Book Review: Blood, Bones & Butter

May 12, 2011

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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