Required Reading: ‘Blood, Bones, and Butter’ by Gabrielle Hamilton

I don’t even know where to begin to write about Gabrielle Hamilton’s new book, “Blood, Bones, and Butter.”

As you’ve probably read and read again, the self-taught chef who runs the New York restaurant Prune is as talented a writer as a chef, which is something to say because she’s a pretty damn good cook in the first place.

Hamilton touches on so many topics I’ve written about here, from pregnancy and breastfeeding an infant to what it’s like to live a life of service. Unlike the national deficiency of women in America’s best kitchens, there’s no shortage of women cooks in hers. (More on that in a minute)

Forget the debate about whether being in the kitchen was a form a patriarchy. Cooking and serving food was a sure-fire way to make money. “No future graduate-level feminism seminar would ever come within a mile of the force of that first paycheck. The conviction was instant and forever: If I pay my own way, I go my own way,” she writes.

She got into the food business as a way to pay a pretty nasty drug habit as a teen, which is probably what endeared her most to Anthony Bourdain, whose quote about this book being the “best memoir by a chef ever” has easily circled the globe twice.

(I must admit that when I read through the chapters of the time of her life that had, to use her words, a “decidedly more sinister hue,” I questioned why I didn’t react as negatively as I did when I read Julie Powell’s “Cleaving,” the follow-up to “Julie and Julia” about an affair that fueled the unraveling of a marriage. I still don’t have an answer. I’d probably have to reread them both to try to come up with one, but I’m sure a lot of it has to do with Hamilton’s no-regrets, matter-of-fact tone that seems to be written from a more comfortable distance than Powell’s, which seemed like a diary confessional.)

I think I’m particularly drawn to this book because of its exploration of the concept of motherhood. She spends many of the pages weaving fascinating tales about the relationship with her own contradictory mother and the quintessential, pasta-making Italian matriarch at the helm of her husband’s family.

Hamilton writes beautifully about what it means to be the mother of two young sons, and her maternal role as the food and fiscal head of an acclaimed restaurant makes you wonder how it is possible that women are the heads of so many households but men are traditionally in charge in restaurant kitchens. (It’s no secret that women make the majority of the purchasing decisions in a family, and we’re usually the ones who make sure the bills get paid.)

“Letting my mind roll over my own payroll, female after female after female…I couldn’t imagine that we were still having this conversation, this draining, polarizing conversations about where the women are in the industry,” she writes about a time when she’s asked to speak on a panel of women chefs about the topic. “When I opened my restaurant, nearly ten years ago, I finally put to bed that whole business about being a woman in a male-dominated profession.”

“Women have self-selected out of the chef life, which can grind you to a powder, and have become happily married recipe testers and magazine editors, or private chefs, working moderate hours for good pay and benefits while successfully raising several small children whom they do not damage….What was there left to say? Get in the kitchen; cook well; and the rest will take care of itself. You can’t be a recognized woman chef if you are working at a magazine.”

In fact, she questions how a woman who hasn’t led the exhausting life of a line cook become a mother who can handle “the cannibalizing feeling that nursing constantly can leave you with, as if you were being eaten alive, not in huge monster-gore chunks, but like a legion of soft, benign caterpillars makes lace of a leaf?”

This is just a taste of why Hamilton’s book is considered at the top of my Feminist Kitchen required reading list right now. If you’ve read the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. If you haven’t, get your hands on a copy, stat.

4 responses to “Required Reading: ‘Blood, Bones, and Butter’ by Gabrielle Hamilton

  1. This sounds like a wonderful read, but I ‘m shocked by the lack of critical engagement with the fact that there are so few woman chefs. I understand he point about women’s choosing different paths, but to put the onus onus on women for the ingrained, systematic marginalization and institutionalized oppressions that lead to such “self-selection” out of so many fields/careers is narrow-minded. I’m wondering, then, what else she has to say about these issues or her own feminism.

    Thanks for your review!

  2. I think she’s too busy being a chef — and a mom and, at the time, a wife — to think too much about it. There’s a whole chapter about it, and you can tell that she’s conflicted about the amount of time she has to spend away from her little boys, even to go to this conference to talk about how little time she has to spend with them in the first place.

    Another thing that’s nice about the book is that feminism itself isn’t a huge part of it. She lives it, so she doesn’t spend the entire book dissecting it.

  3. Addie, great post as usual. I’m still reading BB&B but am enjoying it immensely.

    I initially missed your review of Cleaving but after checking out your link to it, I’m glad that someone else had the same reaction as I did. I found it a very uncomfortable read (although I finished it) and actually discouraged a friend from reading it. Glad I’m not just a prude and that others found it TMI as well. I was just so sad that her husband had to live with her affair the first time, let alone her airing it for the entire world to read all the tawdry details. (Not to let him off the hook for his own indiscretions.) I applaud them both and their marriage for being strong enough to survive such but I don’t need to read all the gory details.

  4. Addie: As I’ve told you, I LOVED this book and just couldn’t put it down. I did find it very interesting to hear her point of view on mothering and marriage and applaud her unconventional lifestyle although I know I couldn’t do it and it would tear me apart to not be able to spend time on a regular basis with my children because of the odd hours of a chef.

    I didn’t read Cleaving but I never wanted to as I already wasn’t a fan of Julie Powell’s voice in Julie and Julia. That was the rare book where I enjoyed the film much more than the book.

    I enjoyed this quote from you: “Another thing that’s nice about the book is that feminism itself isn’t a huge part of it. She lives it, so she doesn’t spend the entire book dissecting it.”

    Looking forward to discussing in person!

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