Back to book reviews, and today’s book is a good one: Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir Blood, Bones, & Butter. As you may know, I'm not very up-to-date on chef culture. I know who most of the culinary stars are, but I'm usually very late in finding out about them, and I had never heard of Ms. Hamilton (although, having read her book and eaten her food, I’m glad I know who she is now). So I delved into the book with no particular expectations, apart from cautious optimism due to the glowing reviews the book has received.
The first chapter describes an almost idyllic childhood memory, with Gabrielle's parents having their annual lamb roast party at their rural home, with the entire neighbourhood invited. I allowed myself to dream a little, having never really known that type of universe (our family parties took place in restaurants, sometimes small manors when the occasion was really big, but we certainly never had whole lambs roasting over pit fires). But the nostalgia doesn’t last long, as Hamilton quickly jumps into the dissolution of her family, and having to survive on her own at a young age.
When the book began to delve into cooking, drugs, and rock 'n roll (not so much sex), I worried a little. I have nothing against bad boy or bad girl narrators, but if it's overdone, the author can end up looking like a poseur, especially in this type of profession-based memoir. For example, while I thoroughly enjoyed Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential (another book on my review list), sometimes I rolled my eyes at some of his over-the-top descriptions of how badass chefs are, and a few passages which were clearly meant to provoke (admittedly, the whole book was meant to provoke, but some pages are heavier-handed than others). Don't get me wrong, I think Bourdain is a very genuine person, who tells it like it is; but surely there are ways of telling it like it is without purposefully drawing attention to the fact that you are telling it like it is?
Gabrielle Hamilton accomplishes just that. Although segments of her life were definitely tough, and that she had to be equally tough in order to get through it and come out on top, she doesn't flaunt her “cred.” There is a humility, and even a vulnerability which pervades this book. Sure, sometimes she gets a little nasty, as in this passage where she rags on farmer’s market hipsters:
“There’s always the girl with the bicycle, wandering along from stall to stall with two apples, a bouquet of lavender, and one bell pepper in the basket of her bicycle. A teeming throng of New Yorkers tries to push past her to get to the vegetables for sale, but she shifts her ass from side to side, admiring the way her purchases are artfully arranged for all to see in the basket of her bike, and she holds up the whole process. And I struggle, as well, with the self-referential new kind of farmer, aglow with his own righteousness, setting up his cute booth at the market each morning, with a bouquet of wildflowers and a few artfully stacked boxes of honeycomb and a fifteen-dollar jar of bee pollen. And from what I’ve seen, that guy behind the table, with his checkered tablecloth and his boutique line of pickled artichoke hearts in their jar with their prissy label packed just so, he wants to talk to Miss Bicycle, to Miss I’ve-spent-four-hours-here-this-morning-to-buy-these-three-cucumbers. He gets off on it. I stopped going to the farmer’s market years ago when some hipster chick in sparkly barrettes and perfectly styled ‘farmer’ clothes came screeching at me ‘DON’T TOUCH THE PEAS!’”
Harsh, yes. But also spot-on and elegantly written, with impressive flow – besides, not everyone can be as sunny as Julia Child. Somehow, Hamilton’s criticisms always seem justified, whether she’s ranting about her clueless landlord, or wishing bear-related death on a group of stoned camp counsellors who accidentally let thirty lobsters drown. Similarly, she makes you long to meet the people she admires – and they are numerous (albeit less effectively entertaining, which is why they don’t get a quote in this post. Hey, I never said I couldn’t pander to the masses.).
There are many striking passages, such as her scary account of the food catering business (which I unfortunately read while we were making wedding preparations), and her enthusiastic description of her travels in Europe, particularly Italy. And while food, glorious, unpretentious food, is a huge part of the story, it shares the limelight with a plethora of other topics, as Hamilton explores her inexplicably strained relationship with her mother, her fertile marriage to a man despite the fact that she identifies as a lesbian, and her stint in a university writing program. There is a lot of insight in this book, and a lot of soul.
The book doesn’t contain any recipes, but it did inspire me to make something. Hamilton’s highest praises are usually reserved for well-made dishes using simple ingredients – nothing high concept or fussy. This is clearly reflected in the food she serves at her restaurant. Among other things, she mentions that her mother, an excellent but frugal cook, used to make her and her siblings eat marrow bones, and that she grew up to love them.
I, for my part, have always loved marrow bones. When I was a child, it was always a treat when my mother made osso bucco. The meat by itself was succulent, but somehow my mother succeeded in getting me to consider the marrow not as something vile, which I suppose would be most children’s first reaction (and a significant number of North American adults, from what I’ve seen), but as a luxury. I would scoop up the soft, rich, glistening matter and savour it with relish. Then I would eye my parents’ plates, hoping that love for their only child would move them to give me their bones – and it often did.
But you don’t have to splurge on veal shanks to enjoy marrow. Despite marrow’s luxurious aura, meatless veal bones are dirt cheap, and easy to prepare. Also, a little marrow goes a long way, so you will soon find yourself sated and happy.
Roasted Marrow Bones
from Mark Bitterman’s Salted
Serves 3-4 as a substantial appetizer
12 veal marrow bones
Four handfuls of flat leaf parsley, chopped
Coarse salt, preferably sel gris (from l’Île de Noirmoutier if possible)
Plain white bread, thinly sliced and lightly toasted on one side
Preheat oven to 230ºC (450ºF).
Place the bones, marrow side up, on a baking sheet. Roast until the there is a visible film of melted marrow on the baking sheet, and the marrow begins to sink in the center of the bones and feels quite tender when you poke it with a knife, about 30 minutes depending on the size of the bones. Keep an eye on them toward the end of the process, as you don’t want the marrow to completely melt.
To serve, arrange the bones on a plate, with parsley and salt on the side. To eat, scoop the marrow from the bones, spread it over slices of bread, and sprinkle with parsley and salt.