three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
52-May-June-2011
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The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

A-Blood Bones and Butter.epsGabrielle Hamilton is the chef and the owner of the celebrated New York City restaurant Prune. She also has an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Michigan. Her essays have appeared in Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and Saveur.

The Topic: After divorce shatters Hamilton's idyllic childhood in rural Pennsylvania, the little girl must suddenly fend for herself. She learns to cook by "opening old jars of stuff my mother had left behind in the pantry." The abandoned and hungry 12-year-old lies about her age to get a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant and eventually works her way up through the kitchen. "And that, just like that, is how a whole life can start," she writes. Through juvenile delinquency, college, and the pursuit of a writing career, Hamilton's culinary skills provide her with a steady if monotonous stream of catering and cooking jobs until a chance meeting and an empty Greenwich Village storefront yield Prune, a homey restaurant renowned for its rustic, unpretentious fare.
Random House. 304 pages. $26. ISBN: 9781400068722

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Though Ms. Hamilton's brilliantly written new memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter, is rhapsodic about food--in every variety, from the humble egg-on-a-roll sandwich served by Greek delis in New York to more esoteric things like ‘fried zucchini agrodolce with fresh mint and hot chili flakes'--the book is hardly just for foodies. Ms. Hamilton ... is as evocative writing about people and places as she is at writing about cooking, and her memoir does as dazzling a job of summoning her lost childhood as Mary Karr's Liars' Club and Andre Aciman's Out of Egypt did with theirs." Michiko Kakutani

Toronto Star (Canada) 4 of 5 Stars
"Blood, Bones & Butter is the ideal culinary memoir to get us re-interested in the genre, because it's exactly what the best of them used to be--frank, entertaining and extremely well-written." Christine Sismondo

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"One of the biggest thrills of Blood, Bones & Butter is watching her self-discovery unspool as the independent streak she was forced to nurture at such a young age takes stronger and stronger hold. By the book's end, she may or may not have found herself, but one thing is clear: She is reluctant no more." Joe Yonan

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The pleasures in [the final] section of the book are few, and the author herself comes close to sounding self-absorbed, inward-looking and resentful rather than being the outward-looking observer that so charms in the rest of the memoir. ... Despite the deflated note on which Blood, Bones & Butter ends, this book is every bit as rich and satisfying as the marrow bones the author roasts at Prune." Michael Ruhlman

Entertainment Weekly 3 of 5 Stars
"Blood, Bones & Butter can be frustrating, with nicely observed takes on food and restaurant life but too little on her own story. ... There's also a lot of sloppy writing: Pointless repetition and samey sentences--does every line need an aside set off by dashes?--make for a choppy read. Still, those descriptions stick." Rob Brunner

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The book has been praised for its openness and honesty, and it's true that there can be little left about Hamilton's life that we don't know about. ... But ranting is the not same as writing and what's lacking in this book is any kind of introspection. Hamilton has a strong, visceral style, but mainly in one key." Russ Parsons

Critical Summary

Hamilton's "minutely observed, artfully structured, fluidly written" (Wall Street Journal) memoir is a vivid account of her lifelong and, initially, unenthusiastic romance with food. Hamilton doesn't idealize the restaurant business but colorfully conjures its gritty realities: maggot-riddled dead rats and flooded basements one day and an appearance on The Martha Stewart Show the next. However, despite Anthony Bourdain's lavish praise ("Magnificent. Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever."), the critics considered Blood engaging but flawed, citing monotonous tirades, some clumsy writing, and a frustrating lack of self-knowledge. These shortcomings, according to the Boston Globe, result in "a very good book [rather] than a great one," but one well worth reading nevertheless.

Cited by the Critics

Kitchen Confidential Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly | Anthony Bourdain (2000): Considered by many of the critics to be the gold standard for bad-boy-chef memoirs, Kitchen Confidential is a hilarious and shocking exposé of the restaurant industry as witnessed by one of its most notorious celebrities.