Book Review: Blood, Bones & Butter

I’ve been waiting for the energy and time to write this post for quite awhile now—only three posts in March?  Yeah, it’s been a little busy around here.  I promise there’s a post about what’s been going on—work, running, thesis (2 weeks to go ya’ll), traveling, etc.—but first things first: Gabrielle Hamilton’s book Blood, Bones & Butter.

Location of the dinner: the Hollins University riding ring (yes, as in horses–wish someone had given me the memo not to wear high heels…)

Blood, Bones & Butter, chef Hamilton’s first book, was published on March 8, 2011, and a few days afterward I was privileged to introduce her at a dinner in honor of her and her book in Roanoke.  When I was asked to talk a little about her and the book at the dinner, I was initially elated—what could be better than reading an advance copy of a highly acclaimed food memoir (after all, Anthony Bourdain called it “the best memoir by a chef ever.  EVER.”), talking a little about it to some folks, eating a free meal cooked by Joshua Smith and the folks at Local Roots, and meeting the chef herself?  It seemed like a golden opportunity.  By the end of the first chapter, however, I realized it wasn’t going to be that easy—Blood, Bones & Butter opened a lot of doors and asked a lot questions and, certainly above all, raised my hackles more than any other book has.  And that’s saying something.

The writer chef herself

The premise of the book is simple: food & memoir, how Hamilton became one of the foremost women chefs, how she became a writer, what food means to her.  And in that way, the book is successful.  There are moments when I’m drawn into bold lyricism of food and moments when the kitchen is scorching and real and I feel the intensity of what it means to truly be a chef.  The book reads as a manifesto of the palate:

“This is the crepe.
This is the cider.
This is how we live and eat.”

Or even more pronounced (and in reference to designing her restaurant, Prune):

“There would be no foam and no ‘conceptual’ or ‘intellectual’ food; just the salty, sweet, starchy, brothy, crispy things that one craves when one is actually hungry.  There would be nothing tall on the plate, the portions would be generous, there would be no emulsions, no crab cocktail seared in a martini glass with its claw hanging over the rim.  In ecstatic farewell to my years of corporate catering, we would never serve anything but a martini in a martini glass.  Preferably gin.”

Place setting/menu

As a lover of food, I get it, I get her pare-back-to-the-basics style influenced by the use-all attitude of her French mother.  It’s a highly trendy style at the moment, but one that I personally would like to stay.  What is more important that the product itself, anyway?

And when we see Prune or we see Hamilton at work, it’s the gritty, raw, chef at her finest.  Kitchen work, she makes clear, is not for the faint hearted—it’s work, hard work, and it sucks, and you don’t make much money, but, if you’re in it for the long haul and you love it, it’s your life.

“The egg shift at Sunday brunch alone could take down an average man.  That heat in the egg station at brunch has a formidable physical presence.  It moves about, undulating, coming at you in waves, some of them, like when you open the oven door, smacking you forcefully enough to tighten the skin on your face and make your eyes swell shut.”

Pickles for the pre-dinner gnoshing

The kitchen she paints is real—it’s the kitchen I’ve known during my time as an apprentice pastry chef and as a sous chef opening a restaurant of my own.  It’s a heat and a frenzy and bone-dead feeling you get every day.  She’s real and she’s real good at writing food and writing the reality of the life of a cook.

The kitchen and the food—that’s not what I found troubling with the book.  What raised an almost righteous anger in me that I’ve never felt before was Hamilton’s attitude regarding people.  As a memoir, we’re brought into the details of Hamilton’s life.  Sort of.  We learn about her childhood, teenage years, the slow mellowing into adult hood, graduate school, and, eventually marriage.  In all that, however, the reader is left with too many questions—the long and amazing relationship with her female partner is abruptly ended, with no regrets, by adultery with a man—a man she claims to never love but does marry for some unknown reason that’s never explored.  The fact that she and her husband live a miserable life of not talking to each other, the fact that they live in separate apartments (even though they share two children) is breezed over.  Too much is left unknown.

Above all, however, Hamilton’s attitude toward everyone that is not herself was atrocious to me.  In deciding to go to grad school, she explains that she was fed up with the corporate catering system,

“had no ties to anyone…so it was not conflicted for me, in elapsed time sequence, to clock out on my last freelancer shift at one of those warehouse kitchens, sublet the East Village tenement one-bedroom, kiss the girlfriend good-bye, pack the matte black Volvo, and head out to grad school.”

Lettuce, goat cheese, walnuts, cranberries, faro

Beyond the fact that she flippantly writes “kiss the girlfriend goodbye” as a way to end the relationship (with no reason given for why it ended), Hamilton’s picture of grad school, while true to her emotions, was hard to read in its cruel tone.   True: I can’t imagine the shift to one of the top 10 programs in writing from kitchen work—it’s a different world.   And I’m with Hamilton when she says:

“I had arrived believing there was meaning and purpose in this work, that this work gives more than it takes, that it helps out.”

Yes, writing programs can create disillusionment.  Don’t I know. I’ve struggled for the past two years with my decision to pursue an MFA (though for different reasons—mostly because I felt the program wasn’t academic enough, whereas Hamilton found hers too academic).  What pained me was the following sentence about a fellow student’s reading of her own work:

“But the longer she goes on in that self-important sing-song way from the candlelit corner where she is perched on a purple and gold pillow, her black eyeliner thick and greasy, stopping on occasion to explain a few of her references—for those among us who may not know the term ‘chiaroscuro’ or who are not familiar with the ‘ropes’ she is exploring in her prose, the more I fear it’s no more a contribution than arranging salmon roulade in a ring mold with tiny dots of pistachio oil garnishing the plate.  I feel wholly condescended to when she is explaining her work…Her poem is not good looking but well dressed.  She’s missed the point.”

