How does one make sense of a life? It’s a question memoir and essay writers are obsessed with, more so because there are no concrete answers. Experiences are rather neutral until we ascribe meaning to them, and then memory itself is distorted by mood and psychology, how does one even make sense of memory?
What I love about food memories is probably what I love about food–since food is the stuff of life, memories naturally adhere to foods and enclose the food, so the food itself becomes a resonant part of history.
Remember the first time you had your grandmother’s pie, and then shame you felt when you mother told you in front of all your relatives that you did not need another piece? Perhaps your mother was worried about your blood sugar because diabetes ran in the family? Or perhaps your mom was worried about your weight, because you were going through a tire-around-your-midsection phase? Whatever the truth, every time I look at a chocolate cream pie I feel as though I am 7 years old again, staring at the whipped cream with an animal-like craving.
So, we’ve established why I like food memoirs. Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Butter, and Bones, The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, is one of my current favorites. Not only because it’s a chef’s coming-of-age, but because it’s a woman and a mother’s coming of age. The kitchen is her finding place, her battleground, and her identity. The kitchen is the place she is a woman, a bitch, a business owner, a daughter, a survivor, and a women trying and often failing to keep her intimate relationships working. The kitchen is her go to place, her playground and her constant challenge. It’s her grand metaphor and it’s a wild narrative ride from childhood to successful New York Chef in this book.
Secondary to story, though I shouldn’t say that because it’s not secondary–is voice. Her voice is filled with the cocky, intellectual tone that wows you and keep you reading. She’s a woman with a hard but tender edge, a woman who knows her stuff, and simultaneously–confesses to knowing nothing at all. Her mother is French, her father is an eccentric artist, and thorough the interlocking, essay-style chapters you see how she comes into food as both a child of a her parents and a manifestation of her gritty self.
Here is a portion from Chapter 7, page 98….She is working in a small catering company, going to school to get an MFA. Her boss is a woman named Misty, whose quiet talent is somewhat lost on Gabrielle, or the time being.
“Meanwhile, Misty and I were working away together under the florescent lights, with cold smoked chicken in apricot glaze and sirloin tips in molasses black pepper sauce. The Midwestern requirement of well-done meat and well-done fish was certainly not the lowest place in catering I’d been. I’d already known the lowest and the dullest: oyster knives jammed through the webbing of your hand between thumb and forefinger, steam burns, twenty-three and a half hour days with just a thirty-minute nap on the office floor with my head on a pile of folded aprons, pack a day cigarettes, ring molds, braziers, propane torches, roulades in Saran Wrap, and shelled lobster claws dramatically crowning the seven hundred fifty martini glasses of ceviche. Misty’s catering was organized and calm, and the food was, under any circumstances, totally respectable; she smartly navigated the terrain while hewing to the decidedly unadventurous popular taste.”
The prose zings. Even if you don’t cook you can’t help but be hooked by this person’s perceptions, and her ability to weave past and present together to create meaningful moments. The books isn’t really so much about food but life, one female life lived authentically and to the extreme. You won’t find any relationship advice here, or any easy solutions about how to navigate relationships, but you will get a good dose of insight into why relationships are challenging. And you will have a fantastic dose of validation as you follow her through her triumphs and disappointments. You will get to see New York catering kitchens and French pubs and Greek islands and Italian landscapes where the locals stop in with their mozzarella.
I love this book SO much that I bought 5 paperback copies because I had to have certain people read this. Like a really good chocolate cream pie, I had to share it.