Travel literature review: Blood, Bones & Butter

Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Reviewed by Janine Eberle

Blood, Bones & Butter is many cuts above your oh-so-standard foodie memoir (as a self-confessedly envious Anthony Bourdain writes: ‘simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever.’) Gabrielle Hamilton is owner and chef at local legend Prune, in New York’s East Village, and she writes with vibrant candour of the tumultuous journey she took to get there.

She starts with her idiosyncratic and idyllic childhood in rural Pennsylvania with a glamorous French mother and a garrulous theatrical father. The long opening set-piece about a lavish family barbecue is one of many shimmeringly bright anecdotes she uses to paint a vivid portrait of a colourful but troubled family; her parents’ divorce by the end of chapter two precipitates the start of her independent life as a 13-year-old rapidly heading for trouble. By 17 she’s a runaway in NYC, and gives a Bourdain-esque account of waiting tables at an ‘urban cowboy’ restaurant, earning $90K a year and spending most of it on drugs in anything-goes, 1980s New York.

So, you ask, where’s the travel? After Hamilton’s unconventional journey takes her through writing school, working as a catering gun-for-hire, a succession of stormy lesbian relationships and to the opening of Prune, she finds herself married to an Italian man and starting a family. The last section of the book, ‘Butter’ (‘the sweet, creamy, deliciousness of love, family and good food’, according to Hamilton), is set largely in Italy, where her husband Michele’s family lives, and where she makes herself a part of that family by wordlessly forming orecchiette at the kitchen bench with her non-English speaking mother-in-law; by joining the family for their annual trip south to Puglia; by taking part in enormous family feasts that remind her of those long-ago Pennsylvania barbecues. She discovers delicious-sounding sgropino (a dessert drink of prosecco, vodka and lemon gelati), buys zucchini flowers from old toothless men in town squares, shops at Roman markets. By the book’s end it seems that her love affair is more with Italy than it is with Michele, and as we see her living like an Italian, cooking like an Italian, in a villa overlooking the sea, we understand exactly why.

Janine Eberle works in guidebook product development at Lonely Planet, and travels primarily to eat.

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