Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir, “Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef”, was the first impulse purchase I made on my Ki...moreGabrielle Hamilton’s memoir, “Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef”, was the first impulse purchase I made on my Kindle after being wooed by its free sample. I have found the Kindle samples to be invaluable as I have never been one to stand in a bookstore reading from the book I eventually end up purchasing. I could count on one hand the number of times I have actually stood in the aisles, cracked the cover and read the prose inside. I buy because I like the cover art, a good bargain, or the shop’s clever display of a title. This willy-nilly way of book buying has led to many beautiful, but not beautifully written books, ending up in the never-read section of my shelves.
The Kindle samples have opened up a whole new world to me and spared my wallet in the process. Downloaded in seconds, I love being able to see, from the comfort of my beach chair, if an author’s prose resonates with me or if I empathize with the story’s protagonist. Books I thought I would love because they are on the bestseller lists or friends have recommended them have ended up to be total duds once I have finished the Kindle sample. I delete then search again, ready to find the next gem. Hamilton’s memoir was my most recent find. A Kindle Editors’ pick, I was curious about their endorsement and decided to see for myself.
I fell under the spell of chef memoirs six or so years ago after reading Anthony Bourdain’s gross, but engrossing, “Kitchen Confidential.” Never having considered myself much of a cook nor having ever worked in a restaurant, I devoured Bourdain’s prose and gnarly, behind-the-scenes accounts. The rise of bloggers like Julie Powell, who chronicled her one-year challenge to cook all of the Julia Child’s recipes from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, and its subsequent adaptation to a film starring Meryl Streep has made books about cooks the new “it” lit.
Like our parents’ generation that took home cooking to new heights in the ‘70s, our generation has fallen in love with all things kitchen by first reading about it. This comes as no surprise to me when modern generations are more educated than ever before. Taking the book approach first to a subject then diving in to the hands-on aspect, fully prepared with top of the line accoutrements from William Sonoma, makes total sense to me.
Hamilton’s memoir is gritty like Bourdain’s in the sense that it throws back the curtain to the happenings in the catering kitchens of the ‘80s that schooled her in how to be a chef. What I like about Hamilton’s memoir and don’t remember about Bourdain’s, is the personal side. We learn about her childhood spending evenings after dinner sitting at the table on her impeccably dressed, French mother’s lap:
“For a period I was too young for after-dinner chores – clearing, washing, drying – and possibly too favored, and so I eagerly crawled up and took my place in her lap, barefoot and drowsy. I leaned back into her soft body and listened to the gurgling as she chewed and swallowed. I breathed in her exhale: wine, vinaigrette, tangerines, cigarette smoke. While all of the others were excused from the table, I got to sit, alone with my mother and father as they finished. I watched her oily lips, her crooked teeth, and felt the treble of her voice down my spine while she had adult conversation and gently rested her chin on the top of my head. “
Hamilton’s hippie, artist father, nicknamed “The Bone”, cobbled a living together for his wife and five children before the marriage dissolved when Hamilton was twelve. Hamilton and her 17-year-old brother, Simon, were left behind in the family home to fend for themselves while their elder siblings and parents scattered to different locales.
Like many messed up things that happen in childhood, it’s only later, via the wisdom and maturity of adulthood, that one sees how utterly strange and wrong something was. Hamilton shares this sense of bewilderment, yet pride, that her parents basically abandoned her and her brother, but she and Simon rose to the challenge and forged an adult-like existence for themselves with little to no guidance.
Hamilton’s memoir reminded me of a romantic relationship. You are introduced to someone and charmed by some immeasurable aspect of their being – their looks, your mutual chemistry, their vulnerability – whatever. A relationship begins, ascending to great heights until things eventually plateau. Layer by layer they allow you a glimpse of their human, sometimes imperfect nature and this once, seemingly perfect person is revealed to have faults. You debate whether you can continue, negotiating whether these discovered faults are deal-breakers. Bored occasionally, thrilled sometimes – having invested the time – you decide to continue. The story closes with the rest of your lives yet to be lived and the reader (of your eventually penned tale) left to wonder what happens.
Hamilton hooked me from the start, which was why I eagerly bought her book after downloading the sample. I loved reading about her unconventional childhood and forays into the restaurants and kitchens of her teens and twenties. When she hit her thirties, attended grad school for writing and opened her now famous NYC restaurant, Prune, I was impressed by her vision and long hours. When she described meeting her eventual husband and father to her two boys, I was disappointed in her apparent apathy (that sometimes veered a bit close to loathing) for the man. The book had hit its plateau.
