Fiction and nonfiction releases from Ice-T, Kenneth Slawenski, Eva Gabrielsson and James Miller.
During summer vacation, part of me wants to spend my hard-earned shekels traveling the world and eating amazing food. The other part of me just wants to lie on the couch with a good book. Now, thanks to five delicious new food memoirs, I can do both.
The books — written by a reluctant, bad-girl chef; an avant-garde restaurateur; a slacker with a love of roast chicken; a Mideast war correspondent; and an American in Paris — are about love affairs with food, and the journeys that led their authors into the kitchen.
Granted, the term "food memoir" usually makes me cringe. It just smacks of indulgence — and not the good kind. Besides, in our age of celebrity chefs, kitchen lit and food fetishes, one has to wonder if there is anything really fresh to say about cooking at all.
Well happily, the answer turns out to be yes.
Gabrielle Hamilton has been the chef and owner of Prune, a popular American nouveau restaurant in New York City's East Village, since 1999. During this time, the well-known chef also earned an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Michigan, something she put to use in writing her first book (which has already reached No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list), the aptly titled Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef.
Blood, Bones & Butter is the sort of hard-edged restaurant memoir we've come to expect from fellow New York chefs like Anthony Bourdain, who, coincidentally, described Hamilton's book as "simply the best memoir by a chef. Ever." But it's also the story of a young girl confused by her parents' sudden divorce, who turned to a life of crime and, perhaps even more perilous, restaurant work.
Hamilton named her restaurant after the nickname her mother gave her as a girl. She writes a lot about her French mother in Blood, Bones & Butter and, as she tells Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz, her mother's discipline and sense of thrift heavily influenced her and her cooking.
"She took us into the woods, we picked fiddlehead ferns, we knew how to hunt for chanterelle mushrooms, we had a garden, we went to the local farm and we got raw milk," Hamilton explains. "She had French wartime parents, so she had grown up highly attuned to, you know, the economy of feeding a family. So we were often just cutting away the moldy bit and getting to the rest of whatever was edible on the product itself. So we really learned to eat from her."
Hamilton's mother and father, who was a theater set designer, divorced when she was 11 years old. After the pair split, Hamilton found herself on her own and in need of a way to earn money, and she soon turned to the familiar world of kitchen work.
"I mean, between the two of them I [felt] like I knew how to wash dishes and clear plates and cook food, so it made sense to land in a restaurant kitchen," Hamilton says.
As Blood, Bones & Butter details, Hamilton spent the years that followed working in various restaurants and getting into trouble — stealing cars, doing hard drugs and almost getting arrested — before finally turning things around. She got married, had two kids and now devotes herself full-time to her work as a chef and restaurant owner, as well as her work as a writer. She has written for countless newspapers and magazines and sees this first book as only the beginning of her writing career.
"I really like the way writing and restaurant work go together — they sort of counterbalance and are an antidote to each other," she says. "So if I could, I'd like to stay right where I am: some writing, a lot of restaurant and my kids, and that's a pretty full life right there."
Blood, Bones & Butter
By Gabrielle Hamilton
Hardcover, 304 pages
List Price: $26
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.