All of us at Eat Boutique are into cookbooks, often reading them like graphic novels before we slip toward sleep each night. But books about cooks have a favorite place in our kitchens too and the talented filmmaker/writer Luke Poling has offered to share his perspective on his favorites. Please welcome Luke in the comments. Thanks, as well, to two NYC-based photographers: Jason Frank Rothenberg for use of the lead photo on this page and Daniel Krieger for use of the second photo. And, of course, congratulations to Gabrielle Hamilton, 2011 James Beard Award Winner. -Maggie
I should start out by saying that I’ve never worked in a restaurant, though I’ve secretly longed for the chance. The camaraderie, the teamwork, banding together to complete a service, it sounds like it would be a great time. Of course, any restaurant veteran would laugh at my use of the phrase “great time.” I am aware of the simple but true fact that restaurant folk are a different breed: tough, strong and dedicated. Reading chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir, “Blood, Bones & Butter,” my admiration only grows.
Hamilton grew up in Pennsylvania on a farm that sounds like something out of a Winslow Homer painting. The family spent most of their time outside, exploring and eating what they found. From fiddlehead ferns to certain snails and mushrooms, Hamilton grew up in a household unafraid of new tastes. She spent hours and days outside with her siblings, some nights building a fire and arranging their sleeping bags around it. Her description of one of these evenings is one of the first standout moments in the book. “I quietly thrilled to be packed into my sleeping bag right up next to them… This whole perfect night when everyone is still, pretty much, intact and wholesome, is where I sometimes want the party to stop.”
Of course the party did stop. Her parents split up, the pastoral scene turning ugly. Hamilton found her first restaurant job at 13, lying about her age, and then ended up in New York City at 17, (again fudging the age question to get the gig,) she found herself in a wild lifestyle; stealing cars, drugs, sexual experimentation and working insanely long hours, first as a waitress, then as a caterer.
In the summers, Hamilton worked at a camp in western Massachusetts, re-connecting with food in a way that catering couldn’t provide. Then one day she found herself staring at an empty restaurant space in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Having no idea of what she was in for, and on a complete whim, Hamilton decided to open a restaurant. It would be called Prune, (her mother’s pet name for her,) and, for Hamilton, it would be the first plan she would have in a life that, until that point, was made up of winging it.
It’s hard to say that “Blood, Bones & Butter,” is a feel good book, since Hamilton is always and continuously open and honest about her mistakes, flaws and shortcomings. But it is that human side of her writing that draws you in and keeps you turning the pages. Not every chef’s memoirs consist of wonderful writing and paragraphs that you immediately re-read after finishing them, to soak up all the language and imagery. (I’m looking at you, Marco Pierre-White.) Hamilton even makes the heartbreaking sections of the book beautiful. When she’s on vacation in Italy visiting her husband’s family, (to whom she has fallen in love with… possibly more than her husband who she married to keep in the US,) Hamilton goes to a farmer’s market and decries what markets in the US have become. She tells the story of a pretentious girl she saw at a market in Manhattan. Hamilton compares that to a market in Italy, where one vendor has his pants held up by string, placing all his wares into re-used supermarket plastic bags. “He’s everything I grew up with,” Hamilton says of the disheveled grocer, “he’s the end of an era, he’s the last of what it was like to just be a good eater and a good grower. A time when we grew it and cooked it and ate it and didn’t talk so much about it.”
Blood, bones and butter is not just the title of the book, it’s also a mantra. Evocative of the simplistic food that Hamilton strives to serve, this mantra states that good ingredients make great food. It’s her love of food and people that come shining through in the end. Hamilton isn’t preaching revolution, but it’s easy to get onboard with. If you’ve ever enjoyed a simple salad made with whatever is fresh or savored the taste of meat or fish right off the grill, you’re already part of Hamilton’s congregation. It’s hard not to buy into an ethos like this when the preacher is so compelling.
Luke Poling is a writer and filmmaker living in Boston. His first feature film, a documentary called “Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself,” will premiere late 2011/early 2012. He’s on Twitter and on-line at www.plimptonmovie.com. He once ate a Double Down from KFC and almost instantly regretted it.
Photo credits: (1) Gabrielle photographed by Jason Frank Rothenberg for Elle magazine, April 2011 issue; (2) Daniel Krieger; (3) Christopher Hirsheimer; (4) Molly Sheridan. If you’d like to get a copy of “Blood, Bones & Butter,” we suggest that you frequent these small bookstores: Rabelais Books, Powell’s Books, and Brookline Booksmith.