- The Washington Times - Friday, May 20, 2011

By Gabrielle Hamilton
Random House, $26, 291 pages

Gabrielle Hamilton is fierce, passionate, straightforward; she is a romantic and a realist. She is a talented chef and writer.

Her memoir, “Blood, Bones & Butter,” is a delight, the story of a girl who grew up in a “wild castle built into the burnt-out ruins of a nineteenth-century silk mill” with “pigeons and bats” and a backyard that was “a meandering meadow, with a creek running through it and wild geese living in it and a Death Slide cable that ran from high on an oak to the bank of the stream and deposited you, shrieking, into the shallow water.”

It was an idyllic childhood, complete with four elder siblings, an artist father who would prepare an annual lamb roast for 200 guests, and a French mother, Madeleine, who “knew how to get everything comestible from a shin or neck of some animal, how to use a knife, how to cure a cast-iron pan” and from whom she learned all the secrets of a French kitchen.

Gabrielle’s parents divorced when she was about 12, leaving her and a 17-year-old brother in her father’s irresponsible care. Madeleine moved to rural Vermont, and Gabrielle did not see her again for 20 years. The girl “grazed through the menu of adult behavior and tried on whatever seemed attractive, for whatever inchoate reasons, as they occurred to me,” including smoking cigarette butts salvaged from public ashtrays, shoplifting, experimenting with coke and stealing from neighbors.

At 13, she lied about her age and got a job in a restaurant kitchen, where she “felt instantly at home and fell into peeling potatoes and scraping plates for the dishwasher like it was my own skin. And that, just like that, is how a whole life can start.”

It was, and is, a rich, exciting life that included extensive experience in catering, working as a waitress and as a cook in a summer camp. Accepted in the master’s program for fiction writing at the University of Michigan, Ms. Hamilton was thrilled that “they were paying me to read and write.” But she found academia too precious and pedantic for her taste.

In 1986, she departed on what was to be a “slow and meandering two-year trip around the whole world” with “a heavy backpack, a heavy sleeping bag, empty notebooks, and $1,200 in American Express Travelers cheques.” The money was soon gone, and she often starved. Reluctantly, she looked up some of her mother’s relatives and learned the ways of small-town French living.

When she later opened her successful 30-seat restaurant, Prune (the nickname by which her mother called her as a child) in New York’s East Village, it was that experience “[t]o be picked up and fed, often by strangers, when you are in that state of fear and hunger, [which] became the single most important and convincing food experience I came back to over and over.”

“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 served 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.”

Gabrielle married Michele Fuortes, an Italian doctor a decade her senior who took her “on a motorcycle around Rome all night, very fast, and gave me a tour of his city in the dark with the fountains and piazzas and cathedrals and statues high high up of winged horses pulling chariots across the sky made even more luminous and more amazing because of their being lit in golden floods against the orange-scented black night, the oppressive heat of the day diminished, the throngs of summer tourists asleep in their hotels.”

Theirs was an unusual, not very happy, marriage, begun as a green-card lark. The couple had two sons, but Ms. Hamilton writes that in all the years and moments they spent together, Michele “never, incredibly, incomprehensibly, said anything of importance to me.” The only things they had in common were “food, an exorbitant love of and attachment to his mother, and the thing Italians … are kind of known for - the luscious business.” She yearned for the intimacy “married people who live directly from an ancient land with only olive trees and fish from the sea and tomato vines have of moving around each other and their life’s chores, of pausing briefly in the afternoon and squinting out at the same horizon where the sea meets the sky and becomes indivisible, like themselves.”

She was able to carry out the duties of chef-owner of a popular restaurant and mother of two infants at the same time. As she describes it, “being the chef and owner of a restaurant means you have already, by definition, mastered the idea of ‘systems,’ ‘routines,’ and ‘protocols’ so that everyone who works for you can work smart-hard rather than work stupid-hard. So that by the time you are setting up your household and preparing yourself for adding children, you have a tendency toward this kind of order, logic, and efficiency.”

The leitmotif of the book is Gabrielle Hamilton’s yearning for the love and affection she lost when her parents divorced. She dearly wanted to belong, but she came to realize that “[i]t’s promising and seductive, that huge Italian family, sitting around the dinner table, surrounded by the olive trees. But it’s not my family and I am not their family, and no amount of birthing sons, and cooking dinner and raking the leaves or planting gardens or paying for the plane tickets [for the annual trip to Italy] is going to change that. If I don’t come back in eleven months, I will not be missed, and no one will write me or call me to acknowledge my absence. Which is not an accusation, just a small truth about clan and bloodline.”

The restaurant and her staff are her family, as are her sons, the substitute mothers who inspired her, and her many friends. But the reader is left with a sense of poignant sadness that life did not give this extraordinary woman the emotional fulfillment she so desired.

There are wickedly funny moments, described by Ms. Hamilton with a saucy wit. There are instances of deeply moving doubts and fears. There are descriptions of wild behavior and lasting friendships. “Blood, Bones & Butter” is an amazingly honest, often lyrical account of a life lived boldly and generously.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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