Book Review: Blood, Bones & Butter

By Karen

I’ve been churning this because every time I look at it, it just revives my lingering annoyance.

People who make food the all-consuming (pun intended) theme of their lives, which Gabrielle Hamilton glorifies in her memoir, Blood, Bones & Blather Butter, bug the crap out of me.

I never would have read BB&B, except that when an exceptional writer like Anthony Bourdain claims it’s the book he wishes he’d written, attention must be paid.

It’s easy to see where Hamilton’s life resonated with Tony:

1. As a teen, she developed a tough façade and a drug habit, and overcame them.

2. She began her restaurant career as a grunt.

3. She married an Italian and grew enamored with Italian family life.

She managed to top Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential descriptions of restaurant kitchen hell only because he never worked nine months’ pregnant.

For me, that’s where similarities ended. Bourdain should be thankful that, like her, he’s not an emotional cripple.

Hamilton’s MFA in fiction certainly paid off — she knows her way around clever similes and metaphors. But since most rhapsodic descriptions of food look to me like…

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

… on the page, I was more interested in Gabrielle the person. I really wanted to like her.

The book is marketed as “memoir,” but she only sprinkles glimpses of her adult life as garnish. The sin of omission is so chronic that very little about her personality adds up — except her obsession with food.

She claims a woman she met at grad school was probably “the love of her life,” yet gives her no more than two pages of ink, and never bothers to humanize her with even a fake name.

Then she marries a man she’s been screwing but professes not to love so he can get a green card, but decrees they live separately — then has not one, but TWO children with him.

I wonder how many years her kids will spend in therapy, trying to figure out Mom’s relentless, white-hot hatred of Grandma, and why they had to commute to see Dad for years because Mom insisted they all pretend she was single?

On the other hand, she loved her husband’s family in Italy (when she wasn’t furious at them for making her feel enslaved by the care of her children or by cooking meals after she commandeered her mother-in-law’s kitchen).

In 7 years, she never learned enough Italian to communicate with her in-laws beyond food terms, and then kvetched about how alienated she always felt.

I don’t know how any reader could not have been left with a strong urge to slap the shit out of her and wish she would just GROW UP.

I thought Hamilton ended the book on the implication that divorce was probably coming (well-deserved and long overdue, IMO). But NPR interviewed her in March, and she talked as if she’s still married and things are fine.

Who knows? Even if she brings it up, unless the topic is food, don’t expect candor from Gabrielle Hamilton.

One more Bourdain connection: They’re both represented by the same literary agent.

Other reviews:

Josh Ozersky fawns in TIME.

Frank Bruni largely agrees with me in the NY Times on the autobiographical angle.

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6 Responses to Book Review: Blood, Bones & Butter

  1. Suzette Ciancio says:

    I started this book with great enthusiasm but have dropped it by the wayside. I just had trouble getting into it. Your post explains some of my reluctance. Thanks!
    (I’ll give it another couple of tries & then it goes to the library)

  2. MorganLF says:

    I’m taking a pass on this tome. It sounds fraudulent, and the wavering sexual preference is such a yawn. Tony uterly slavers after her so her food must be authenticly delish, I’ll have to get there.

    I just read an interview with Zimmern, you know he went to Vassar and became a hopeless street living junkie too? What’s it with that school?

  3. catsworking says:

    Welcome, Suzette! Actually, I felt bad dissing the book after all the positive hype it’s received. I guess you have to be a die-hard, hard-core foodie to appreciate most of it.

    The beginning of the book is actually the best part, so if you’re having trouble getting through that, don’t waste your time. She gets vaguer and whinier as you go. I didn’t mention the chapter about visiting her mother in Vermont after not seeing her for 20 years. Her mother tried to be gracious, in her own way, but Hamilton was having none of it.

    Morgan, at the end of the book she thanked some woman she called her “bestie,” so I assumed she had gotten the divorce and switched back to women. But then she talked to NPR like her marriage is still going strong. Her sex life is none of my business, but I have a hard time taking seriously anybody who hasn’t figured out a preference by her age — especially after popping out 2 kids.

    I think Zimmern has said that he spent a year homeless when he was junkie. I don’t like him enough to have looked into the story. His wife is very attractive, so he did a good job of pulling himself together.

  4. Carrie says:

    I just picked it up last night. I, too, decided to read this “memoir” after the gushing review from Mr. Bourdain (love, love, love AB). I think I am plugging through chapter four right about now … I like her Mom thus far, she is interesting to me.

  5. catsworking says:

    Carrie, I liked her, too. But French woman always fascinate me. Keep me posted on how you fare with the book as you go.

    I really think the success of this book is a testament to the strength and solidarity of the “Celebrity Chefs’ Club” and its followers. Since several of Bourdain’s books have been bestsellers, a blurb from him carries a lot of weight with that audience. And apparently Hamilton has done a lot of food writing in other publications. That’s what she does best, and I can see where she’d have the foodies swooning over her descriptions of just about anything edible. She deserves awards for that.

    But my philosophy is, if you don’t want people to know anything about your personal life, DON’T write a “memoir.” You’ll only come off looking shallow and phony and people will wonder what you’re hiding. (I’m also wondering what kind of moron her husband is.)

    Bourdain did the same sort of thing in Kitchen Confidential. His first wife was a shadow figure that popped in occasionally. In one chapter they’re dating on-again, off-again. In another chapter they’re suddenly married (or we assume he married the same woman — it’s never clarified) and how is never explained. He got away with it because everyone was focused on the kitchen stuff, which was new and shocking at the time.

    I happen to know for a fact that he was not happy when Cats Working started delving into his personal life out of innocent curiosity to fill in the blanks he created (and I did it solely through research that’s in the public domain — no dumpster-diving). But I think I and my readers also helped him realize that the world wouldn’t end if his fans learned more about him personally. Over the past 3 years or so, he’s turned almost a complete 180. His new wife, Ottavia, deserves a lot of the credit for that because she was the one who first showed him that Twitter wouldn’t kill him.

  6. zappa says:

    Crappy childhood,crappy marriage,too much alcohol,sexual ambiguity…throw in ex-con and former stripper and you have everyone I ever worked with in the restaurant business.

    Zappa’s mom

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