Monday, June 27, 2011

Blood, Bones & Butter

I’m addicted to food memoirs so even though I hadn’t heard of Gabrielle Hamilton and am not likely to eat at her restaurant Prune partly because it’s in New York and partly because the standout dish there is the sweetbreads, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her memoir Blood, Bones & Butter (Chatto & Windus, $37.99) and feed my addiction.
It turns out to be an emotional journey as much as a story about food. Hamilton writes with humour, searing honesty and thoughtfulness. Oh and she’s clever. While reading a book I’ll often fold over a page if there’s an idea or phrase on it I'd like to go back to. By the time I’d finished this one the marked pages were well into double figures.
The memoir begins with Hamilton’s childhood in rural Pennsylvania and parents who seem “incredibly special and outrageously handsome”. Her French mother is the sort of proper cook who can simmer and braise delicious meals out of things with tails, claws and marrow-filled bones. Her artist father roasts whole spring lambs for the vast parties he throws in their rambling, eccentric house.  Then to Hamilton’s shock her parents split up and she never entirely gets over it.
Blood, Bones & Butter details how she becomes a chef pretty much by accident. First working at restaurant jobs to earn extra cash as a schoolgirl then later freelancing in New York’s catering kitchens. (Possibly those planning a wedding or catered party might like to skip the section where she describes the way food is cranked out.) It was never her intention to open a restaurant but when she stumbles on a defunct French bistro in New York’s East Village, she starts dreaming.
“I wanted a place with a Velvet Underground CD that made you nod your head and feel warm with recognition,” she says. “I wanted the lettuce and eggs at room temperature. The waiter to bring you something to eat and drink that you didn’t even ask for when you arrived cold and early and undone by your day in the city. I wanted…the butter and sugar sandwiches we ate as kids after school for a snack…the veal marrow my mother made us eat that I grew to crave as an adult.”
It’s in her descriptions of working life at Prune that Hamilton’s tendency to be a teensy bit of the martyr creeps in. She revels in descriptions of being pregnant and on all fours scrubbing away at greasy things or working the punishing egg station at brunch-time; takes an almost masochistic pride in surviving the eighteen-hour days and the burning heat of the kitchen. But it’s gritty stuff and it’s real.
Hamilton is equally upfront about her personal life. Although a lesbian, much to everyone’s surprise – including her own – she ends up with an Italian husband, Michele. It’s a dysfunctional relationship from the get-go, particularly as the marriage is precipitated by the need for a green card. The couple are in no hurry to share a home and Hamilton seems more in love with Michele’s family, particularly his 80-year-old mamma Alda. Food is the only way these two women can communicate and she writes lovingly and evocatively of the meals they create together in a southern Italian kitchen.
The hyperbole from fellow chef and writer Anthony Bourdain emblazoned on the front cover of this handsome hard-back declares it to be, “Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever.’ While I wouldn’t go that far, if Hamilton cooks half as well as she writes then I might be prepared to take my chances with the sweetbreads.


Nicky Pellegrino is a succcesful Auckland-based author of popular fiction, The Italian Wedding was published in May 2009, Recipe for Life was published in April, 2010, while her latestThe Villa Girls, was published in April this year.
 She is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above review was first published on 26 June, 2011 as was the Booklover column below:

Janet Evanovich is the US author of the best-selling Stephanie Plum stories and has just released the latest in the series Smokin’ Seventeen (Headline, $39.99).
The book I love most is............Junie B. Jones Loves Handsome Warren by Barbara Park.  Okay, I know it's a kid’s book, but I don't care's awesome.  Let's face it, there's some Junie B. in all of us.  And it's short and has pictures so you can read it even if your day is insane. 
The book I'm reading right now is.........Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain.  It's a compelling read and an up close look at the world of food and the people who cook it for a living.  His picture on the cover is a little grim, but the book is great, I swear.   I love his television show too (No Reservations).
The book I'd like to read next is.......Does The Noise In My Head Bother You? by Steven Tyler.  I love Aerosmith and I'm enough of a voyeur to wonder about the noise in Tyler's head.  Once I was at a very large party that he was also attending and I stared transfixed at the back of his head all night too tongue-tied to say hello!
My favourite bookshop is............  I don't actually have a favorite.  I shop at all sorts of different stores ...B&N, Costco, Target, Amazon, and now I even have an e-reader so I can download from online bookstores.
The book that changed me is........ When I was a kid I read the Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comic books, and I think they gave me an early love for a good adventure.  I think the Stephanie Plum series is part I Love Lucy, part Indiana Jones, and part Uncle Scrooge.
The book I wish I'd never read is............In general I hate books with sad endings.  I go moping around all depressed, and then I go out and buy gooey birthday cake and eat it to feel better ...and then I feel FAT!

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