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Book review: “Blood, Bones, and Butter”

Gabrielle Hamilton’s “Blood, Bones, and Butter” is half Anthony Bourdain, half Tiger Mom, and a satisfyingly full meal for any fan of food writing.
January 30, 2012

Do not, under any circumstances, read "Blood, Bones, and Butter" while you are hungry. Gabrielle Hamilton's food descriptions can be so luscious and vivid that you will feel compelled to devour anything edible in front of you regardless of age or species (including, but no limited to, sleeping roommates and week-old scrambled eggs). Make sure you have munchies nearby to satisfy your raging palate, then get comfortable and dig in.


The first half of "Blood, Bones, and Butter" is a fast-paced torrent of glittering youth, image after image piled high with beauty and significance. Gabrielle grew up in the "burnt-out ruins of a nineteenth-century silk mill" with an artist father, a ballerina mother, and a veritable warren of older siblings. Her early life was spent gamboling through the forest of legs grown from glamorous people at lavish parties, or sweating in the heat of her mother's six-burner kitchen. Then, as her parents' marriage disintegrates and she is left on her own (in an abandoned mill at age ”3? Oh for the days before child services!) darkness replaces the light.


The darkness is thick and choking for Gabrielle, but smooth and ever-moving for the reader. She travels to the big city for a fast-paced life of coke and booze, losing track of dreams but building a reservoir of experience. Then, at the nadir of her existence she breaks, and runs off to find herself (if there is indeed any self left) in the towns of Europe.


Gabrielle gets her life together, goes to a school (an M.F.A. in fiction from the University of Michigan grad school? Not bad, Ms. Cokehound), and starts living a steady life of catering gigs and summer camp chef-ery. Eventually she moves back to New York, starts an immediately world-famous restaurant on a whim, and marries a motorcycle-riding Italian doctor. Is that the perfect Cinderalla story or what, folks?


Spoiler alert: read no further if you want to be surprised by Gabrielle's lack of fulfillment in her new life as Top Chef/Supermom.


The difference between the first half of the book (childhood through to restaurant opening) and the second is astounding. Gabrielle's life is mediated by food, by cooking, by the culinary creations of the people around her. Her emotions are expressed through braised rabbits and fresh vegetables, the kinked hands of an old French chef crafting a perfect omelette with just a fork and decades of utter compassion. If the production of a plump Italian eggplant is slow, natural, and surrounded by love then Gabrielle is happy, if food is ironic or shallow or unfelt then the author pines. The cruel and utter irony of the book is that Gabrielle loses touch with food when she starts Prune (her restaurant) and her family, that food becomes a given and not a wonder.


When Gabrielle is stuck in the deepest trenches of apathy during her teenage years, some safety line of braided, handmade spaghetti is always thrown down to tow her up. Food brings wonder and joy enough to change her course, and sometimes enough pain to do the same. There is one particularly brutal scene wherein a bunch of stoned summer camp counselors "liberate" her torpor-ridden lobsters into fresh water. The sea-creatures start to drown and crawl out over the floor, leaving a trail of mangled bodies for her to find in the morning. She never goes back.


Somehow, when food (on her own terms) becomes a central part of Gabrielle's life, it loses its emotional power. She cooks what she wants as head chef at Prune, yet can only complain about the constant hours of back-breaking labor. She spends hours a day basking in the sight and scent of perfect cuisine, yet harps on her blood-sugar issues constantly. She has children of her own to feed and nourish, and they become a burden (albeit a much-loved one) in conjunction with her endless hours and loveless marriage (getting married to a man so he can get his green card rarely works out, ladies). Food is no longer powerful, except as a medium for conflict and power struggles, a metaphor for failures and strange futures.


Gabrielle does love her life as a chef, it seems, and certainly writes beautifully enough about food to show that it still holds a deep place in her heart. Is it merely nostalgia, then, that drives the dichotomy between her past and present? Or did the movement, inconstancy, and adventure of her past create the proper scenario for revelations and great emotional apotheoses? I do not know which part of her is more real, the Bourdain or the Martha Stewart, but regardless or where her own truth lies the truth of the book is evident: food is a great human medium, the connection between individuals and the land they inhabit. It has an amazing power if used correctly, and will be our undoing if it remains ignored. It also makes for great writing, and in turn, a huge [expletive] appetite.

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