I had some trouble finding a copy of Blood, Bones & Butter at an independent bookseller. I’d been looking in the food and cooking section, with all the other chef memoirs/bios. But this store had it stocked up front with the literary releases. Ah, perfect! Because Gabrielle Hamilton’s book deserves to be viewed in literary, not just culinary, terms. The richness of her writing, as she culls memories of an unconventional childhood and the missteps of young adulthood, makes it hard to put down.
Or perhaps I just identify a little too much with the descriptions of her early childhood, spent in the kitchen with her French mother, a former ballerina who wasted nothing, sent her children to school in rural Pennsylvania with ratatouille sandwiches, and stocked the pantry with candied fruits and escargots.
My mother wore the sexy black, cat-eye eyeliner of the era, like Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren, and I remember the smell of the sulphur every morning as she lit a match to warm the tip of her black wax pencil. She pinned her dark hair back into a tight, neat twist every morning and then spent the day in a good skirt, high heels, and an apron that I have never seen her without in forty years. She lived in our kitchen, ruled the house with an oily wooden spoon in her hand, and forced us all to eat dark, briny, wrinkled olive, small birds we would have liked as pets, and cheeses that looked like they might well beat Legionnaire’s Disease.
She’s the woman I’ve always had in mind as I’ve told friends I’ve been practicing my French farmwife skills—making stock, perfecting roast chicken and omelettes. Not that I necessarily want to be a farm wife, but arming myself with the skills to make a fantastic meal out of little more than a couple of eggs, some bread and an apple.
She’s the mother who would have recognized my childhood cravings as I wandered the grocery store with my own parental units, wondering why we couldn’t try that interesting jar of white asparagus or the Dijon mustard instead of regular old French’s. Or wondering what anyone would do with those shells that came packaged atop a can of snails.
The glamour of a mother who drives out to the dairy farm to fetch milk, dressed in cashmere and heels, wears thin for Hamilton with her parents’ divorce. She’s sent reeling out into the world as a teenager and does not speak to her mother for 20 years. The details behind why they fail to reconcile, or why Hamilton suddenly comes to see her mother as a complete bitch, are left unclear. But she is crystal clear on how that time shaped her, and even her New York City rrestaurant, Prune, takes its name from the nickname bestowed by her mother. (Good to know. I always thought that was a terrible name for a restaurant.)
Food memories are powerful for us all, but the ability to not only recall those sense memories, but to put into words exactly how they influenced you is something else altogether.