Gabrielle Hamilton’s much-anticipated memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, isn’t out till March of next year, but the advance reader’s edition has started to hit desks around town. It’s plastered not only with a blurb from Anthony Bourdain (echoing his previous praise), but also one from Mario Batali: “I will read this book to my children and then burn all the books I have written for pretending to be anything even close to this. Then I will apply for the dishwasher job at Prune to learn from my new queen.” The book is available for preorder now, so let’s have a look inside.
Prune, as her mother calls her, was one of five children growing up in a burnt-out silk mill in New Hope, Pennsylvania, where her mother roasted marrow bones and her father (an artist and set designer) roasted entire goats for elaborate lawn parties. Her parents divorced when she was 13, leaving her to her own devices and sending her on a shoplifting spree and into her first restaurant gig. She hardly speaks to her mom during the years that she works as a 17-year-old, coked-up cocktail waitress at the old Lone Star Café in the Village (she gets busted stealing from the management), attends Hampshire College (only to drop out), cooks in a summer-camp kitchen (she gets an early compliment from one of the kids’ dads, Mr. Mark Bittman), works for a big catering company (you’ll never want to hire one again after reading about wedding hors d’oeuvres sitting around for days), studies to be a writer at the University of Michigan (she takes another catering gig and learns how to can, smoke, pickle, and shuck beans from a colleague and mentor), and travels Europe (after working in a crêperie in France, she’s inspired to sign the lease for Prune, because “I had learned about buckwheat galettes and white flour crêpes and room temperature lettuce and salted butter and cellared hard cider in a typical Breton creperie”).
But while Hamilton doesn’t see her mother for two decades, she’s clearly influenced by the woman’s fastidiousness about food. Later in life, the chef refuses to brunch at places that need to lure customers in with free mimosas, no matter how hungry she is. And she doesn’t much like those “pretentious restaurants on Smith Street, that minor-league stretch of Brooklyn that always disappoints.” Heck, she even has things to say about a certain Italian spot around the corner from Prune: “Even though it was a nothing place with cheap German ‘parmesan’ standing in for the real thing and commercial balsamic vinegar in industrial-sized plastic jugs, you had to wait for an hour on the sidewalk for a table, naturally.”
Hamilton meets her future husband (and father of her two kids) when he skips the wait at this restaurant (Lil’ Frankies, we’re thinking?) and walks into Prune instead. At the time, she’s in the grips of a prolonged breakup with a woman she met in Michigan, but Michele (an Italian) seduces her with homemade ravioli and motorcycle rides to the beach. Later, after she reluctantly marries him for the purpose of a green card, it turns out to be something deeper. They spend their Julys with his mom and her housekeeper; her adopted Italian family instructs her in everything from forming orecchiette to shopping at the market for the first time in years (she stopped going to the Greenmarket “when some hipster chick in sparkly barrettes and perfectly styled ‘farmer’ clothes came screeching at me ‘DON’T TOUCH THE PEAS!’”).
Hamilton writes about her formative food experiences lyrically — even something like Coca-Cola is “so tannic and sweet and achingly cold that it makes my eyes tear up.” But the book also has its share of Bourdain-esque bravado. She doesn’t pull any punches when describing the neighbors who add to the stress of running Prune (the 240-pound Brazilian who hangs out on the sidewalk showing off his “man titties,” and the old biddy who calls down to complain every time the “black music” is too loud), or when recalling a time she spoke on a panel with other female chefs and ended up crying during the train ride home. She writes, “Every time I think I can rely on a group or category — like my sister women in the industry or my sister lesbians or whatever — Ruth Reichl frosts me at an event, for the seventh time, or the women on my panel say ridiculous things about women’s superiority or the lesbians go out and start voting Republican — and the whole thing caves in for me, and I start to mistrust my own kind.”
Hamilton offers a few inside glimpses into the restaurant business (she’s proud that Prune does $2 million in sales per year, even if it’s not a 10 percent profit margin — during a typical brunch, the tiny kitchen goes through 192 Thomas English muffins and 1,440 eggs), but for the most part this book is more nuanced and confessional than Kitchen Confidential. Its author doesn’t hesitate to reveal the anguish of being married to a man she feels she doesn’t really know (their greatest pleasure, besides the Italy trips, is beer on ice). She’s brutally honest in recounting the moment she realizes — when her mother mixes blackberry schnapps with jug wine — that the woman who sent her to school with ratatouille sandwiches on homemade olive-oil bread isn’t the insufferable snob she thought she was. She boasts about her work ethic (one to-do list she makes while about to give birth includes “have baby” and “train CR on a 2-man line”), but at the same time, she’s not too calloused to recall the giddiness she felt when being driven to a Martha Stewart taping for the first time, or the awkwardness of having to decide whether to give money to a beggar while she rides in an Escalade, “like military brass,” to the South Beach Wine and Food Festival (“the new status of the chef as celebrity,” she writes, “further confuses me”).
After all, this is a chef who scrubbed human shit off of the floor of her restaurant’s basement, and then disposed of a maggot-ridden rat, because she, “unfortunately,” wasn’t capable of asking the porter to do it. And that’s the beauty of this book, really — in this age of celebrity restaurateurs being turned into bobble-head dolls and robotic reality-show judges, it’s refreshing to read the memoir of a chef who admits to being only human. Yes, you should absolutely preorder it, but be warned you may find yourself itching to open a restaurant.