On the dust jacket of Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood Bones & Butter, one critic likens the book to Mary Karr's Liar's Club and André Aciman's excellent Out of Egypt. A good book can often remind you of others, and BB&B is no exception. As I read, I too thought of Karr, and also Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, Adam Gopnik, Anthony Lane and even Woody Allen.
The mother figure in BB&B is very like the one in Mary Karr's The Liar's Club -- erratic and absent by turns. Reading Karr's ground-breaking book when it came out in 1995 was a revelation -- my perception at the time was that mentioning unhappy childhoods was verboten -- by the time Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle came out ten years later, some readers (myself included) were suffering from literary bad-childhood fatigue. There was simply too much of it to bear.
As a consequence, Hamilton's writing is more compelling when she turns to reminiscences of her adult years globe-trotting and living in New York. Her thoughts on hunger while traveling are reminiscent of a young Ernest Hemingway, wandering the streets of Paris in A Moveable Feast. He writes that "You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris... you could always go into the Luxembourg museum and all the paintings were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry." Hunger for Hemingway was "good discipline" as it is for Hamilton: "My hunger grew so specific that I could name every corner and fold of it," she recalls.
Hamilton's simple descriptions of enjoying salty cheese and a warm salted potato in Amsterdam have the same effect as Hemingway's descriptions of Parisian beer and potato salad: They make you hungry. Not so the death of 30 lobsters in chapter 5, which is stomach turning. The scene also nods to that famous part of Annie Hall where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton chase some mistakenly liberated lobsters around their kitchen. For Hamilton, though, the tragedy is not that the lobsters have died, but that they have died without being eaten. For a chef who's killed a chicken with her bare hands, that reaction makes sense.
The main problem concerning the eating of lobsters for non-chef mortals is that, as David Foster Wallace points out in his essay "Consider the Lobster," that particular marine crustacean gets cooked while it is still alive. "You can pick out your supper while it watches you point," Wallace notes. Animals that watch you while you order them are unnerving, and best left to science fiction.
Adam Gopnik devotes a chapter to the question of eating fish, flesh and fowl in The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food. At one point, he quotes Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals: "We are, he says, 'making war' on seafood." For Gopnik, though, both sides in the carnivore-herbivore argument seem to have a point.
As Gopnik's New Yorker colleague Anthony Lane points out in his essay "Look Back in Hunger," the great Julia Child's description of trussing a chicken is not for the faint of heart: "Fold the wings akimbo, tucking the wing ends under the shoulders... Catch the neck skin, if there." Lane goes on to describe a cookbook that gives advice on the best way to kill a turtle for soup. You can't make an omelet, it seems, without breaking a few eggs, or a food memoir without (re)killing some lobsters.
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