Book Review

The accidental foodie

A life lived at the table

By
May 15, 2009

Editor’s note: Ruth Reichl’s latest book, Not Becoming My Mother, is a look backward at who her mother really was. This review sums up Reichl’s three earlier memoirs, which together constitute Reichl’s autobiography.

“I learned early that the most important thing in life is a good story,” writes Ruth Reichl in the introduction to her first memoir, Tender at the Bone. “Everything here is true, but it may not be entirely factual.”

Some reviewers of Reichl’s three bestselling memoirs — Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples, and Garlic and Sapphires — have stumbled over statements like this, which appear faithfully in the introduction or acknowledgments of all three books. David Kamp, for one — the author of The United States of Arugula — grumbled about Reichl’s cavalier attitude toward facts in his New York Times review of her third memoir, Garlic and Sapphires:

Reichl, of all people, doesn’t need to embellish. She’s correct in thinking she’s had an amazing, triple-memoir-worthy life, but “Garlic and Sapphires,” at times, might better be called “A Grain of Salt.”

So the question for you, dear reader, is this: How salty do you like your food memoirs? Because Reichl’s trilogy is very savory indeed. Unlike other recent gustatory memoirs — Julie Powell’s amusing Julie & Julia, for example, or Phoebe Damrosch’s entertaining Service Included — Reichl’s life story feels, on paper, less like a book than like a remarkably revealing film, with the camera peering into crannies few other writers would care to have exposed.

Scenes are short, skits vivid, dialogue crackling and frequent. (C’mon, Kamp, like anybody could remember word-for-word conversations from high school. Give Reichl credit for jazzing things up a bit.) Characters — not least Reichl herself, especially when she hits her New York Times restaurant-critic-in-disguise period — are uniformly over the top. But Reichl knows that the simplest language is usually the most effective for getting both plot and character across, and she wisely lets her roller-coaster of a life rumble along with few bells or whistles.

Whether or not Reichl really lived exactly the life she depicts in her memoirs is rather beside the point, since the ride is such fun. After all, who hasn’t felt the desire to put down on paper the best, most exciting version of their lives?

If nothing else, readers can rest assured that at least two truths about Reichl are self-evident, as asserted in the acknowledgments to Comfort Me with Apples: “All my friends know this about me: I can always eat, and I can always exaggerate.”

So let’s do the Reichl tour. Her three books, published in 1998, 2001, and 2005, follow her life chronologically: childhood into early adulthood (Bone), early adulthood into midlife (Apples), and her six-year tenure as the Times restaurant critic (Sapphires). She grew up in New York City, the only child of a gentle German-Jewish father who designed books for a living and a manic-depressive mother who, from Reichl’s perspective, made traumatizing her daughter her life’s mission — all with the best of intentions, of course.

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“The Queen of Mold,” as Reichl calls her mother, was perhaps the world’s worst home cook, routinely poisoning dinner guests with food past its prime. Over her daughter’s stunned objections, she packed Reichl off to boarding school in Canada so Reichl could learn French. And once Reichl hit college age, her adult life became an active flight from her mother, with way stations in the Midwest (for college and graduate school in art history), Berkeley (for a prolonged bout of hippiedom, a stint as a cook at a communally owned restaurant, and the beginning of a food-writing career), and Los Angeles (where Reichl wound up as the food editor of the Los Angeles Times).

When Reichl, in middle age, interviews for the New York Times critic job, she’s asked why she would give up a successful career in L.A. to move to New York. Her off-the-cuff response is all about her mother:

Looking him straight in the eye, I said, “My mother died a year ago. I wouldn’t have considered living here while she was alive, but now that she’s gone, I guess I can come home.”

Of course, Reichl has father issues, too — something she doesn’t really realize until she marries a man who is, essentially, her dad. When she meets Doug Hollis, a sculptor, she woos him in the traditional way: with her cooking, plying him with the hearty Central European foods her father loved, such as Wiener schnitzel.

