Chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir is searingly honest, and funny. By Nicky Pellegrino.
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.) She never intends 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 18-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 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.