From a Chef's Mouth to Your Ears

I just finished listening to Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir Blood, Bones and Butter, and I feel like my best friend moved away. She narrated it herself. Hamilton’s the real deal, a chef and a writer, not a chef who writes or a writer who cooks.

Contemporary chef memoirs bug me. In 1999, when I graduated from cooking school, famous chefs were just that: chefs, only famous. Now many are full-blown media superstars, more concerned with scoring merchandising deals than actually cooking. So I eschewed Hamilton’s book (the Anthony Bourdain blurb on the cover wasn’t doing it any favors.) But I prefer the immediacy of recorded books read by the author, and hers fit the bill.

Lucky me. I love Hamilton’s voice, how unadorned her own words are coming from her own mouth, her wryness and lack of tolerance for B.S. It’s right there on the page, but when she speaks, it’s right there.

Hamilton’s mastery of culinary and literary arts shows in how seamlessly she weaves her narrative in and out of the kitchen. She nails the details we expect in such a book--the grating din of a ventilation hood whirring 18 hours a day, the punishing pleasure of surviving yet another brunch with one cook down--then one-ups genre conventions by making the non-industry parts of her life equally compelling, and often more so.

Yes, she spent Julys in Puglia at the seaside villa of her Italian husband’s family, but these sunny escapes have a turgid darkness lurking under the lusty Mediterranean idyll we Americans can’t seem to get enough of: the villa is crumbling, as is her marriage, as is her faith in her ability to maintain her composure, to just settle the hell down. Cooking, as it turns out, isn’t a magic bullet to bring about a blissful storybook ending. Like all worthwhile pursuits in life, it’s challenging and trying and immensely satisfying.

(Also indispensable for 'Read by the Author' fans: E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. You have not fully taken in this book until you have heard White’s Yankee intonations of “Fehn” and “Wilbaah.”)