Destination: New York City, Italy Book: Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, by Gabrielle Hamilton
A GUEST POST by Casey Barber
Note: Today a knowledgeable food writer tells us about a new memoir by a chef who is also a writer who travels through kitchens of New York, France, Greece, Turkey and Italy. Good for traveler’s to New York or those who want to know more about Italian cooking.
Even if you’ve never set foot in New York City restaurant, Prune, Gabrielle Hamilton‘s effortlessly charming and minuscule place on East 1st Street in Manhattan, the kind of place for which the adjective “jewel-box” was created–even if you’ve never sucked down a gin martini at its zinc bar or let a few drops of anchovy butter drip from a grilled head-on prawn onto the brown kraft-papered wobbly table, Hamilton will feed you a meaty tale via her memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter. It’s a journey through her physical worlds—the lamb feasts and cool Pennsylvania streams of her childhood, the not-yet-gentrified downtown alleys of Manhattan, the uneasy family trips to Italy, where years of tradition weigh a bit too heavy on a woman still wrestling with the idea of marriage —but also through the mind of someone who is fated to cook.
Even as Hamilton finishes a graduate program in writing, her side job as catering prep cook creeps ever closer back to the forefront of her duties until she comes to the alarming realization:
“I could wake up and tackle [kitchen prep] in a way that I would never be able to wake up and take a crack at certain literary pursuits, like, for example, illuminating the fog surrounding the human condition.”
She asks the question those of us who find ourselves baking cakes in 90˚ heat at midnight– who routinely end up with mountains of plates, bowls, beater blades, and skillets from yet another culinary experiment, wrestle with: “Did I have something in me other than dishwasher?” Don’t fret if for you, unlike me, the answer to that is no. Keep reading Blood, Bones & Butter and slowly savor the meal in front of you while the rest of us do the dishes.
Hamilton recounts her bohemian childhood in New Hope, Pennsylvania, which abruptly ended when her adored French mother, from whom she learned to cook and who gave Hamilton the nickname “Prune” (French for “plum”), abruptly leaves the family for rural Vermont and all kids and parents scatter like marbles across the globe.
As an adult, Hamilton creates the restaurant Prune to “harness a hundred pivotal experiences relating to food—including hunger and worry—and translate those experiences into actual plates of food.” For anyone who’s ever arrived hungry, tired, thirsty, and even bedraggled by travel and the woes of the day, Hamilton serves up plates and atmosphere that epitomize the warm and unquestioning hospitality of simply good dishes.
In Prune’s first year of business, in walks a stubborn Italian, who—as Hamilton says—was first seduced by the food and the “insouciant female energy” of Prune and, in a The Kids Are All Right-style twist, ended up seducing Hamilton away from her girlfriend for marriage and kids. But like the Negronis she and husband Michele drank in the early days of their affair (and the description of which made this reviewer reach anew for the Campari bottle, so enticing is their call), Hamilton’s marriage immediately finds itself in a balancing act between bitter and sweet.
She struggles with her increasing isolation from her husband while falling deeply in love with his family: namely, his Italian grandmother, Alda. Alda’s culinary gifts are the type of Italian grandmotherly talents that seem so exquisitely rustic that they must be fictional, but which anyone who’s eaten great Italian cooking knows to be no exaggeration. So what if she stores food unrefrigerated in the cupboards of the family’s villa in Puglia? She and Hamilton, who speaks very little Italian, “talk” through cooking, wordlessly sharing and tag-teaming ingredients.
With each successive trip to visit her Italian in-laws, Hamilton’s desire to become familial and to please the clan with perfect dinner party, recapturing the expansive, welcoming lamb feasts of her youth and the “salty, sweet, starchy, brothy, crispy” simplicity of meals at Prune, becomes all-encompassing. Hamilton’s search to quell her hunger and find satisfaction drives the heart of Blood, Bones & Butter. Whether she’s looking for the perfect ratio of meat to butter in a simple prosciutto sandwich or searching for a family with arms outstretched to welcome her “since my own family evaporated, years ago,” Hamilton’s story unlocks a deeply abiding yearning. Her well-written story comes from that same place, from a cook’s desire to share and please others in very basic terms. And like the best chefs and storytellers, she always leaves you wanting just a bit more.
Casey Barber is the editor of the online magazine Good. Food. Stories. and a freelance food writer/recipe developer who has written for ReadyMade, Time Out New York, and other print and online publications. Prune is one of her top five favorite restaurants in New York City.
Thanks, Casey for introducing us to this fascinating memoir about food from different cultures and the life of a chef. Readers, be sure to check out Good. Food. Stories. for some of the best food writing you’ll see anywhere.
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Do you have a favorite chef’s memoir? What makes it special?