I started teaching an essay by Gabrielle Hamilton in my freshman English class this past school year. It’s basically a mashup of the first couple chapters of this memoir–her growing up with her family and then being hit with divorce at eleven. The family splits and she’s never the same. That narrative works well in the classroom because it’s honest. Doesn’t hurt that the writing is great too.
Once I got in a few chapters of Blood, Bones, & Butter, I really didn’t want to put it down. Even if I only had a minute, I’d flip it open to read a page. This is her life story, all about her experience at home, on the job, in school, and in her marriage. She’s from the Delaware/New Jersey border but moved to New York City as soon as she could. I could really relate to her feeling that no one was watching her or that she was out in the world alone. Her work experience was relatable to me too because I started working at 14 and pretty much haven’t stopped since. I get the whole work ethic thing she harps on so much–how it’s awkward to be served or she wants to be useful or she looked down on a guy who quit just because it was less hours and more money at another place. Her values are set. That is who she is.
Her professional journey from washing dishes to catering to opening her own restaurant is awesome. Traveling around Europe after college on an empty stomach showed her how others ate and fed her and fed others. That affected her and her cooking style. So she borrows a lot of stuff she saw out there and mixes it with her childhood foods. She has an offhanded relationship with her mother because she left after the divorce and Hamilton goes 20 years without speaking to her, but those core food memories at home with her very French mother cooking organ meat and vegetables out of the garden sets the tone for her restaurant, Prune (now shut down since covid). It also set the tone for her own experience as a mother–to be present even if she has to work all the time.
Best line: Aside from an iron-clad work ethic born of an early understanding of self-reliance, I was wondering if I had anything else to offer. I was wondering if there was still time for a life of my own choosing. (Hamilton 92)