For those itching to read an honest, raw, food-forward memoir, look no further than Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. Yes, that same Gabby Hamilton of the taste bud-tantalizing Prune restaurant, recently published her life story into nearly three hundred pages–and naturally, it speaks volumes on the subject of food. But perhaps more impressively, her book reveals the intimate details of her journey from her days waitressing at the Lone Star Café to her current stature as one of New York’s most celebrated female chefs. If you’re anything like me, this voyeuristic peek into the life an unconventional woman who manages to rise to the top of the NYC food chain, will get your blood racing and engross you to the bone.
The majority of the memoir takes place in New York and could act as a sort of timeline of NYC’s foodie evolution. We follow Hamilton’s footsteps as she roams the streets, eating foil-wrapped sandwiches from Greek-run delis, and at one point, sleeping in a grimy, little apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. We find out that the New York of the eighties had not yet established its rich food culture. Delis back then did not sell vegan cookies or wasabi peas, fake crab leg sushi rolls or free range chicken sandwiches, as they bountifully display today. As Hamilton describes ever so succinctly, “The corner deli was a carefully edited experience in those days. Egg on a roll and coffee were the measure of a good deli, and a good deli man.” It was a simpler, grittier time, and her memoir does not attempt to sugarcoat this fact.
This same brutal candidness applies to Hamilton’s descriptions of her unorthodox life. The child of a French mother and artist father, she uses no euphemisms when writing about her dabbling into drugs, being charged with grand larceny and possession of stolen property, or learning to kill a chicken for the first time. At moments, these dark images become so haunting it’s comforting to remember they are only words on a page–ultimately proving how effective Hamilton’s writing is. In other moments, however, Hamilton takes readers on a tour de force of a childhood filled with her father’s spring lamb roasts, her mother’s burnt-orange Le Creuset casseroles, and the misadventures into scraped knees, slumber parties and first cigarettes she and her four siblings shared growing up in rural Pennsylvania. In a backyard that sounds as wild as the parties her family was known to throw, my favorite prescient moment is of a young Gabby hauling cases of soda, champagne and wine into the creek to cool. Maybe it’s just the caterer in me, but I admire her crafty ingenuity that predicts the same cleverness found in her cooking today.
There are as many highs as there are lows throughout the story of Chef Hamilton’s life, but it’s the guessing that kept me gripped to her book. At the end of every chapter I’m left wondering: In what wacky direction will she head from here? How will she pull off that over-the-top catering gig? Why hasn’t she spoken to her mother for so long? Hamilton gives us a taste of all the juiciest bits of her life but leaves me hungry for more. I think Anthony Bourdain got it right when he declared himself “choked with envy” after reading Hamilton’s memoir. My vote is to get your hands on a copy and Eat it Up!