Blood, Bones & Butter
I read this because it was excerpted in The New Yorker and the excerpt was a really beautiful essay, moving and evocative. I was favorably disposed to the author, and moved by the difficulties of her childhood, which was not only disrupted by divorce, but perhaps because of her vulnerable age appears to have been like a casting out from the garden of Eden. The fact that the details and logistics have escaped from her memory is a testament to how confused and disoriented the separation left her. But as I moved through the book, I discovered that if you've read the New Yorker excerpt (or continuing to the end of chapter 2), you've read the best part. Later, Hamilton emerges as a tough, hardworking person (like a lot of entrepreneurs she doesn't suffer lazy people, which I do like about her), but also as egotistical, selfish, unforgiving, and surprisingly lacking in self-awareness. There were so many examples. Why, if she has "blood sugar" issues, does everyone around her have to learn to be watchful for "the signs" that she's about to blow her top, instead of just putting some granola bars in her purse? Why does she choose to have two kids when her job keeps her out of the house from 8am to 2 am every day? And why make that decision more difficult for everyone by not living in the same apartment and neighborhood as her husband? Why doesn't she talk to her mom or most of her siblings? (Her apparently charismatic father is unfortunately an elusive figure in the book.) Her cruel two-timing of her lover is glossed over without any regret to say nothing of self-recrimination. Interestingly, her abrupt change of sexual identity--if indeed she changed, it's not clear--is not discussed at all.Her impatience with her husband is an example of the failure of her prose to help us understand her. I'm the first to sympathize with wives of frustrating husbands, but even I was on the husband's side in this one, and it kind of undermined a lot of the author's credibility overall. She refuses to talk to him for 15 days (!!!) because when she expects words of affection, he instead says, "I want a new iPhone". She criticizes the sandwiches he makes for her on their first date (not enough meat or butter, but never mind, he subsequently learned to do it right apparently). At one point, her husband spends all day making ravioli for her and her staff by hand. As a food preparer, she knows the value of thanks and appreciation, and values the generous spirit that is poured into food when it's offered for a guest or friend. But that all suddenly goes out the window. Now she can't resist, two chapters after the ravioli gift, mentioning that in fact, it was "inedible" because he hadn't blanched the pancetta, if you please, and it was too salty to eat. I wouldn't pour her a glass of water after that if I were her husband. For me the apotheosis of this selfish world view was the chapter where she's invited to talk at a CIA panel about women in the food industry. Instead of seeing herself as a leader, or offering sympathy for those who've experienced discrimination, she starts by blaming women. For example, she criticizes women who go into food publishing and idolize male chefs (note--her sister does exactly this in an earlier chapter!). A particularly wounding example: she says "invariably" a woman chef will treat other women worse than any man, even though she herself received tremendous support and a true refuge thanks to Misty, a female chef in Michigan who became her lifelong friend! This is what I mean by "selfish" --a refusal to acknowledge what has been real and true in her life. She criticizes the panel for not telling the CIA students to focus on "hard work" while in the same breath admitting that dealing with men in the kitchen is equivalent to a "double shift" of work. She finally decides the best thing about being a chef and a mom is that her toughness in the kitchen will prepare her for anything her kids can throw at her. Is that the best she can do? Is that better than being a great parent, so they don't throw stuff at you at all? Or creating a new kind of work environment, one that's not about who's the best at staying late, ignoring their family, scrubbing the floor on your knees at 39 weeks, and general warrior-level self-sacrifice? These answers are not easy for any working woman, and crying all the way home on the train doesn't get you off the hook for accusing those who try to discuss discrimination of being "reductionist".It's interesting that one of the biggest problems for any small businessperson, including and especially women and minorities, is raising capital. This important institutional barrier is something that women may not be able to surmount simply by hard work because informal networks are so important. Hamilton admits that she doesn't have any money when she starts her place, so how does she do it? Do her family members help? Is there no awareness that there are real financial barriers, no advice for overcoming them, or an honest accounting of how she did it?Finally, the unselfconscious authenticity of her mom's cooking has made Hamilton a total curmudgeon about today's interest in local and sustainable farming. Because her French mom sought out local produce way back when, before it was crushed by big agribusiness, she finds the return to it somehow phoney and pretentious. Like the Seattle teen who liked Nirvana before they hit the charts, she goes on irrationally about why she hates farmer's markets, their customers, and their hipster proprietors now that they are everywhere. We get it, you're a busy woman and you don't have time to wait for the biker putting a few small items in her basket to get out of your path. You don't have time to befriend the farmers so they let you taste the produce. Fine, order wholesale, and leave the market to the rest of us. We don't want to have to eat Wonder Bread while we listen to you undermine our local growers just because you don't think the new yuppie farmer is as "genuine" as the Italian brothers in your hometown whose family has been butchering for a hundred years. There is some great writing in this book, especially the opening about her childhood, and in some of the parts about her travels in Greece and France, but I went away from it thinking she's just like all the other obnoxious egotistical chefs you read about. She calls herself "badass" but maybe that's just another word for something else.