I admit it - I've been living under a rock for the last two decades. When I picked up Ruth Reichl's book I knew her only as they annoying character in the Gourmet magazine TV ads. I had noticed, however, that she edited a new series of culinary books and that she had been the restaurant critic at the New York Times. Her breadth of experience and the reviews from critics I respect inspired me to read these two books.
Reichl's writing in these two autobiograhical books is sparkling. The first book, Tender to the Bone, covers her childhood and the relationship between her and her parents, particularly her mother. Her mother is a horrible cook, manic-depressive, and unfortunately eager to host dinner parties.
Among the culinary crimes documented in the book, Reichl's mother seeks out the leftovers from a New York City automat and mixes them together to create a dish that sounds like something from H.P. Lovecraft. Only the beloved maid and cook of a favorite aunt saves the future restaurant critic from food poisoning and a disdain for gastronomic pelasures.
Fortunately for Reichl, her mother takes little Ruth's casual interest in the French language as a sign to send her to school in Montreal. There for the first time she begins to experience fine food in the home of a close school friend. The book follows her through her time in Montreal and her first few relationships and jobs leading eventually to a communal Victorian in Berkeley, California where she finds love, work, and befriends a local food legend as she decides what to do with her life. Reichl's mother acts as a reference for many of her experience, and the story of their relationship is the story of the first part of Reichl's life.
Tender to the Bone is a great read, but I couldn't help but feel that some part of the story was missing. We get a portrait of the artist as a young girl, but as we reach adulthood, great swaths of the past that made Reichl into the influential person she is today are just not there.
Enter Comfort Me With Apples. In this book, we pick up with Reichl in Berkeley in a too-comfortable marriage and follow her progress both professionally and personally. Tender was much more about the relationship between Reichl and her mother, and the consequences of that relationship to her life. Though her parents appear in Comfort, this book is much more about the relationship of a woman to herself, her men, and her craft, which is writing about food and the people making it.
The writing in Comfort Me With Apples is honest and straightforward, if reporterly. We get a third party's view of Ruth Reichl and hear very little of her internal struggle. Maybe her internal monologue is just that clear and simple, but I doubt it. This may be Reichl's way of dealing with painful material. The book covers affairs, career advances and setbacks, and her experiences with most of the bright lights of the California cuisine movement, including Wolfgang Puck and Alice Waters.
The most personally told section of the book involves the adoption of a baby girl. Reichl's emotions pour out onto the page in this one section far more than in the others.
At the end of Comfort, I felt more satisfied than I did at the end of the excellent Tender to the Bone, but I had the same sense that there is more to the story.
Reichl's third book of this type, Garlic and Sapphires, was released in hardback in April. It recounts her time as a restaurant critic at the New York Times. I didn't enjoy these two enough to purchase her book new in hardback, but as soon as it comes out in paper, I'll pick it up.