by Gabrielle Hamilton
The author recounts her life, both personal and professional, from growing up in a large tight-knit family with a French mother who taught her kids about real food, crusty bread, creamy cheeses, and the like, through the parents’ divorce and Hamilton’s rise from thirteen-year-old waitress to line cook to chef. She also discusses her marriage of convenience to an Italian man and her trips to Italy, which grow more bittersweet with every year.
I have mixed feelings about this book, because as a reader I take the narrator’s tone very personally; other readers might not. At first, I enjoyed the book with unalloyed pleasure. I got the title from a list of food writing Anthony Bourdain recommended, and it’s easy to see why the book appeals to him. Hamilton is an unflinchingly honest narrator, and a brilliant writer. She matches Bourdain's opinionated partisanship, visceral attitude, and past replete with scofflaw delinquency, and, I dare say, her writing is more fluid and expansive. Her commentary on the value of hard work, making one’s own way, and dealing with hardships is admirable. Her opinion of the perennial hand-wringing over “where are women in cooking” question has a steely practicality and impatience for attention seekers (“cook, ladies, cook!” – and the rest will follow). But it’s her section on her marriage that marred the book for me. Just as I couldn’t stand the fictional Jane Eyre’s dithering and self-pity, I can’t stand the real-life Hamilton’s dithering and solemnity about her unhappy marriage. She knew she was marrying him “as performance art,” as she puts it several times (to get him his Green Card actually). She’s unhappy, yet she won’t leave him. Only a complete ignorant fool – which she is not – would think that marrying a doctor means that you’re marrying a good husband, or that an Italian man is somehow a good or exciting man. So it may be because of my own life, which this book hits too close to the bone, but I just soured on Hamilton as a person and narrator after that. Too bad really; she writes vividly and has a good story to tell. I just want to hear the professional part.