Recently, I began flipping through Gabrielle Hamilton's new memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter, while eating lunch, and after three pages, I canceled my afternoon plans. I read until dark, in a bit of a trance, and experienced an uncommon feeling of desolation as the number of pages began to dwindle. This is Hamilton's first book, and I wanted more — right now! — of that voice, that wit, that spiky sensibility.
Unlike Mario and Emeril and Bobby and Alice, Hamilton, the chef/owner of the Manhattan bistro Prune, hasn't become a household name, and if she ever does, it might just be for her writing, not her cooking. While her roasted marrowbones may be great, her prose is virtuoso. Hamilton moves easily from rich metaphor to dark humor, from dreamy abstraction to the vivid and precise descriptions of anything from a maggot-infested rat to a plate of beautiful ravioli. "You could see the herbs and the ricotta through the dough," she writes, "like a woman behind a shower curtain." She can and does, in the course of a page, go from poignant to bitchy to self-critical to rhapsodic and back, and she is never, ever boring.
Hamilton opens the book with an elegiac account of the party her bohemian parents threw at their rural Pennsylvania home each year of her 1970s childhood, an enormous outdoor lamb roast that was as much a work of theater as it was a feast. (A characteristically crisp yet sensual description: "The lambs roasted so slowly and patiently that their blood dripped down into the coals with a hypnotic and rhythmic hiss, which sounded like the hot tip of a just-blown-out match dropped into a cup of water.") Hamilton here establishes the memory of lost wholeness — of a lost home — that haunts the rest of the book.
After her parents divorced, when Hamilton was 11, she essentially went spinning out into the world on her own, a precocious adolescent with a badass attitude in a shoplifted red tube top and spike-heeled sandals. She began washing dishes in a hometown restaurant at 13, moved on to waitressing in Manhattan, and has worked, off and on, in professional kitchens ever since. Most notably, since 1999, Hamilton has owned Prune, a 30-seat East Village bistro with a cult following. Hamilton's descriptions of what she longed to create in Prune — a place where the waiter "would bring you something to eat or drink that you didn't even ask for when you arrived cold and early and undone by your day in the city" — will make you want to book a table and, if necessary, an airline ticket.
You can read this memoir on its most superficial level, as another backstage expose of the chef's life — a distaff retread of Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential — because Hamilton includes plenty of swagger, swearing and drama on the brunch shift. But the book is even more interesting when she moves outside the kitchen. Everywhere Hamilton goes — a gruesome Dutch youth hostel, a pretentious graduate school party ("everybody had removed their shoes so as not to damage the Salvation Army throw rug"), grocery shopping — springs to life on the page. She has an eye for the telling detail and an ability to fold each experience back into her personal saga, giving every apparently random episode a critical place in the drama. When Hamilton writes about a dismal afternoon driving around town with two tetchy kids, frantically looking for a place to eat, she makes the mundane nightmare terribly familiar while simultaneously unpacking all its poetry and meaning.
And then there's the meta story, the one Hamilton never actually tells. It's the bittersweet story of how all that frying and whisking and roasting of marrowbones was actually a bit of a waste. Because, on the evidence of this spectacular book, what Hamilton really should have been doing all these years was writing.