What happens when your parents abruptly (through the eyes of a 12 year old) divorce and leave you to fend for yourself for an entire summer, alone in the house with your 17-year-old brother while they (the parents) go their separate ways to act out their respective dramas?
In the case of Gabrielle Hamilton, you spend the rest of your life trying to recapture what you so suddenly and cruelly lost when the trap door opened beneath you. And when what you lost revolved around your beautifully coiffed and smartly dressed French mother who turned out homey French meals in Le Creuset pots and in whose lap you used to sit every evening at the kitchen table while your older siblings did the dishes, it isn’t a stretch to imagine that you would end up a chef, and a very good one at that with a restaurant of your own, named after the pet name your mother called you when you were a child, Prune (which, although Hamilton doesn’t say, is French for plum).
Blood, Bones, and Butter is an edgy, brilliantly written memoir about Ms. Hamilton’s unconventional path to becoming a chef/owner of a critically acclaimed restaurant in one of the toughest restaurant cities in the world, New York. It is also a memoir about the hunger for family and a sense of belonging. It is by turns unsentimental, heartbreaking, insightful, funny, and maddening.
A self-taught chef who came up through the soulless world of catering kitchens in New York, Ms. Hamilton also has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan. While it is not always easy to keep up with her narrative, (she sometimes puts you through the paces like a first-time line cook at the peak of the dinner rush) Ms. Hamilton’s way with words is equal to her talent in the kitchen.
At the end of the first chapter describing her family’s yearly lamb roast when she was a child she has this to say: “Then the sun started to set and we lit the paper bag luminaria, which burned soft glowing amber, punctuating the meadow and the night, and the lamb was crisp-skinned and sticky from slow roasting, and the root beer was frigid and caught, like an emotion, in the back of my throat.” It’s an achingly powerful metaphor that both connects the reader to Ms. Hamilton and offers a rare glimpse into her emotional world.
Ms. Hamilton has a real knack for drawing you into her physical world. You can actually feel the heat in her kitchen, hear the relentless hum of the hood fan throughout a grueling night of dinner service, and sense the frenzy of a brunch service that serves 200 covers over 5 hours in a 30-seat restaurant. This is the world in which Gabrielle Hamilton thrives, and she knows how to make it come to life on the page with as much guts, fury, and determination as she applies to her restaurant itself.
As good as she is at describing her physical world, she seems almost determined to shut us out of her emotional life with one maddening exception: her marriage. When it comes to feelings, Ms. Hamilton seems stuck (like the root beer in the back of her throat). While she seems overly careful not to get into her feelings toward her parents about whom she must feel a slew of emotions including hurt, rage, and abandonment, she does not seem to hesitate to express her utter disappointment in her Italian husband who comes along soon after the opening of her restaurant, Prune.
She is clearly ambivalent about her marriage, having married her husband almost on a whim to accommodate his green-card requirements, describing the civil ceremony at City Hall in New York “like a piece of fun and spontaneous downtown performance art.”
So it is a bit surprising to the reader then (especially because her ambivalence does not stop her from having two children with him) that she actually is disappointed that he doesn’t live up to her expectations. They don’t live together (until seven years into the marriage), don’t seem to talk much, and yet she holds out hope that he will somehow morph into the kind of man who will nourish her. Something doesn’t quite square here.
On a taxi ride out to the airport for their annual trip to visit her husband’s family in Italy, Michele (her husband) starts to say, “I was theeenking, . . .” and Ms. Hamilton writes:
“I don’t look at him but I am fully attentive, expectant. It never ever ends how I wish it would, how I fantasize it will, but I nonetheless always imagine the rest of these started sentences. Ever since I understood that I was actually married I have hoped for it to be everything I think a real marriage should be, an intimacy of the highest order. In the few moments between the beginning and end of the sentence, ‘I was theenking, . . .’ I have readied myself, unnecessarily for luminous pearls of his inner life, some word from his heart, some revelation of what he thinks about or fears or loves or agonizes over, which never arrives.”
Look, Michele may or may not be capable of giving Ms. Hamilton what she needs, but asking him to divine her needs just doesn’t seem fair. What he was “theeenking” was that he would like to buy a new iPhone which so set her off that they barely spoke for the next two weeks of their vacation and when she did finally blow up at him, she said it was about the iPhone! This is the part in the book where you want to grab her by the scruff of the neck—much as she wished some adult would have done all those summers ago when she was left to run wild on her own—and sit her down to explain that withholding your feelings is not a good strategy for getting what you need.
Getting what she needs without having to ask for it seems to be some kind of litmus test for Ms. Hamilton because it shows up throughout the book. When she is a starving traveler in Europe and is nearly down to her last dollar, she swallows her pride and calls her sister’s friend, Iannis, in Greece who “brought me to his apartment, and without even inquiring, set to work frying in olive oil two eggs with the darkest orange yolks I had ever seen, sprinkled them with coarse sea salt and cut a slice from a thick dusty loaf of bread. In a blender he mixed apple, honey, and milk and set this incredible, refreshing meal in front of me, beaming his huge smile. I was craving salt and starch. Eggs and bread.”
Later Iannis took her and others out to eat at a local restaurant and “simply ordered food for the table without even consulting a menu, and so set the standard for me for all time of excellent hospitality: Just take care of everything . . . I forever want to arrive somewhere hungry and thirsty and tired and to be taken care of as Iannis took care of us.”
It’s a good model for how to run a restaurant, but it is what makes this memoir so ultimately heartbreaking. This sentiment dates back to her childhood when she could realistically expect to be taken care of, and then suddenly wasn’t. As an adult, however, Ms. Hamilton hasn’t quite yet learned how to nourish herself. Throughout Blood, Bones, and Butter, she writes about either neglecting to eat, suffering from a crash in blood sugar because she has waited too long to eat, or expecting others to feed her at the moment when she is most in need of sustenance.
In a recent New York Times article about a cooking school for underprivileged women in Paris, Alain Ducasse said, “Cuisine, it is first a personal satisfaction, it’s very egotistical. First I am happy with what I have made, and then I want to share it. First you prepare for yourself, and then you give it to someone.”
Ms. Hamilton is a great talent, both as a chef and as a writer. Think how much more she could give if only she would learn to nourish herself first.