Blood, Bones & Butter: The Culinary Zeitgeist

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Gabrielle Hamilton

There's a small restaurant in New York City called Prune. It has around 30 seats, a bohemian air and a menu of urbane comfort foods, artfully prepared. It has never received a Michelin star, nor has its chef ever received a James Beard Award. Prune has been around for 10 years and everybody likes it, but it's by no means a hot restaurant. So why is chef Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter so hotly anticipated? (Mario Batali says "Gabrielle Hamilton has raised the bar for all books about eating and cooking." Anthony Bourdain goes even further, calling it "Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. EVER.") Having read the book, I have a couple of guesses.

For starters, Hamilton is a great writer. Blood, Bones & Butter tells the story of a Pennsylvania tomboy, her quirky upbringing and precocious eating habits, her skeevy adventures doing blow and skimming money as a waitress in her 20s, and her subsequent coming of age as a chef. Her book is funny. It communicates the inner life of cooks as well as any memoir except Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, which is, at least in my opinion, in a class by itself. (This isn't her fault; Hamilton hasn't led as interesting a life as Bourdain, whose résumé both as chef and reprobate is far more colorful.) Grant Achatz, whose own memoir is being released in early March, at about the same time as Hamilton's, but with far less hype, must be punching walls: the most brilliant chef of his generation writes, albeit with no special literary talents, about almost having to have his tongue cut out because of cancer — and all the foodies can talk about is Hamilton's girlhood lamb roasts!

Another explanation for the Hamilton hoopla is that the sheer ordinariness of her life lets her connect with readers in a way that Achatz or Bourdain can't. She had some s___ty waitress and catering jobs and then opened a small bistro that was totally true to who she was. Period. End of story! That's the dream of more cooks than I can count, both of the home and restaurant kind, and it has seldom been told more honestly or powerfully.

And then there's the fact that Blood, Bones & Butter, more than any book I know, captures the essence of contemporary cool when it comes to food. This is what you'd read if you came here from another country (or from another decade) and wanted to know what people valued in dining. There's the gnarly, punk-rock aesthetic, the in-your-face food style that dominates young cooks today — the way they glory in offal, sardines, pork fat and other ungenteel elements. In France, Hamilton falls in love with the rawness of it all, the "geese laid out with their long necks arranged in great question mark arcs around their totally plucked bodies," "the local heavily salted butter," the "knotty, wormy, quite small apples from which the cider is made." "I was sucking something in," she tells us. "Something unmitigated. This is the crepe. This is the cider. This is how we live and eat." The latter half of the book includes an extended appreciation of the lo-fi glories of Italy, complete with an adopted mother who dispenses wisdom and ineffable dishes from her overgrown home garden. Greece, too, makes an appearance, with weathered housewives riding donkeys to idyllic vegetable gardens, and so on. When is someone going to find culinary bliss in Estonia already?

As an observer of American dining, though, the part I found most interesting was a passage midway through in which Hamilton envisions her dream restaurant, "crammed into this filthy gem" of a space in New York City's East Village. The passage is essentially a blueprint for every small cool-food restaurant of the past decade:

"I wanted a place with a Velvet Underground CD that made you nod your head and feel warm with recognition. I wanted the lettuce and the eggs at room temperature ... I wanted the tarnished silverware and chipped wedding china from a paladar in Havana, and the canned sardines I ate in that little apartment on Twenty-Ninth Street. The marrow bones my mother made us eat as kids that I grew to crave as an adult. We would have brown butcher paper on the tables, not linen tablecloths, and when you finished your meal, the server would just pull the pen from behind her ear and scribble the bill directly on the paper like [the waitresses in France] had done. We would use jelly jars for wine glasses. There would be no foam and no 'conceptual' or 'intellectual' food; just the salty, sweet, starchy, brothy, crispy things that one craves when one is actually hungry."

There, in just a few lines, is the vision of a generation. It's an exact description of Prune, of course, which has inspired a thousand other chefs to follow Hamilton's lead. Her vision is so aptly and evocatively written that it's hard not to succumb to its rough-hewn glamour. So preferable to the corporatized alternatives most Americans are stuck with — in both city and country alike — which is one reason for the book's almost certain success. And if Blood, Bones & Butter isn't made into a movie in the next 12 days, I will eat stilted food in sterile dining rooms for a week.

Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Award–winning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders. Taste of America, Ozersky's food column for, appears every Wednesday.