I like memoirs and I read a lot of them. Some of them work better than others. Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton is not going to go to the very top of my list, but it a solid book and an enjoyable read. Plus, trying to figure out why I didn’t like it more than I did helped me figure out exactly why I like some memoirs better than others, which could certainly help my future book selections.
Hamilton is the very respected chef at Prune, a very respected restaurant in New York’s East Village. (I’ve never been there, but the menu sure looks good.) There are about a million and one chef’s memoirs out there, but this one at least offers a change from the standard culinary school story, since Hamilton took a much more circuitous route to restaurant ownership. She roughly divides her story into three parts that echo the title. The Blood section deals with her childhood and her family, who sound fun but wildly dysfunctional. Personally, I don’t like reading about people’s childhoods and found the first section of this book a real slog–I honestly wasn’t sure I was even going to keep reading. But Hamilton leaves homes as a teenager and moves to New York City, and things pick up from there. In Bones, she describes how she wandered through work in large-scale catering houses and through an MFA program before opening her restaurant and I found all of that fascinating. (Her stories about the catering world also explain a lot of things about the meals I ate a conference recently.) Finally, Butter deals with her marriage, kids and, in-laws. Sound pretty standard? Well, she’s a lesbian who marries an Italian man so he can get his green card (sort of?), has kids, and then falls in love with his mother and the annual trip to Italy to visit her husband’s family. So, not so standard. There were a lot of things in Butter that felt very glossed over to me–she talks in depth about the affair she had with the Italian before they married, but hardly mentions even in passing how they choose to have multiple children–but Italy sure does sound nice. I might have married the guy for those in-laws myself.
So what insight about memoirs did this book lead me to? That memoirs work better when they are structured around something very specific. My favorite two memoirs of recent years were Eat, Pray, Love and Julie & Julia. I think those work well because they both use a particular activity or time period as a framework for the story, such as Julie Powell spending a year cooking her way through one of Julia Child’s cookbooks. This prevents the memoir from falling into a patten in which the author just basically describes everything that has happened from the time they were born up until the present. In Julie & Julia, no matter what tangents she goes off on or what she chooses to discuss, I know that the book is going to come back to what she’s cooking and that it’s going to end when the year is up. In Blood, Bones & Butter, Hamilton does use the three title ingredients to create a structure, but it’s limited–I actually didn’t figure out how the sections were divided until after I had finished the book. And the real weakness of the everything-up-until-now method of writing a memoir is that things often just sort of stop when the author reaches the current day. I definitely felt that way with this book and would really like to hear the rest of Hamilton’s story. I am aware that when someone is writing the story of their life, that story may not have a classic narrative arc. That’s why I think the very explicit structure of something like Eat, Pray, Love works so well. As a reader, I want for there to be a conclusion of some sort, and putting a frame of time or concept around the story helps provide that. Blood, Bones & Butter is an interesting and well-written book–maybe it is to its credit that my main issue with it is that I wanted to hear more of the story.