At an early age, Ruth Reichl discovered that "food could be a way of making sense of the world. . . . If you watched people as they ate, you could find out who they were." Her deliciously crafted memoir, Tender at the Bone, is the story of a life determined, enhanced, and defined in equal measure by a passion for food, unforgettable people, and the love of tales well told. Beginning with Reichl's mother, the notorious food-poisoner known as the Queen of Mold, Reichl introduces us to the fascinating characters who shaped her world and her tastes, from the gourmand Monsieur du Croix, who served Reichl her first soufflé, to those at her politically correct table in Berkeley who championed the organic food revolution in the 1970s. Spiced with Reichl's infectious humor and sprinkled with her favorite recipes, Tender at the Bone is a witty and compelling chronicle of a culinary sensualist's coming-of-age.
New York Times Book Review, by Paul Levy:
The memoirs of food writers have a particular poignancy, for the child really is father to the man. The tale of the growth and development of appetite, while always personal and specific, is universally interesting -- as is proved by the work of writers as various as Jeffrey Steingarten, A. J. Liebling, Barbara Kafka and M. F. K. Fisher. But while all good food writers are humorous -- it's a feature of the genre -- few are so riotously, effortlessly entertaining as Ruth Reichl.
Unlike her counterparts in London and Paris, who are rarely recognized, even by the waiter, until they pay the bill with a credit card bearing their bylines, the restaurant critic of The Times is a person with such power that she must be a mistress of subterfuge. Judging by this meaty memoir, Reichl is also witty, fair-minded, brave and a wonderful writer. New York's restaurateurs can count themselves lucky.
Reichl's fans will not be surprised to learn that I laughed a lot while reading her sometimes achingly funny book. But I was also moved, and drew a sharp breath of sympathy from time to time at the candor of some of the tougher passages. She is honest about a wide range of subjects, from her fear of driving and panic attacks on bridges to more serious worries about her mother's failure to take her lithium and her venomous warnings that manic depression can be inherited.
All autobiographers have a problem conjuring with the truth. My own strategy is to regard writing about oneself as inadvertent fiction. Reichl's is contained in her first sentence (''Storytelling, in my family, was highly prized'') and in the conclusion to which it leads her: ''Everything here is true, but it may not be entirely factual.'' She admits to compressing events, combining characters and indulging in a bit of embroidery. Never mind. I believe all her stories -- and if your mouth has ever watered when you smelled something good or you've ever been overwhelmed with curiosity about how something will taste, you will too.
Before Reichl learned to write about food, of course, she learned to eat. And in writing about her childhood, she confirms my feeling that the best background for becoming a good cook is to be descended through the female line from generations of noncooks, and to be brought up (as was still possible in the early 1950's) by professionals -- by maids who did the cooking. Admittedly, this can be difficult to achieve if you have Jewish grandmothers (my own were indifferent cooks). One of Reichl's was too rich and posh, the other too busy to cook. So Reichl's mentors were her Aunt Birdie's cook-companion, Alice, and Mrs. Peavey, the alcoholic aristocrat who defied her sons' wishes by becoming the Reichls' maid.
Memoir writing gives us a chance to play God and re-create our own families, especially our parents, and Reichl has triumphed in her portrait of her unstable mother, Miriam, a Ph.D. unfazed by moldy food, ''taste-blind and unafraid of rot.'' Her economies (scrape off the decay, throw nothing away, cater large parties with leftovers from the automat) taught her daughter many things: ''The first was that food could be dangerous, especially to those who loved it. . . . My parents entertained a great deal, and before I was 10 I had appointed myself guardian of the guests. My mission was to keep Mom from killing anybody who came to dinner.''
Jane Grigson used to say that no good food writer ever set out to be one, but invariably fell into the profession by accident. Reichl's career path was straighter than most. Despite degrees in sociology and art history, she worked in restaurants as a waitress and then a cook. Waiting on tables, she learned that the cooks regard running a restaurant as warfare, but when she became a cook herself in the 1970's it was in a pacific, though class-conscious, Berkeley collective. Married to an artist, living in a commune and cooking Thanksgiving dinner for 12 with food rescued from Dumpsters, she was at last able to sympathize with her mother's view of the undesirability of waste.
As her readers will have guessed (but she didn't at the time), all this was an apprenticeship for the one job at which she was bound to excel -- restaurant reviewing. She knew how restaurants worked. Childhood vacations in France and a stint at a French boarding school in Canada, plus travels in North Africa, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy, had also endowed her with a terrific taste memory. And she knew she could write -- after all, she started her life in Berkeley by ''writing term papers for a living.''
After that, it was just a question of meeting a few people: the generous Marion Cunningham, Cecilia Chiang and Kermit Lynch, the odious James Beard. (She tells it like it is.) Yet part of the charm of Reichl's memoir is her refusal to name-drop on the usual scale. Instead, she concentrates on the characters of the people she loves. Chief among these is her mild-mannered, long-suffering, scholarly German Jewish father. Eventually, she comes to realize that he has been a willing accomplice to his more flamboyant spouse, enjoying ''the tumult Mom created.'' And Reichl discovers that her father kept some secrets of his own: he had flown with Wilbur Wright and -- very satisfying for a daughter who was a veteran protester against the Vietnam War -- been a draft dodger back in Germany.
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