I love reading food & travel books – for inspiration, insight, and escape. I love sitting in my armchair as Anthony Bourdain takes me to some hole in the wall restaurant in Asia, or imagining myself on a bicycle in Russia, drinking tea on the side of the road with locals and being invited into their homes to sample local delicacies.
While planning a recent trip where I was to be driving alone for several hours, I began downloading audio books to help pass the time. This led to an interview clip with Anthony Bourdain, Eric Ripert and Gabrielle Hamilton, and then to the purchase of Gabrielle’s book “Blood, Bones & Butter”. I had seen the book on store shelves many times, and had a flicker of interest based solely upon the graphic cover (you’ve got to love marketing), but it never really jumped at me. I hadn’t been looking for a memoir I guess. Which brings me back to my long drive – I had plenty of time and nothing to lose. And I admit that something about her “back to the basics” approach intrigued me.
Listening to Gabrielle as she reads her memoir is a bit like sitting in a concert hall, eyes closed, listening to an orchestra play “Perfect Food”. She is an extraordinary writer, and upon completion of the book, I discovered that she has a Master’s Degree in fiction writing from the University of Michigan. It was so easy to listen to her voice, speaking honestly and passionately about her life as well as food, and about her journey from a dysfunctional family to be the award winning Chef/Owner of the New York restaurant “Prune”. She has the ability to turn something ordinary, such as the mundane task of deep-frying “stacks and stacks” of flour tortillas at a tourist-trap restaurant when she was 15, into a pair of evocative metaphors: the tortilla would “float and sizzle on the surface for a moment like a lily pad on a pond,”, she writes. “Then, with a deep ten-ounce ladle, I pushed down in the center, and the tortilla came up around the bowl like the long dress and underskirts of a Victorian woman who had fallen, fully clothed, into a lake, her skirts billowing up around her heavy sinking body.”
Like Bourdain, Hamilton is brutally honest about her experiences in the world of restauranteering and catering, sharing its least glamorous realities as well as the inspirational moments that led her to where she is today. It dives into her relationship with her French mother, her experiences with drugs, crime and sexuality, a marriage to an Italian which stayed alive only because of the love she felt for her Mother-in-law, her children, and her gradual acceptance of self. As for her very successful restaurant, she knew exactly what she was looking for – “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”. She is also brutally honest about her own self-discovery, as her independent nature forced her hand many times over. Throughout the book there is a sense that Hamilton feels anger towards other people in general, which threatens to undercut her likability to some extent, but her self-reliance, ambition, and clever writing style cannot be denied, nor ignored.
Not a light read, and not for everyone, but certainly a book that speaks loudly and deserves to be shared.