Most helpful critical review
482 of 515 people found the following review helpful
Blood and bones but not much butter
on February 7, 2011
A memoir written by a chef is appealing because it promises to take us to a place few of us ever see, unless it's on the Food Network---that is, a restaurant kitchen. It promises to reveal all of the gritty, unlovely steps leading up to the moment when the beautiful plate emerges from the pass and into the hands of the waitstaff. In addition, after Anthony Bourdain led the way, such a memoir must also offer appetite-killers: dirty walk-ins, unsavory butchering scenes. And, like a religious testament, it also has those conversion moments, the moment when the chef discovers that she or he is destined to become an artist with food. Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir has all of these elements.
When Hamilton writes about food, she's entertaining, irreverent, and even spiritual. Her engaging account of her father's spring lamb roast (an edited version of this piece recently appeared in The New Yorker) establishes the origins of her love of food. Her account of her years working for catering companies will make you think hard before you pick up that next wedding hors d'oeuvre from the waiter's silver plate. And a chapter about cooking at a summer camp in the Berkshires is funny and deft in its handling of detail. I loved her wry depiction of the time she spent in a master's writing program, from the satirical descriptions of her fellow writers to her homage to Misty, a fellow cook and, for Hamilton, a kind of culinary muse.
This book aspires to be more than just a chef memoir, however, since the subtitle refers to "The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef." In particular, this is a book about family: about Hamilton's own family, painfully riven by divorce when she was still a child, and about her marriage and the birth of her two sons. With the exception of the opening chapters, these parts of the book are often difficult to read, mostly because they have almost none of the good qualities (sharp detail, humor, self-awareness) of the "chef" sections. Her relationship with her mother, the "spider" of a chapter about a long, miserable visit to Vermont, is so angry and painful that you want to avert your eyes. After such a rant, a reader comes not a whit closer to understanding this mother or why she behaves as she does. As for Hamilton's marriage to Michele, the man whose ancestral home in Italy is the setting for the last ("Butter') section of the book, this too is the subject of pages and pages of rage and disappointment. Yes, this unhappiness is somewhat mitigated by Hamilton's initial happiness in cooking and eating in Italy, as well as her pleasure in being part of Michele's extended family. In the end, however, the many pages devoted to descriptions of glorious Italian foodstuffs (think Frances Mayes, with cursing) turn into too much eggplant, the Italian family disappoints, and the marriage remains a source of sorrow.
There are many memoirs about unhappy families. How the writer shapes that material is key. The difference between "Blood, Bones, and Butter" and other memoirs about bad parents, like Tobias Wolff's "This Boy's Life" or Mary Karr's "The Liar's Club," is one of perspective. Even when Wolff is telling us about how his mother failed to protect him from his abusive stepfather or Karr is describing yet another chilling incident with her parents, we know the grown-up writers understand why their parents acted the way they did. This sort of perspective is not evident in Hamilton's memoir, perhaps because she has not yet gained it. In her book, the education of Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef, is presented as the most interesting of dishes, full of diverse and sometimes surprising ingredients---and so it is. (I was lucky to have the chance to eat, just once, in her restaurant, Prune, and she is truly a wonder in the kitchen.) However, her depiction here of her education as daughter, wife, and mother awaits a more finished account.