“I must have known, somewhere inside of me, that I had found Dad’s kindred spirit,” she writes. “And that if I took him home he would finally introduce me to the German gentleman who was my father.”

devil's food cake
Devil’s food cake, a sweet treat Reichl liked to make in high school.

With Hollis, Reichl moves to California and embarks upon the Great Hippie Experiment: communal housing, Dumpster-diving, and clothing proudly bought at Goodwill. But when things start to fall apart into mutual adultery — Reichl’s bout with infidelity features Saveur co-founder Colman Andrews, who comes off here as a love ‘em and leave ‘em bon vivant — she finds it very hard to move on. Even after living for two years with Michael Singer, the macho TV news producer who eventually becomes her second husband, Reichl still hasn’t managed to divorce Hollis.

Her constant moving — and that’s not counting trips and lengthy stays in Europe, Africa, and Asia — represents, of course, Reichl’s effort to get on with her life. But she’s not as carpe diem as she’d like. The woman who made a point during her years at the New York Times of speaking up for the rights of women diners and women chefs finds it difficult to seize the moment herself.

She drifts from college into grad school and from cooking into food writing. She never seems to actively look for food-writing employment; instead, she finds herself reluctantly fielding offers from editors begging her to take on story assignments, jobs, and editorships. The only publishing gig she apparently accepted with alacrity is her current one, as editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine — and even then, according to her memoirs, only because she was burning out at the New York Times.

She waits until her late 30s to try to have a child; when she and Singer decide to adopt instead, the baby they receive is brutally taken away again when the birth parents change their minds. Again, Reichl accepts what life has dished up for her — only to be pleasantly astonished when she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant.

Meanwhile, Reichl has the good fortune to participate firsthand in regional food revolutions around America: the Alice Waters-driven fresh-and-local shift in 1970s Berkeley, the Wolfgang Puck-emblazoned California cuisine explosion in 1980s Los Angeles, and the international restaurant boom, symbolized by the likes of Mario Batali, in 1990s New York City. In his review, David Kamp attributes Reichl’s serendipitous life path to “a combination of caprice and canny career management.” But the way Reichl tells it, it was all caprice.

In her memoirs, Reichl doesn’t live an inspiring, take-charge life; rather, a vividly eclectic life almost seems to take charge of her. Nowhere is this more true than in Sapphires, a detailed account of the many personas and disguises she donned in order to experience restaurants as an ordinary diner instead of as a restaurant critic. She lets the various characters — frumpy housewives, hippie divas, glamour queens — take over her personality so much that, eventually, her friends become concerned. “These disguises have gone too far,” snaps her friend the food writer Marion Cunningham. “I hate the person you’ve become.”

And with that, Reichl decides to stop fooling around and just be herself. Within a few more pages (with the amusing aid of an astrologer) she’s moved on from the Times to Gourmet and, literally, closed the book on her life.

A few years later, however, Reichl decided to reconnect with the ghost of her mother, reassessing who her mother really was; the results became Not Becoming My Mother, less a memoir than a biography of a parent.

So will there be a fourth memoir, recounting her days at Gourmet? Or has Reichl finally put all of her ghosts to bed for good? Wait and see. Maybe ghosts like breakfast — preferably the devil’s food cake her high-school friends liked so much.

Caroline Cummins is Culinate’s managing editor.

Related recipe: Mushroom Soup; recipe: New York Cheesecake; recipe: Wiener Schnitzel; recipe: Devil’s Food Cake; recipe: Miang Kam

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1. by James Quinn on May 21, 2009 at 11:41 AM PDT

I’m not going to read this book. I have read far too many of her reviews where she reviews the decor and the desserts but forgets to mention the food at all. And I could generally rely on the principle that if she hated a restaurant I would like it (and the reverse.)

You can attempt to glorify her all you want, but in my opinion she’s a simple minded lightweight who knows little about food and cares less.

2. by chat chileno on Jul 25, 2012 at 2:36 PM PDT

muchas gracias por este buen aporte

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