Wednesday, January 11, 2012

2011 Top 10: Blood, Bones & Butter

Fifth in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2011, presented in alphabetical order.

Blood Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton, ©2011
Slowly the meadow filled with people and fireflies and laughter -- just as my father had imagined -- and the lambs on their spits were hoisted off the pit onto the shoulders of men, like in a funeral procession, and set down on the makeshift plywood-on-sawhorse tables to be carved. Then the sun started to set and we lit the paper bag luminaria, which burned soft glowing amber, punctuating the meadow and the night, and the lamb was crisp-skinned and sticky from slow roasting, and the root beer was frigid and caught, like an emotion, in the back of my throat.
Gabrielle Hamilton looks back on her nine-year-old self in that passage -- over-the-moon infatuated with her older siblings, her mother’s way in the kitchen and her father’s way with setting a stage ... and unaware that divorce and neglect are just around the corner.

By 13, she’s drugging with an older crowd and lying about her age to get work in restaurant kitchens to support herself; before long she's participating in a felony-level employee theft racket. Yet she has a knack for stumbling onto cooking mentors and gradually learns enough to run the kitchen at a kids’ summer camp and freelance-cook at high-volume caterers for fancy Hamptons (NY) parties. She completes a fiction-writing MFA, but only because she simultaneously finds a wellspring of sanity and true creativity in a side cooking job that recalls the down-to-earth food and settings of her childhood. And it's with that "real food" perspective that she eventually opens a restaurant -- New York City’s acclaimed Prune.

There's evidence of that MFA in this memoir -- a beautiful mix of literary and culinary creativity. I marked evocative passages throughout, and especially recall Hamilton’s homage to the simplicity and humility of 75-year-old (chef extraordinaire) Andre Soltner preparing a perfect omelet. Although she does settle into a somewhat straightforward prose to tell the bulk of her story, and I don’t think she’s quite figured out her relationships with her parents or partners, these pages are fierce and vivid. And thus I also find myself over-the-moon infatuated -- with Hamilton’s writing and with her story of reclaiming family ... or at least an adult, work-centered facsimile of it.

(Review based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.)

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