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Monday, October 17, 2011

Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton, 2011, * * * * *

A lusty, rollicking, engaging-from-page-one memoir by the chef/owner of Prune restaurant in New York's East Village.  Gabrielle Hamilton opened her restaurant without any prior experience as a chef but the life experiences she did have before that bold move, told here in honest detail, obviously made up for any deficiencies and provide material for an electric story. The youngest of five siblings born to a French mother who cooked 'tails, claws, and marrow filled bones' in a good skirt, high heels, and apron, and an artist father who made the sets for the Ringling Brothers circus, Hamilton spent her early years in a vast old house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  During Hamilton's teenage years her parents were often gone or distracted and following their divorce she lied about her age to get dishwashing and waitressing work.  She is often drawn, or pulled, to the world of food and hospitality even when she struggles against it -- a battle suggested by the book's subtitle "The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. " Through feeding people Hamilton exerts contgrol over a life rendered chotic and undependable when her parents split -- she takes care of others in the way her parents didn't take care of her.  This is clearest in her description of opening Prune, which illuminates how much more than menu planning goes into the creation of a restaurant. Ms. Hamilton nimbly cranks up her own literary time machine to transport us back to the hippie-ish world of rural Pennsylvania in the 1970s and New York city at the height of the coke-and-urban-cowboy era of the '80s.  She conveys what it was like to be a rebellious delinquent in the making and to be young and poor in Manhattan surviving on stolen ketchup packets from McDonalds. She writes with spirited glimpses into the heart, mind and sweaty labor of a chef and the moment to moment drudgery of running a restaurant.  Sometimes, however, Hamilton appears selectively guarded and evasive and maybe even a bit careless. In many places the book cries out for connective tissue that is missing and there are specific omissions that throw a reader off balance.  Her marriage remains opaque, you lose track of her relationship with her father. When her mother reappears in the book after a long absence, Hamkilton vents a fury at her that she hasn't set the stage for.   This is not a memoir with a neatly resolved ending.  Ms. Hamilton is too devoted to grit and realism to allow her story to be neatly resolved.  It is however a fiercely rendered book about food, travel, love, lost childhood, initiative, and self-reliance.   It is a story of hungers specific and vague, conquered and unappeasable, and what it lacks in urgency it makes up for in prose.  It was impossible to put down.

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