Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

Rating: 3 Stars

The memoir is a problematic genre, more so now, than it has ever been. For one, it faces the same challenge that ice-dancing does in the world of Olympic sports – what is its credibility in being classified as nonfiction? Readers may remember the recent debacle involving James Frey’s ‘A Million Little Pieces’ which was alleged to have scant facts, and some highly embellished ones at that. Add to that the memoirist’s selective memory, and wholly one-sided version of the story. Last but not least, there’s the snobs’ objection that one should have actually accomplished something before succumbing to the hubris of publicly sharing one’s life story.

I would like to say something in defense of these snobs, since I too belong to their cadre. I can only point to the myriad volumes of celebrity memoirs, and whiny tell-alls from the Average Joes and Janes who feel they’ve had a tough life. Still, we live in an egalitarian age – everybody has a story to tell, and some have a story that will sell, like Gabrielle Hamilton’s chef memoir. The title of the book may sound unnervingly like a sample recipe from Dr. Hannibal’s Lechter’s kitchen, but it’s an apt one. Hamilton’s story of her dysfunctional family, blighted childhood, and early anti-social behavior isn’t pretty; it comes with a lot of gristle.

She divides the book into three parts; ‘Blood’ covers some of the best and worst remembrances of her childhood, her accidental forays into the kitchen, her run-ins with the law, and her decision to get her act together. ‘Bones’ relates to her career as a chef, and the starting of her own restaurant. ‘Butter’ is about her unconventional marriage, motherhood, and her Italian in-laws.

I confess that my favorite portion of the book was ‘Bones’. Hamilton’s motivation in opening her restaurant seems to come from a vocation to serve in more ways than one, and is a testimony to both the sense of hospitality she inherited from her father, and the dauntless organization and hard-work ethic of her French mother. She effortlessly captures and conveys the frenetic energy zinging around in her restaurant, as she and her crew hustle a Sunday brunch for over 200 people in five hours in a space that seats thirty at a time. Perhaps that is why in contrast, I found the descriptions of her personal life embarrassing, wearying, and ultimately sad. This woman, who is admirable in many ways in her ablity to channel her clarity of purpose, commitment, sacrifice, and fearlessness when it came to her profession, is yet unable to stop her most cherished dreams of family from trickling through her fingers.

She is strikingly on message when she speaks about food. Even a casual foodie knows the different currents swirling around that topic. Food is both a science and an art; a victim and a cause on the battlefields of bioethics and conscience; swayed alike by philosophy and fads, and, in its manner of consumption either a conduit to well-being or ill health. Unlike many celebrity chefs however, Hamilton understands it, not as a rarefied concept to tease jaded appetites, but in its true essence as manna to slake life’s most primal urge.

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