When Gabrielle Hamilton was a child, growing up in Pennsylvania, her family gave an annual party that was legendary in its small town — a spring lamb roast for almost 200 people, who came from as far away as New York City: former ballet dancer friends of her mother’s and artist friends of her father’s, along with local friends and neighbors, who all gathered in the meadow behind their house to feast on lamb and asparagus vinaigrette and shortcake. In preparation Gabrielle and her sister and brothers would fill dozens of brown paper lunch bags with sand and candles, set them along the stream’s edge under the weeping willows to light everyone’s way, and juice up glow-in-the-dark Frisbees in the car headlights, so they could send those “glowing greenish discs arcing through the jet black night.”
The pastoral idyll of Hamilton’s childhood was abruptly shattered when her parents separated, and memories of their “luminous parties” and the meals they’d shared as a family would shape her adult life, from her marriage into an Italian family that shared her passion for food to her opening of a New York City restaurant named Prune, which would win kudos from critics for its homey, rustic cooking.
Though Hamilton’s brilliantly written new memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter, is rhapsodic about food — in every variety, from the humble egg-on-a-roll sandwich served by Greek delis in New York to more esoteric things like “fried zucchini agrodolce with fresh mint and hot chili flakes” — the book is hardly just for foodies. Hamilton, who has an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Michigan, is as evocative writing about people and places as she is at writing about cooking, and her memoir does as dazzling a job of summoning her lost childhood as Mary Karr’s Liars’ Club and Andre Aciman’s Out of Egypt did with theirs.
Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of A Reluctant
Hamilton nimbly cranks up her own literary time machine to transport us back to the hippie-ish world of rural Pennsylvania in the 1970s, and to New York City at the height of the coke-and-urban-cowboy era of the 1980s. She conveys what it was like to be a rebellious delinquent in the making, arriving by Peter Pan bus at Hampshire College — where everyone was “discussing third world feminism, doing shifts at the on-campus food co-op and building eco-yurts for academic credit” — and what it was like to be young and poor in Manhattan, surviving on stolen ketchup packets from McDonalds on Eighth Avenue and going to “Village Voice advertised bars that held happy hours with free hot hors d’oeuvres.”
With a couple of sentences Hamilton effortlessly captures her father’s sorcery as a set designer and the world of make-believe she and her siblings got to inhabit: his scenery-building studio, where there were “oil drums full of glitter” and “mountains of rolled black and blue velour” laid out like carpets. And the extravagant parties he helped produce like the Valentine’s Day Lovers’ Dinner at which he had “hundreds of choux paste eclair swans with little pastry wings and necks and slivered almond beaks” swimming, in pairs, on a “Plexiglas mirror ‘pond’ the size of a king’s matrimonial bed with confectioner’s sugar snow drifts on the banks.”
Fiercely conjured as well is the sudden tumble in dislocation and dysfunction that the young Hamilton and her 17-year-old brother, Simon, experienced in the wake of their parents’ breakup, when they were left alone in the house to fend for themselves for a summer.