She redeemed herself in the descriptive (if long) chapters about her husband’s family and ancestral home in southern Italy. Having traveled to Italy many times, I felt transported back there by her description of the lush vistas and evocative scents. Admittedly, I was also a bit saddened that the restaurant food I ate there could never hold a candle to the texturally rich and history-laden meals Hamilton and her mother-in-law crafted in the kitchen.
A stand out aspect of the latter chapters of the book was when Hamilton described being on a panel of female chefs aimed at female chefs that took place at the Culinary Institute of America. Hamilton did an admirable job of mentioning but not fixating on her bisexuality in the book and at this chef’s panel she wanted the fact of her being female to be similarly minimized. Though she agreed to be on the panel, knowing the forum was about women chefs, I could appreciate Hamilton’s position:
“Identity politics never ends up going the distance for me. The categories tend to fall apart on me when I rely on them too heavily – gay people, women, whatever. Every time I think I can rely on a group or a category – like my sister women in the industry or my sister lesbians or whatever – Ruth Reichl frosts me at an event, for the seventh time, or the women on my panel say ridiculous things about women’s superiority or the lesbians go out and start voting Republican – and the whole thing caves in for me, and I start to mistrust my own kind. Especially when they start saying things like “Women are better than men.”
Essentially, her paraphrased stance of, “Can’t we remove our gender from this equation and focus on crafting really good food?” resonated with me. Her familiarity with being on the periphery of society because of her sexuality leading to her resultant distaste for placing her gender front and center was noted and applauded.
Hamilton’s book had its faults, but is still something I would still heartily recommend. Despite the impulsivity of my purchase and occasional frustration with the book, it was like a good, if not perfect relationship in that I walked away inspired and having learned a lot. (less)
“The next clear finding from research is that people are pretty bad at judging what will make them happy. People vastly overvalue work, money, and rea...more“The next clear finding from research is that people are pretty bad at judging what will make them happy. People vastly overvalue work, money, and real estate. They vastly undervalue intimate bonds and the importance of arduous challenges. The average Americans say that if they could make $90,000 more a year, they could ‘fulfill all their dreams.’ But the evidence suggests they are wrong.
If the relationship between money and happiness is complicated, the relationship between social bonds and happiness is not. The deeper the relationships a person has, the happier he or she will be. People in long-term marriages are much happier than people who aren’t. According to one study, being married produces the same psychic gain as earning $100,000 a year. According to another, joining a group that meets even just once a month produces the same happiness as doubling your income.
People who have one recurrent sexual partner in a year are happier than people who have multiple partners in a year. People who have more friends have lower stress levels and longer lives. Extroverts are happier than introverts. ... the daily activities most associated with happiness are all social -- having sex, socializing after work, and having dinner with friends -- while the daily activity most injurious to happiness -- commuting -- tends to be solitary.” - David Brooks, from "The Social Animal"(less)
"I came to see that Chinese parents have two things over their Western counterparts: (1) higher dreams for their children, and (2) higher regard for t...more"I came to see that Chinese parents have two things over their Western counterparts: (1) higher dreams for their children, and (2) higher regard for their children in the sense of knowing how much they can take." ~ Amy Chua
Um, yeah, right. I read this book in an effort to see if the overwhelming amount of press Chua received at the publication of this book warranted the hype. She closed the book by mentioning that three-quarters of the book was written in eight weeks. It felt like it. The writing felt like the level expected from a high school essayist, not a Yale law professor. The broad generalizations Chua makes between "Western" and "Eastern" parenting styles were painful to read. Both in Chua's unabashed bigotry over the "bad" style of the West and her details of the model that worked (or didn't, depending on interpretation) for her own family. Perhaps my favorite part of the book was Chua's self-awareness in regard to how much she was loathed, even by her dearest family members, for the extremes she was willing to take to ensure her daughters were the best, brightest, and most admired Chinese-American hybrids in her posh New England environs. I admire a person that can see their own crazy and for this, I applaud Chua.
Bottom line: if you're hesitant to buy the book, (a) get it from the library or, (b) read the excerpts in the major news publications that came out in the weeks preceding this book's release. You'll get the gist and have more than enough to talk about at that cocktail party when you're looking to bring up a controversial topic, like this one, and talk about something other than the weather.(less)