Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef (Random House, 2011)
I did not meet my wife at Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune in the East Village (that distinction belongs to Moto, the wine bar under the J train in South Williamsburg) but a lot of our early courting was done across the restaurant’s bar. She was a bartender, and I’d gaze at her while she mixed drinks, eating Hamilton’s sweetbreads, monkfish liver, or any other irresistible special she created.
Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, chronicles the genesis of Prune, sort of, but more so Hamilton’s life framed through a love of food. You get the feeling the chef has spent a life exploring the spiritual intricacies of the finer culinary arts at the expense of an ability to appreciate life itself.
What makes Hamilton’s book often so lovely is not so much the story of the genesis of the venerated Prune, but the fact that the chef, very much a writer, can actually write. Beautifully. And what stories: from her upbringing in rural Pennsylvania with a French mother and father who built sets for Broadway shows to the birth of Hamilton’s own children. The story is invigorating and cuts to the bone, indelibly wistful.
It was Peter Kane, now of Stanton Social and Beauty & Essex fame, who first turned me on to Prune. He was obsessed when it opened. I was more into the now-defunct Elephant, a French-Thai bistro a couple of doors down. But the earthy Prune—beloved marrow bones, anchovy butter and all—won me over.
I do not know Hamilton personally. I’ve spoken to her in passing on numerous occasions, much as she has done with many Prune regulars. I am friends with a number of individuals who worked for her. I have listened to many diatribes against Hamilton, as well as glowing love-fests, over the years, so many that they were often a bore. (My wife loves her.) If you’ve ever worked in restaurants you know that most of what people say about their bosses or coworkers is pure bullshit.
That said, what’s curious about Hamilton’s characterization of herself in her own book is how closely it mirrors the Hamilton I’ve heard people speak of: passionate, violently talented, impersonal, tender, brutal. In one passage she speaks of breaking up with her girlfriend of many years, a woman who helped her build Prune. It is one of the most concise, well-written yet brutal passages I have read.
But I had a girlfriend at the time and not only did I still love her and live with her; if you turned around from scratching my arm in the most suggestive and sexually charged way, you would see her there behind the bar, polishing some glasses and mixing the cocktails while we stand over here in my open kitchen doing that utterly forbidden thing: shitting where we eat. The warm exchange between customer and restaurateur is not supposed to go quite that far. In the script, though, you and your girlfriend are already on the rocks and filled with resentments and anger and every conversation turns into a fight and you’ve stopped having sex a long time ago and then of course, like clockwork, someone appears who finds you attractive, who is not yet angry with you, who wants to win your affection. And then it’s just a hastening to the inevitable ending.
Amazed at the sheer eloquence (she switches to second person), I had to remind myself that, like a sophist, Hamilton had just described crushing her lesbian lover for a man she constantly proclaims she is actually ambivalent about. She does not explain this seismic event in her life, though it must have been shocking to many people around her. It just happened; it’s not important.
I’m not sure if the story Hamilton tells of herself and Michele, the man who became the father of her children, is some kind of tender, unorthodox love story, or the demented ravings of a sociopath using a man for his sperm and Italian culinary family traditions. The fine line between these polarities is just that thin. Do I view Hamilton as some sort of monster because of all of the propaganda I’ve heard about her over the years (and read in her own memoir), or am I a closet groupie of hers myself? I am blown away by her journey; it reminds me of the scope, if less the substance, of my own life. Across cities and eras and perspectives. Are wildly successful people inevitably monsters? Or characterized as such?
Many questions persist, such as the mystery of Hamilton’s mother. There feels an incredible chasm between the mother who gave Hamilton her understanding and love of food as a child, and the person she mysteriously has not seen for 20 years by the end of the book. The rich brother, who as a powerful Goldman Sachs executive hired the lawyer who got Hamilton out of grand larceny charges as a teenager, is a specter as well. In a memoir so very personal, the lack of exposition about her family is glaring. You simply cannot introduce characters important to the arc of your life, and then not explain a minimum totality of their existence and relationship to you. Hamilton hides aspects of her relationship with family, just like she fails to mention that her father has owned a restaurant in New Jersey for many years—this fact goes unmentioned in her book.
The last third of Blood, Bones & Butter is a tad repetitious—did you know she was chef/owner of her own small restaurant? It’s hard to argue that Hamilton doesn’t become overly bitchy by the end. The book reeks of the fatigue inherent in a life spent in restaurants. It is as if Hamilton runs out of things to say, stories to tell, so she just retreats to rehashing tales of her mother-in-law and cooking in Puglia. Bashing her (now ex-) husband. And by the end the bashing becomes pointless and boring. But before that, in its earliest sections, Hamilton’s memoir is vibrant, and lives up to what it aims to be—a framing of life through someone’s relation to food, in all the lovely as well as spirit-crushing guises. I came away with an enriched love for Prune, respect for Hamilton, but also horror. Long live the love of food, even at the expense of an embrace of life. And yes, long live our beloved New York City.