From Too Many Chefs -

October 3, 2005
Ruth Reichl's Memoirs

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.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at October 3, 2005 12:58 PM | TrackBack

Meg - I love reading what you write.
So far I have only read Comfort Me With Apples. How it came to me is a good story.* Must add the other two to my "list".
*In 2001 Julia Child was doing a 2 hour meet, greet and signing of books at the Sur La Table in Pasadena, CA. I HAD to be there. Jean-Yves took the morning off from work and I brought along my well worn copies of her books, with the thought that having her sign them would be such a thrill. The line was very long, and the crowd was instructed not to linger, or take too much time with her. There was a women in front of us, explaining that she lived in northern California, and had come down just for this, and she was so upset that she had forgotten her camera. Being the mom that I am, I had mine, and offered to take her picture. I snapped two shots, and realized they were the last of the roll. This nice lady felt really bad. I wasn't upset about it at all. I took her address and promised to send here the photos. A week later I did just that, and a week or so after that, I received Comfort Me With Apples in the mail as a thank you. Incredible huh? (once Julia realized that JY is French she kept him at her table for at least 10 minutes discussing France and cooking techniques!)

Posted by Alisa on October 3, 2005 at 2:32 PM

Hey Alisa - I'm sure Meg will be glad to read your praise for her writing, but this one was mine. :)

I hope you buy and enjoy Tender to the Bone. The opening chapters, in particular are just brilliant.

Posted by barrett on October 3, 2005 at 2:40 PM

Fool that I am!
Ahem, Barrett, I just love reading your writing!!!!!

Posted by Alisa on October 3, 2005 at 3:23 PM

Alisa - Actually Meg ghost-wrote this for me.


Thanks for that.

Posted by barrett on October 3, 2005 at 3:31 PM

I recently read Garlic & Sapphires, having read and enjoyed Reichl's previous books. This latest one is a hoot, especially her descriptions of the different characters she develops for visiting New York restaurants in disguise.

Have you tried any of her recipes from the books you read? I have tried one from Garlic & Sapphires so far--her version of Spaghetti Carbonara. It was a simple and delicious weeknight dinner.

I recall your post that you're moving to Baltimore at some point. I look forward to your comments about our restaurants here. There don't seem to be very many Baltimore food bloggers, so you'll be a pioneer!

Posted by Paige on October 3, 2005 at 3:33 PM

Paige - It's good to hear the new book is worth getting. Maybe I'll look for a used hardback before the paperback comes out.

Yes, I am moving to the Baltimore-area in June or July of 2006. It looks like we won't be in Baltimore proper but somewhere in Howard County. My wife's new job will take her to Hopkins in Baltimore somedays and down to Bethesda the other days so it makes sense for us to be somewhat in-between.

We had a nice meal in Little Italy this summer when we were in Baltimore, and you can bet I'll be looking into the markets and other resources in the city when we get there.

Posted by barrett on October 3, 2005 at 3:39 PM

I've only read Garlic & Sapphires - and actually, I listened to it on tape (from my library), and it cracked me up! I was moving at the time, and it provided such a welcome distraction as I was packing boxes, particularly the kitchen - gave me grand ideas of what to make with my pots and pans as I put them away. I don't know if I would've enjoyed reading so much as listening - there's something about certain books that need to be read.

Posted by Aj on October 3, 2005 at 4:10 PM

Alisa, unfortunately I gave my copy of Tender at the Bone to my family in Chicago or I would lend it to you! If it ever makes its way back to Paris, I'll check whether you've got it yet. It was very funny - I loved her descriptions of her mother's dangerous cooking habits. She says that as a girl she'd wander around her mother's parties warning the people she liked which dishes to avoid!

Posted by Meg in Paris on October 4, 2005 at 1:35 AM

Have you ever noticed that when you first learn a new name, it suddenly starts popping up everywhere?

We are about 3 chapters into Reichl's "Tender at the Bone" - just finished the Mrs.Peavey chapter - and are really liking this book. (I can't now remember why we suddenly found out about it.) As far as I know, I've never seen, heard, or heard of Reichl before picking up 'Tender at the Bone".

I was reading a novel last week that mentioned Reichl's name as well. One of the characters got reservations at a restaurant because Reichl had given it rave reviews. (I have no idea if it is a real restaurant or not.)


Posted by ejm on October 4, 2005 at 9:01 AM

Elizabeth - That's known as being "primed" and I've noticed the same phenomenon. A friend bought a Nissan Murano and suddenly we saw Muranos everywhere.

Or maybe Ruth's got a master publicity plan to freak us all out.

Posted by barrett on October 4, 2005 at 9:59 AM

Nice blog.I like this.

Posted by Nick on October 5, 2005 at 12:50 AM

You must be right about Reichl's publicity plan, Barrett. I bet it's a subliminal campaign on the food network... maybe if one tapes a show and watches it backwards, her name appears in scary big letters. 8-D


Posted by ejm on October 5, 2005 at 5:03 AM

I didn't know RR had a new book out. Thanks. I read both books. Had seventies flashbacks. Naughty little hippy girl she was.

Posted by Greg on October 5, 2005 at 7:43 AM