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Cookbook cues: Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

I used to read mysteries when I'd go away on a summer break. Somewhere along the line I switched to culinary memoirs. Maybe it had something to do with never being able to remember the plots of the mysteries once I finished, while the food narratives stuck with me.

Last summer I finally got around to reading Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, by Julie Powell, which you've probably heard of, and Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India by the cookbook author and actress Madhur Jaffrey, which you might not have. It's definitely worth the read.

This summer I tried to read Grant Achatz's Life, on the Line: A Chef's Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat. Despite the alluring pic of a tousled Achatz on the cover, life-and-death storyline and presumably "help" of a co-author, Life, on the Line just wasn't written well enough for me to keep reading it. Although there's nothing pedestrian about Achatz's story, I could not get through the plodding exposition.

Overshadowing Achatz's memoir this year has been Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of A Reluctant Chef (Random House, $26). Although Achatz has arguably the more compelling story -- kid who grew up working in the family diner ends up at The French Laundry, then opening top-of-the-line Alinea in Chicago, then discovers he has cancer of the tongue -- Hamilton is the superior writer and storyteller. She has a MFA in fiction writing from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and it shows. It makes BB&B more readable even as Hamilton herself becomes gradually less likable as the story goes on.

The story begins with Hamilton as a child, being brought up in an idyllic post-hippie household in rural Pennsylvania. Her relationship with food is, from the beginning, intense and sensual. (It runs in the family; her sister, Melissa Hamilton, is half of the Canal House team.) When her parents' marriage dissolves, so does the family. Underage, Hamilton ends up waitressing, serving drinks, and developing a drug addiction in Manhattan. Stints in college and catering follow, as she cleans up.

My favorite part of BB&B is a chapter in which Hamilton recalls her summers spent as chef at a camp in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, as she endeavors to source healthy foods from local purveyors, absorbs the lush surroundings before and after the campers and counselors arrive, and occasionally caters to young foodies who ask her for balsamic vinegar for their greens and the like. But even the relatively smooth story of camp cooking has a negative ending, something the reader will come to expect.

Hamilton's courtship and eventual marriage to an Italian doctor brings her to Italy for summers, eating in the country with her husband's family. This should also be idyllic. But Hamilton spends a lot of time grousing about the state of her marriage. Ultimately this sours what could be the most culinarily compelling section of the book. While she's not shy about explicating how lack of communication is destroying the marriage, that problem would seem to be a two-way street.

Many passages in the book distill this era's local-simple-sensuous approach to food as well as anything that's been written. They're hymns to such dining, but as exhilarating as they are to read, Hamilton's prickly and sometimes contentious personality destroys or at the very least puts a damper on the communal euphoria that such eating is assumed to create.

But now I'm the grouse. If you think about it, that's too much to ask of any food, or any chef. Not in a memoir based in a real life, anyway.

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