Blood, Bones & Butter

My birthday present to myself this year was a copy of Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by recent James Beard award-winning chef Gabrielle Hamilton. Then my food-themed book group decided to read it for our next discussion. Problem was, I plowed through the story so quickly, it was a bit hard to remember all of it six weeks later when we had our meeting. We had a really interesting discussion though, which ranged from talk of monkfish liver to bisexuality and who might benefit from some psychotherapy.

But earlier that day, to get in the mood, I made Chef Hamilton’s Bacon-Marmalade Sandwich on Pumpernickel for lunch. I first heard about it on the show “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” It sounded so deceptively simple, and I love the combination of sweet and salty that it promised. The first time I made this, I couldn’t find pumpernickel, so used dark rye bread. It was okay, but not as rapturous as I was led to believe. This time, I did some more research, and found a recipe of sorts on the Blue Kitchen blog. We had good bacon on hand, and some delicious Irish butter, so I just needed marmalade and bread. Dundee orange marmalade was easy enough to find, but where could I get good pumpernickel?

Turns out, I remembered that we have a genuine German bakery in Sacramento, in the form of Bäcker Bäck (2610 Marconi Ave.). Never having been there, I didn’t realize I’d get not just one dark bread choice, but three! They had some with seeds, some without, and some with a larger percentage of rye flour. None were technically pumpernickel, but I got an unseeded 90% rye loaf. It was dense and chewy, with a very crusty exterior. Delicious! But how would it do on the bacon sandwich?

I sliced the bread about 1/2 inch thick and toasted it lightly. Then I smeared on generous amounts of unsalted butter and 1 to 2 tablespoons marmalade. Each sandwich got two slices of bacon, halved to make 4 small strips. We ground pepper over it all. It was better than the first try, but still…I’d like more there there. Maybe more bacon, cooked just a bit more crisply, and slightly thinner bread. Maybe it’s the real pumpernickel that seals the flavor deal? I’ll keep you updated.

Meanwhile, the discussion on the book: We all liked it, despite the overenthusiastic jacket blurbs from Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali. I love that she’s a working mother who unflinchingly describes her life, with most of the ugly truths apparent. Being a chef is hard work. Her marriage isn’t happy. She has some serious issues from childhood that still affect her relationships. But I also loved her ability to evoke images of the summer lamb roast her family held annually, and the feelings of outsider status she has as an American in an Italian family.

We talked about the interesting choice she made in placing the flashback of her world travel out of chronological order, so that it emphasized the focus on the food, not on her biography. We noted that very few characters in the book seem to be physically described–perhaps only her children. (Oh, and the odd neighbor who lives upstairs and dances outside the restaurant.) One friend who had recently eaten at her restaurant thought that the book, like Prune, really zeroes in on flavor without worrying much about appearances.

Blood, Bones & Butter is unquestionably unique as a chef memoir in that it exposes the culinary life without making it seem romantic. No one who reads this will think it sounds like “fun” to work in a professional kitchen (also see  her picture of an asparagus spear painted with blood on the title page). As is readily apparent in a recent Grub Street journal of a week’s worth of her meals, Chef Hamilton doesn’t eat glamorous food at every meal. She eats like most working chefs and moms, which is to say haphazardly. Is she writing a sequel? The book ends sort of suddenly, so it will be interesting to see. Maybe we’ll find out what happened to all those family members who seem to have disappeared?

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