Thursday, September 08, 2011

Review: Blood, Bones, and Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton

Full title: Blood Bones and Butter: The Inadvertant Education of a Reluctant Chef. Look, you know that the self-selected memoirs of anyone who has been lucky enough to find they've received an inadvertant education, and land a somewhat prestigious creative job are going to be just a little bit precious. I mean, who is even able to discover the things that really satisfy them, never mind make a successful (dual) career of them? It might be something you usually get from memoirs), but quite a lot of my investment here is puzzling out just how much I like and trust Gabrielle Hamilton. (I am struggling that I might having be a sexist reaction, but to be fair, I brought in similar suspicions about Anthony Bourdain's famous book, to which this one most easily compares, and while I find his self-deprecating sarcasm a slightly more palatable contrast to the underlying ego than her unremitting authenticity, the key difference between the two reads is that Hamilton is a much more personal and composed--that is, better--writer.) It's a hell of a story: a suddenly neglected kid in a 1970s suburbia that I can relate to, a teenage cokehead with a chip on her shoulder that I can't quite connect with, a talented serial dropout (at least she doesn't bullshit us that she's not also a writer), an itinerant American, a lucked-into career boost, a difficult marriage of convenience. It reads like so much self-mythologizing, but on the other hand, Hamilton's writing is very approachable, entertaining, and impeccable in the basic-but-elegant mode she's aiming for, and she doesn't offer any simple arcs for the development of her character. She is not unaware (nor is she apologetic) about the role she herself has played in the challenges she writes about, and she is thoughtful enough to keep turning around and questioning her instincts and understandings about her own story. It's the sort of honest exploration which really warms up this reader, and this sort of analysis was much appreciated. If I found myself occasionally annoyed to hear about some of the breaks, then the difficulties with people brought home a believable balance of both tragedy and a sort of privilege.

No, being left (possibly, arguably) alone for a summer as a thirteen-year-old, a big feature of the first third of her story, is no break, and it's hard not be taken aback by that one. On the other hand, let's not pretend that she's missing the chance to brag what a badass she was, and as she tells it, she (more than once) managed to push the resulting self-destruction just to the point of Reversible Damage, only to then get things together, not without the help of some timely benefactors. All that life experience, and considering the mean streets she roamed, few of the scars. When it comes to a cooking philosophy, she's turning the authenticity up to eleven as well. She takes on a book-jacket-worthy viewpoint of well-crafted simplicity, of real food, culled from an experience of growing up with it, from living poorly among it, of constantly falling back into the restaurant business, in environments ranging from deep integrity to the bullshit fads of the high-end catering world of the 1980s. Detouring a year of your life to work food service among the primitive farms in France, or living in a hut on tiny island in the Aegean will no doubt tune you in to real eating, genuine local character, close to the source, but from my lowly vantage, it's as unattainable as all the foo-foo technical cuisine that I also can't afford. You haven't had an egg until some wine-buzzed Frenchman with hay on his sweater yanks it warm from the nest and brings it to your door that morning, etc. Well, it is a wonderful inspiration, even if she often realizes the downsides too (not for dilettantes), but it's noted that it is one which sets me just as firmly among the have-nots.

And needless to say, it is probably with a conscious effort that she approaches writing with the same outlook, with a genuineness that she feels is missing from the joyless context-heavy anaysis that her finally-successful graduate education swam in. The fact that she's effective in writing with this earthy but artful style also makes me want to eat her food.

I've never realized how affirming it is to read a memoir from someone of your own generation (Hamilton is only a few years older than me). Long-time readers of this blog will understand the resonance I might feel of living through a transitional neighborhood, one caught in the moment between farmland and sprawl, with a soft spot for the few surviving geezers that kept the simpler life going for a bit longer than everyone else. I didn't want to live like that either, but on the other hand, I was pretty damn happy that my parents patronized the old folks as much as hers did. It's still interesting to me that American food chic has evolved, in a way, to a version of the source purity I remember, which, now that the lifestyle has all but disappeared, is considered a luxury, and I sort of wished Hamilton had somehow managed to fully Americanize her foodie inspirations (although maybe pulling from polyglot European country influences is Americanizing it). Of course my parents' friends didn't include legions of artists, and they didn't have theme parties, or Kerouac-style bashes with stream-cooled jug wine and mountains spit-roasted lamb either--even at nine years old, Hamilton is more authentic than you or I will ever be--but damn, I sure wish they did. I can see why the author would be driven to re-create that with her own family in her own life, and how she would be driven to write by the resistance she finds in everyone else. I mean, I don't think I needed the teen drug years, but that sort of missing adult experience is killing me too.

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