosen by Aileen of Pharma Foodie.

Usually our Kitchen Reader books make we want to rush into the kitchen and start cooking. With this book, I was strangely uninspired to cook. Instead I found myself happy to contemplate the ideas of family and belonging, and to contact my brothers more.

Hamilton was the youngest child in a large family, and the first part of her book describes their annual lamb roast. Her father set up the roasting pit outside, the children kept the drinks cool in the bubbling stream, and her mother made the accompanying salads in the kitchen. Hamilton's idyllic childhood was cut short when her parents divorced, and from her twelfth year onwards she practically raised herself. But it didn't go very well, as she filled her teenage years with a variety of misdemeanors and dropped out of school. She waitressed in New York as a seventeen-year-old and found herself keeping up with the other wait staff when it came to drugs.

After attending an alternative high school and college, she became a catering cook. Then she decided to pursue creative writing and earned a masters degree. Finally she came to find her comfortable place in life by buying a small space and setting up as owner and chef of her restaurant, Prune.

The latter part of Hamilton's memoir focuses closely on her difficult marriage and rewarding family life. She explores the way she was impacted by her mother as a child and attempts a reconciliation with her. She also tries to define her relationship with her Italian mother-in-law, and, in doing so, to construct a clear identity of her own.

Hamilton's dual skills in writing and cooking come across in this book. One reviewer described her as "a writer in cook's clothing". Blood, Bones & Butter is constructed with smooth prose that is both easy to read and illuminating. As Hamilton follows her tortuous path from child to restaurant owner, the writing is neither fumbling nor dense.

The most evocative writing in the book is at the beginning, when Hamilton is describing her family's lamb roast. It is also the part, incidentally, that you can read on her website. (Another section, about her coke-fueled waitressing years, has been published by the Observer Food Monthly.)

A memorable idea in the book is that cooking is an antidote to the soft, cerebral life Hamilton experienced during her masters degree. I understand her statement that she yearned to "get back in to the kitchen, which I increasingly found practical and satisfying." I often feel the same way at the end of a work day's intense, but idle, thought. Cooking can be a release and a chance for the mind to decompress. Later in the book, Hamilton remarks,
What I have loved about cooking my entire life, especially prep cooking [chopping raw ingredients], is the way that it keeps your hands occupied but your mind free to sort everything out. I have never once finished an eight-hour prep shirt without something from my life--mundane or profound--sorted out.

Hamilton's love of food is at the forefront of this book, but it is joined by her thoughts on family and identity. As a result it is an excellent read not only for those interested in food. At the end, I decided I would love to visit her restaurant (if I am ever in the area!). But her story also made me keen to make my family bonds stronger and live reflectively.

The Kitchen Reader is an online food-related book club. Our July book is a novel called The Sugar Queen--it looks like perfect beach or airplane reading!

What summer reading will you be doing?


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