Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Book Review: Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

I cracked open Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones & Butter with a notion that I was going to go down a road of self-reflection, much like the chef interviews I do. I thought there might be humorous anecdotes, moments of inspiration, but instead I found myself snapping the book shut and murmuring to my roommate, "Kim, I feel...depressed. I think this book is making me depressed."

Okay, so maybe "blood" and "bones" in the title should have been the first red flag that this wasn't a book that was going to have me rolling in laughter and courageously marching into my kitchen to cook things. There were enjoyable moments throughout the book, but overall, I found that Hamilton glossed over much of her personal life, hinting at problems here and there, and coloring her biography with a bit of bravado and mystique. Perfectly reasonable, considering that it's her book, but if you're going to write about yourself I think you either have to come to terms with your "issues" or leave 'em at the door completely. I appreciate her tenacity and tough spirit, but at times it just came across as bitter and angry.

Right about when I started reading the book, Hamilton came out saying that she find "foodies" to be a "bummer" and "I'm barely interested in food....I love food but I don't like to talk about it very long." Strangely enough, she wrote an entire book about her relationship and experiences with food! Now I don't like all the stigmas and associations that go with the word "foodie." At the heart of it, I think foodie should just refer to someone who has a passion for food, who wants to understand the cultures and processes behind what makes great food. But the yuppies and hipsters (yupsters?) surrounding my generation who grace the pages of some of my former favorite magazines have ruined this notion. Foodies often refer to skinny people in jeans doing quaint things like "putting up dilly beans" and commenting on the latest food trend that is written about ad nauseam. These people don't actually like real food, they only think they do. They like the aseptic version of food that photographs well. They make me cringe. I'll assume these are the people Hamilton was referring to, nod in agreement if that's what she meant and just move on from the whole thing.

Going back to the book, there were several parts that stuck with me and actually left me with a positive feeling. For one, Hamilton's descriptions are written wonderfully, so much so that you find yourself longing to be a party guest at one of the soiree's her parents used to host or lounging in the Italian sunshine at her ex-husband's family's villa. Her chronic need for organization was something I could both chuckle along with and relate to, along with her desire to plan extravagant dinners in which "potluck" was akin to a dirty word.

There's also something about just losing yourself in the actions of repeating things over and over in the kitchen which Hamilton mentioned. She put it best when she said, "What I have loved about cooking my entire life, especially prep cooking, is the way that it keeps your hands occupied but your mind free to sort everything out. I have never once finished an eight-hour prep shift without something from my life--mundane or profound--sorted out." Those were the parts I could understand and appreciate from the book. The other more angry and confused parts in which she was struggling to find what she wanted in life, I suppose those captured the sentiment well since I found myself getting frustrated and sullen. But I also found parts of the book whiny (ie: you are in an unhappy marriage that you arrived at after being a lesbian, yet you're in a villa in Italy going on and on about the food and produce and gorgeous scenery. Hey, life could be worse).

The other part of her book that stood out in my mind was her short chapter on being a woman in the restaurant industry. I completely agree with her assessment that she'd like to simply be known as a great chef rather than a great female chef. And I agree with her simple advice to "Get in the kitchen; cook well; and the rest will take care of itself." What I like about food is that you can't bullshit it--it either tastes good or it doesn't. Cooking, perhaps, is the great equalizer--you can talk all you want, you can be any age, ethnicity or gender, but your food? It had better taste good. That being said, it's fair to say that being a woman in the food industry does pose a different set of challenges. Hamilton made her job work around her two pregnancies, and my guess is that being the owner of her own restaurant afforded her some freedom with that. Rather than downplay the significance of being a female chef, maybe we ought to be giving women like Hamilton extra applause for cooking great food, raising a family, running a successful business and not letting the whole thing go to pot. Or is the extra praise offensive? I'm not quite sure. Maybe the day that we're not talking about "what it's like to be a woman in the restaurant industry" will be the day when we've finally made it.

Overall, I would recommend reading Blood, Bones & Butter. Sometimes you've got to read something that makes you feel a little unease, that makes you think, that makes you agree with points and disagree with others. Hamilton's command of language certainly does all that and maybe she'll pen another book that will give us more insight into her world and her experience with food.

1 comment:

  1. The last paragraph is spot on. Nice review!


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