Book review: 'Blood, Bones & Butter' delectable when chef Hamilton's in charge
A strange image graces the cover of Gabrielle Hamilton's luminous new memoir, "Blood, Bones & Butter." At first glance it might be an oyster, slipping off its half shell and nestled in some kind of grassy nest, with a pearl at its center and frills underneath. Is this the futuristic creation of some modernist chef?
Then you realize that the pearl is an eye and those frills are feathers. Turning the cover upside down reveals the unmistakable head - severed, one assumes - of a glaring, sharp-beaked rooster. Along with the title, it's the first clue that Hamilton's story will be visceral and possibly even revelatory.
Sure enough, Hamilton quickly proves that her decade-in-the-making work can live up to the extraordinary "best memoir by a chef ever" hype. That quote, by the way, is from the previous title holder, Anthony Bourdain, whose 2000 blockbuster, "Kitchen Confidential," hilariously deglamorized restaurants while simultaneously feeding the fire of public obsession with celebrity chefs. Hamilton, chef-owner of the tiny Greenwich Village restaurant Prune, shares two of Bourdain's traits: a wicked, sometimes obscene sense of humor and a past checkered with drug use and crime. But as he admits in his jacket testimonial, she's the superior writer by a mile.
To read "Blood, Bones & Butter" is to marvel at Hamilton's masterly facility with language. She turns something as mundane as the deep-frying of "stacks and stacks" of flour tortillas at a touristy Pennsylvania restaurant when she was 15, for instance, into a duo of evocative metaphors: The tortilla "would float and sizzle on the surface for a moment like a lily pad on a pond," she writes. "Then, with a deep ten-ounce ladle, I pushed down in the center, and the tortilla came up around the bowl like the long dress and underskirts of a Victorian woman who had fallen, fully clothed, into a lake, her skirts billowing up around her heavy sinking body."
She manages to make an account of killing a chicken just as poetic (if more gruesome). As her dismayed father watched, she spun the bird around to disorient it, laid its head on the block and raised the hatchet: "This first blow made a vague dent, barely breaking the skin. I hurried to strike it again, but lost a few seconds in my grief and horror. The second blow hit the neck like a boat oar on a hay bale. The bird started to orient."
Like Bourdain, she strips the work of restaurateuring - and catering before it - down to its least glamorous realities. There are maggot-filled rats to deal with, a neighbor wanting to talk about the water bill during the chaos of the Sunday brunch rush, a line cook giving eight days' notice when Hamilton is nine months pregnant. The latter led to the following To-Do list:
Get w/AT and limit menu
Train CR on a 2-man line
Call Roode for fill-in?
Tell brunch crew vinaigrette too acidic
Pick up white platters