Sopressata, lardo, country ham, aged mustard

Maybe the reader in the scene has missed the point, but it’s art, just like Hamilton’s book is art and cooking is art.  Hamilton is an artist—maybe an artist critical of the system, but I feel for that girl who Hamilton rues.  When Hamilton says,  “I wish we could just read the words out loud and let the stories speak for themselves” I agree with her—but I also feel something important in “load[ing] the thing up with tropes, spend[ing] whole paragraphs describing an old man’s hand.”  Beauty, the written word—that’s why we as writers write.  And sooner than later, Hamilton’s got to realize that.

Speaking a little about Hamilton’s book–from a writers perspective as requested (ironic, eh?)

Hamilton also judges the foodies of the world, the market goers, the people who support the system.  She belittles the “essentialist drone” of the other female chefs on a panel she participates in at the Culinary Institute of America, she abhors the “girl with the bicycle [at the farmers market], wandering along from stall to stall with two apples, a bouquet of lavender, and one bell pepper in the basket of her bicycle”—and don’t get her started on the new generation of farmers who is “aglow in his own righteousness, setting up his cute booth at the market each morning.”  Everyone but those who act and understand the world just like Hamilton does seems to be a target, and that is what I found so difficult in the book.

Sure, much of my defensiveness is because I felt personally attacked—attacked because I’m a writer, attacked because I dropped out of the industry, attacked because I like going to farmers markets and chatting with the farmers.  I felt attacked for my art.  I think my blood pressure went up 25% while reading the book.  Like I said, it had its merits and I’ll read Hamilton’s thoughts on food any day, but in crafting a memoir, I’m left wanting more and wanting less anger, more understanding from someone who seems to have risen above some shitty circumstances.  I’m not saying “don’t read the book,” but I did find it a disappointing read.  I was hoping to be inspired, to love food, but instead I was left with a distaste for chefs and for the system, though it did make me want to go out and ride my bike to a farmers market, write some poems, and read them aloud.  So at least it’s good for that.

8 Responses to “Book Review: Blood, Bones & Butter”
  1. tanita says:

    You need a palette cleanser. Try The Butcher and the Vegetarian, written by an MFA classmate of mine, Tara Austen Weaver. It, too, is a somewhat difficult book if you are a vegetarian who has never been tempted to eat any different way, but I think it might hold a special place for you where you are particularly in your food journey.

    As for wandering the Market with your lavender and your bell peppers on your bike, thinking of poetic themes, YOU. GO. GIRL.

    • Jes says:

      Awesome, I’m definitely going to have to find that book! I’m always in for good suggestions–especially starting next month when I’m post-MFA insanity I’m sure you know that feeling. :)

  2. rebecca says:

    First, Jes, my thoughts and support are with you as you power through the last 2 weeks of your thesis. It’s a great feeling when that gets handed in for the last time!

    And I’m fascinated to hear your take on BBB. I started it last week – but given the unforeseen craziness that has ensued since heading to Roanoke last week I haven’t had a chance to finish it. Interestingly, although I anticipated loving it – given all the press – I found myself puzzled by the fact that I didn’t. Usually a good food memoir will suck me right in and keep me wanting more, but I kept having to push myself to read it – thinking I just hadn’t gotten to the good part yet. Or wondering if it was the circumstances – i.e. being in the ER having my hand poked and prodded by doctors – but maybe, given your reaction to it, it’s the book and not me. When I return to Roanoke for good – in 7 weeks and 2 days! – we’ll have to compare notes.

    In the meantime, I must agree with the previous commenter – wandering the market with lavender, your bike, poetic themes, and chatting with the farmers is wonderful and something we all should have in our lives.

  3. Oh, I hear you on the looming deadline: I’ve got a draft of the PhD thesis/dissertation due in just over a month and probably need to add another 30,000 words. Yikes!

    The attitude of this food author doesn’t surprise me, somehow. We lived in the Napa Valley for a number of years, and grew thoroughly tired of the food-snobs. Don’t get me wrong – I have strong opinions about the food I eat. But to judge others? Well, no, I just can’t go along with it. I mean, yeah, crayfish foam seems rather silly to me, as do some of the other bizarre things which can be found in the foodie world. But I don’t judge people for trying silly things (too harshly, at least – skydiving seems rather batty, for example).

  4. Great review! Memoirs are tough because it’s hard to love one if you don’t like the person telling the story. The author is the hero of her story and a protagonist that you can’t relate to and don’t agree with is a major roadblock.

    That said, I love the idea of going back to school (clearly) and I love to read about food, cooking, etc. I will put this on my to-read list, but not at the top. :)

  5. lazysmurf says:

    Great review, I can see why Anthony Bourdain liked her so much. It sounds like they are both clinging so desperately to this idea of themselves being so different from other pretentious foodies that they have completely lost their grip.

  6. Monica says:

    You had me at “pre-dinner pickles”… looks like a great gig and an interesting read.

  7. This woman sounds just like the type of person I love to avoid ;)

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