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Review: ‘Blood, Bones & Butter’ by Gabrielle Hamilton

Gabrielle Hamilton’s love food preparing it for others runs through her first book memoir 'Blood Bones   Butter.'

Gabrielle Hamilton’s love of food and preparing it for others runs through her first book, the memoir, "Blood, Bones & Butter."

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Gabrielle Hamilton will discuss and sign copies of Blood, Bones & Butter during a dinner reception at 6 p.m. March 27 at the Publican, 837 W. Fulton Market. Tickets: $75 (includes wine/beer pairings). Reservations: (312) 733-9555.

Updated: April 21, 2011 12:15AM

Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir is the story of a life intertwined with food. And yet, there are no recipes laid out neatly at the end of each chapter. Nor are there any lascivious, prolonged descriptions of pasta or cake, a near miracle for a book set largely in a restaurant and the Italian countryside.

Hamilton, who owns the Manhattan eatery Prune and happens to have a master’s degree in fiction, is a fearsome food writer who looks askance on the twin cults of food and writing. Her rough-edged descriptions of rabbit carcasses “clipped like show poodles” and ravioli with herbs and ricotta visible through the dough, “like a woman behind a shower curtain” crackle with the smells, sights and sounds of food as well as the taste.

Waves of critical acclaim are washing over this, Hamilton’s first book. And they are entirely deserved — Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef (Random House, $26) is a remarkable read for both the culinarily inclined and people who don’t know a marrowbone from a macaroon.

The story begins with Hamilton’s rural Pennsylvania childhood, growing up with a mother who “knew how to get everything comestible from a shin or neck of some animal” and a father who spun elaborate parties from the family’s limited budget.

Her parents’ divorce ends that idyllic childhood, launching Hamilton into a series of situations and adventures disparate enough to fill three memoirs. At age 11, she and a brother spent the summer home alone fending for themselves. Later, she progresses from broke and drugged-up young delinquent in New York City to lesbian student, summer camp cook, European wanderer, grunt-work caterer, restaurant owner and finally, wife, mother and member of an extended Italian clan.

From her earliest memory of those family parties, Hamilton considers the act of preparing a meal a way to forge a connection, feeding others to nourish herself. It’s an old theme that gets a fresh treatment from a woman with a foul mouth and unconventional perspective, unafraid to step away from the food and delve into life outside the kitchen.

Any good food memoir includes a love story, but again Hamilton sidesteps the norm, leaving a longtime girlfriend to marry an older Italian man. This new role sets up some fantastic descriptions of how changing a diaper is similar to trussing a chicken, and the myriad other ways that running a restaurant is the ultimate preparation for motherhood.

At first, Hamilton considers her green-card marriage a bit of “performance art,” complete with separate addresses. Two children later, she longs to transform it into something deeper. The book ends with a tense and unsuccessful visit to her husband’s family in Italy where Hamilton, naturally, bridges the language gap by cooking. However, she makes it clear the gulf between husband and wife isn’t bridged so easily.

Candid though she may be, Hamilton does exclude details that might leave readers wondering what exactly estranged her from her family, and how a grunt caterer with no money and minimal restaurant experience managed to open a successful Manhattan eatery.

Whether she’s scrounging change to subsist on 90-cent egg sandwiches at her corner Manhattan bodega or making orecchiette at her mother-in-law’s side, Hamilton is rescued, educated, defined and connected to others through food. Dining aficionados will appreciate the sweaty tales from the restaurant kitchen, but it’s Hamilton’s life journey — and beautiful prose — that make this book a standout.

Allecia Vermillion is a Seattle-based free-lance writer.

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