Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, by Ruth Reichl


Food critic and chef Ruth Reichl traces her lifelong love affair with food, beginning with her mother's atrocious culinary creations during her childhood, through to her very first restaurant reviews out in California. The entertaining anecdotes are interspersed with recipes that have been particularly important to her over the years.

Reichl, a highly respected food writer, doesn't seem to have had any formal culinary education. Instead, her expertise is the result of varied experiences cobbled together over the years. She learns about apple dumplings and potato salad from her grandmother's maid. Her mother's housekeeper teaches her the secrets of Beef Wellington and wiener schnitzel. A school friend's father introduces her to souffle and fine cuisine, and a college roommate introduced her to several South American delicacies.

In addition to these providential friendships, Reichl learned quite a bit from her travels, which appear to have been fairly extensive. She attended boarding school in Canada, spent a summer on an island off the coast of France, enjoyed an exotic vacation in Tunis (and an extended honeymoon in Greece and Italy), and joined a friend for a wine-buying trip in France. She cooked for friends in New York and Ann Arbor and in a hippie commune in California, waited tables in Berkeley, gave cooking lessons to a Warhol Superstar, and eventually started writing restaurant reviews.

And indeed, it is in her writing that Reichl truly shines. I don't know much about her culinary skill, but her writing is first rate. And I'm not the only one who thinks so: Reichl has received James Beard awards for her restaurant criticism and for her journalism. Plus, she was the restaurant critic for the New York Times, and you know they don't give that job to just anyone.  

Reichl is one of a handful of writers (including James Herriot, Rick Bragg, Anne Lamott, and, more recently, Stephen King) who taught me that autobiographies don't have to be boring. In this case, they can be downright delightful. Her extremely evocative descriptions of food can only be described as mouth-watering (this book will make you hungry), and she is remarkably deft in her character portrayals. Reichl writes about even the challenging times with a lively (and cheerful) sense of humor tinged with pragmatic optimism and a frankness that is quite charming. The sequels--Comfort Me With Apples and Garlic and Sapphires--aren't quite as good, but are still worth reading.

Truly a delicious read.

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