blaise's book feast

Un amuse bouche de la litterature

Month: September, 2012

The Essentials

Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

Gabrielle Hamilton, a wizard of literature and culinary delights, brings us her first book, a vivid memoir of growing up, dropping out, and succeeding in the vicious male dominated world of haute cuisine. She begins with her idyllic childhood, where her French mother and artist father craft a world of endless sunny afternoons, rustic dinner parties and expansive art projects. Gabrielle grows up near New Hope, Pennsylvania, a place close to my own heart, and as a teenager she works in places like the Stockton Inn and traipses about Lambertville, a charming country town on the Delaware. In the midst of an unfettered growing-up, Gabrielle learns her mother’s economical yet refined methods of extracting every usable calorie from a slaughtered animal, which later serves her well in the cutthroat world of New York cookery.
After her parents’ unexpected divorce, Gabrielle casually drops in and out of college, drops a few hits of acid, and eventually goes to work for catering kitchens in New York. I was impressed by the vast scale of these operations which crank out thousands of purportedly gourmet meals per day, for several different events, seven days a week. From the bowels of these kitchens Gabrielle brings alive the culinary underworld in the literary tradition of fellow chef/writer Anthony Bourdain. Gabrielle’s reprieve from this manic culinary wasteland is her annual summer job as a chef at a summer camp for kids. In the simple farmhouse kitchen, with a blue sky and pine trees out the window, Gabrielle gets to make cuisine that is her own, whether or not it is appreciated by the cardboard palates of her campers.

Settled back in New York, Ms. Hamilton dives in head first to a derelict property with a tenuous dream of turning it into a restaurant. After much nausea inducing cleaning out of rat carcasses and grease traps, she brings the tiny, luminous Prune restaurant to life, which is a wildly successful New York staple today.

Even Mr. Bourdain agrees: “Magnificent. Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever.”

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Les Bon Mots

Jasmine and Fire by Salma Abdelnour

Ms. Abdelnour was born in Beirut and emigrated to the US as a child. She enjoyed a success as a writer in NYC, but always had the desire to return to Beirut to live for good. She packed her bags, took an epic flight, and arrived in the Beirut that she had remembered, minus some scars from the civil war shelling. Salma easily falls into the routine of frenetic Beiruti life, connecting with friends and family, keeping up with the city’s famed club scene, and regaining her mastery of Arabic. The strength of this book is the sensory path that Ms. Abdelnour leads her readers on; you can smell the mint rising up from freshly brewed tea, you can taste the sugar granules on her favorite pastries and you can see the vast Mediterranean from the waterfront near her house. The book was slightly too self-centric for me, as there was much agonizing over feelings, but in the end it was a lovely portrait of an intriguing city. Notably, the author supplies Lebanese recipes at the end. We made the baba ghanoush. It was great.

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

Pulitzer prize winning Richard Russo brings us a story about middle age ennui, love, and loss which is set in successive transient, ephemeral Cape Cod summers. Dysfunctional family dynamics are smartly explored and difficult love is deftly analyzed. Particularly touching is the protagonist’s remembrance of a childhood summer on the Cape.