Tuesday, February 4, 2014

On My Bookshelf: "Blood, Bones, and Butter" by Gabrielle Hamilton


Fun fact: The author of this book (Gabrielle Hamilton) grew up in the same (very small) town (New Hope, PA) as one of my favorite bands (Ween). The entire book, I hoped she would mention them. 

Gabrielle's biography is divided into three sections, as defined by the title of the book. Blood details her childhood, including the huge parties her parents held when she was young, her parents divorce when she was 11/12, and the one summer where her parents sort of accidentally abandoned her on their rural farm in New Hope, Pennsylvania (her mother moved to Vermont; her father went to New York to work; apparently neither of them remembered they had fathered 5 or so kids). She also talks about moving to New York and sort of accidentally getting charged with grand larceny, which she justifies with everyone was doing it (sure).

Bones details her rise into professional cooking (mostly through catering, an industry she seems to look at fondly, but also finds kind of disgusting), as well as the break she took to earn her MFA. She tells a funny story of cooking for a summer camp every year -- which ends, one summer, with the camp counselors drunkenly putting the lobsters she had ordered for their end of session celebration in a sink full of water (out of the drunken idea that the lobsters were freezing to death in the walk-in) (she assumes this about the counselors) (I assume the counselors were just not very smart and/or were very inebriated). 

The most troubling section of the book begins about halfway through the Bones section. Forget being forgotten for an ENTIRE SUMMER at the age of 13 in rural Pennsylvania. And you know what? Forget about the grand larceny thing. Forget about the lobsters and the tearing down of the East Coast catering industry. Forget about her insecurities about getting an MFA and "becoming a writer" (which she doesn't). Forget about everything she's talked about because the second half of the book is a total kick in the pants. 

And by kick in the pants, I mean what in the hell!? It really needs to be its own longer, separate book. 

In the last half of the book, Danielle details the start her incredibly popular restaurant Prune. The fact that she started an extremely popular and well-reviewed restaurant, while never having personally owned or even managed a restaurant is kind of ridiculously impressive. I think, actually, that the book would have been great if she focused more on her restaurant. However, she mentions leasing the building, fixing it up, cleaning it, starting the restaurant, and working the egg station during Sunday brunch -- but she never really talks about the process of opening a restaurant, hiring staff, doing marketing. The components to her restaurant are missing. The narrative of the book seems to say: she leased the building, she power-washed the walls, and then it was a success. No in-between.

The restaurant talk gets uprooted by something pretty significant. She meets an Italian scientist, has an affair with him, and then marries him so he can stay in the US (aka green card marriage).

Reread that sentence. I can wait.

She talks about marrying this man, despite identifying as a lesbian most of her life, despite being in a committed relationship with a long-term girlfriend who helped her start her restaurant and still worked there, despite being kind of opposed to marriage in general. At first, she tries to act like she married this Italian guy as a joke, like it was performance art, just helping out a friend. However, that version of events is pretty at odds with the fact that she cheated on her girlfriend with him and reminisces about the raviolis he made for her shortly after they met. (Spoiler alert: the raviolis were beautiful, but actually tasted very bad because he had added too much salt, which is the best and weirdest metaphor ever.)

She acts like she only marries him because he asks her to; and he only asked her to because he needed a green card. But then she is disappointed by his behavior on their honeymoon. And then they have kids together, but don't live together, and they visit his parents every year, which she loves, except when she doesn't, which is always? Because this guy she married, but does not like, but is disappointed by, but continues to have kids with, but doesn't live with, but doesn't want to divorce, but finds mind-numbingly annoying and shallow, is always there and doing something she is annoyed by and she wants him to leave, but he's kind of the reason she's in Italy in the first place.

Hamilton tells a very long story about how on their last trip to Italy, when they are in a taxi on the way to the airport, he starts to say, "I am thinking about..." and I don't know what she expected him to say (because she doesn't really elaborate on why this enrages her so much), but she gets super mad when he finishes with: "getting a new iPhone." She then vows to make their three week vacation in Italy hell and spends the entire time mad at him and refusing to speak to him. So mature.

I realize people are complex. But... there is definitely something missing when it comes to the description of this marriage. Either she married him out of love (which is TOTALLY OK); or she married him so he could get a green card and then fell in love with him; or she married him and regrets it because it was stupid and impulsive, but she doesn't want to admit to that. I guess it's possible that it's a mix of those things, but if you're going to tell a story about how you got mad that your husband talked about getting a new iPhone during a taxi ride and that you decided you were going to make him miserable for your entire vacation, then I feel like you should be a little more emotionally honest when it comes to telling this story. I feel like the whole time she only half tells everything... I don't know if that makes sense, but there it is.

There are times where she seems to get to the edge of really talking about something (that is, getting to the emotional meat of it) and then she backs away. Certainly, her parents behavior (she tells a story at the beginning of the book where she sees her mother throw everything off their dining room table after her father sat down at it, just because she was mad and felt like it, and if that isn't a daughter imitating her mother's behavior then I don't know what is) and divorce influences Hamilton deeply, but that's definitely something she needs to address and come to terms with -- and if she wasn't ready to talk about that yet, then I think she should have waited on the book. Because right now, it just reads weird.

The weirdest part of this book is the subtitle: the Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. Ok, firstly, about halfway through the book, Hamilton really, truly stops talking about cooking. She doesn't talk about becoming a chef. The book is definitely more interesting in terms of Hamilton's relationships, even though she effectively skates over most details. She does seem reluctant in identifying herself as a chef, but she has sought out jobs in kitchens since she was a teenager and she started a restaurant -- if that's a reluctant chef, then I am also a reluctant writer, I guess. She just never seems to get around to talk about being a chef, running a restaurant, planning dishes, whatever. She talks about cooking and catering and her love of food -- but there has to be a process there, for her, as a chef (and a great chef, at that). In attempting to not talk about a lot of her emotions, Hamilton has essentially skipped the most important part of her life story and readers are left focused on her truly odd depiction of her marriage, rather than the impressive fact that she is a talented and celebrated chef.


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