I just finished re-reading Ruth Reichl’s early memoir TENDER AT THE BONE and want to tell you, this is a must for all of us—for everyone who loves to cook, for anyone who grew up in the 40s or the 50s but especially in New York; for anyone who appreciates good food, for all of us who enjoy a good story—for those of us who have suffered in the not-too-distant past the idiosyncrasies of our mothers—but mostly for all of us who appreciate the lure and calling of the kitchen.
I first read about Ruth Reichl’s TENDER AT THE BONE in a lengthy, fascinating review that appeared around the time Reichl’s memoir was first published and was reviewed in the Los Angeles Times. The review was actually a reprint of chapter two, titled Grandmothers, and it captivated everyone who read it—along with everyone who ever enjoyed having a wonderful grandmother. In it, Ruth describes the relationship she enjoyed all her life with her father’s first wife’s mother, Aunt Birdie, who was—at four feet eight, the smallest grown-up that Ruth or any of her friends had ever seen.
From Aunt Birdie and Aunt Birdie’s cook, Alice, Ruth was introduced to the kitchen and from Aunt Birdie, Ruth received the one thing all of us as children need and cherish—unconditional love. Aunt Birdied, incidentally, so desperately wanted to be a grandmother that she presented herself at the hospital when Ruth was born, and volunteered herself for the job.
Ruth Reichl has been a restaurant critic for the New York Times, New West Magazine, California magazine, and the Los Angeles Times newspaper, and was editor in chief for Gourmet Magazine until it folded (I began re-subscribing to Gourmet when Ruth became editor its chief. I loved everything she wrote and attempted to follow her career).
She also edited ENDLESS FEASTS which was a tribute to sixty years of writing from Gourmet Magazine. ENDLESS FEASTS was published in 2002. It’s the perfect book to carry around with you on errands to the post office or bank, wherever you may find yourself standing in line—the short stories are ideal for waiting-in-line and the book is small enough to fit into most purses.
Ruth Reichl was a writer and editor who was the Editor in Chief of Gourmet Magazine for ten years until its closing in 2009. Before that she was the restaurant critic of the The New York Times, (1993-1999), and both the restaurant critic and food editor of the Los Angeles Times (1984-1993). As co-owner and cook of the collective restaurant The Swallow from 1974 to 1977, she played a part in the culinary revolution that took place in Berkeley, California.
From Ruth Reichl’s official biography, we learned that she began writing about food in 1972, when she published “Mmmmm: A FEASTIARY”. Since then, she has authored the critically acclaimed, best-selling memoirs “Tender at the Bone”, “Comfort Me with Apples”, “Garlic and Sapphires”, and “For You Mom, Finally”, (originally published as “Not Becoming My Mother and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way”). Reichl is the editor of The Modern Library Food Series, which currently includes ten books—I was curious about this series and checked through both Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble to see what all is in the series. (It looks like something I will want to order and write about—one thing that stunned me was the discovery that Henri Charpentier is the subject of one of the books. I wrote about Charpentier in January, 2011, on my blog—but had written about him long before that, for the cookbook Collectors Exchange).
Reichl has also written the introductions to Nancy Silverton’s “Breads from the La Brea Bakery: Recipes for the Connoisseur” (1996) and “The Measure of Her Powers: An M.F.K. Fisher Reader” (2000), and the foreword for “Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art”, by Shizuo Tsuji (2007). Reichl is featured on the cover of Dining Out: Secrets from America’s Leading Critics, Chefs and Restaurants, by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page (1998), History in a Glass: Sixty Years of Wine Writing from Gourmet, 2006, and Gourmet Today, 2009.
Ms. Reichl has been honored with six James Beard Awards (one for magazine feature writing and one for multimedia food journalism in 2009; two for restaurant criticism, in 1996 and 1998; one for journalism, in 1994; and Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America, 1984) and with numerous awards from the Association of American Food Journalists.
In 2007, she was named Adweek’s Editor of the Year. She received the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism, presented by the Missouri School of Journalism, in October 2007. Ms. Reichl received the 2008 Matrix award for Magazines from New York Women in Communications, Inc..
She is also the recipient of the YWCA’s Elizabeth Cutter Morrow Award. She holds a B.A. and an M.A. in the History of Art from the University of Michigan and lives in New York City with her husband, Michael Singer, a television news producer, and their son.
Whew! I hope you were able to keep up with me listing all of that!
Right now, I’d like to focus on TENDER AT THE BONE, an early memoir but not the very first. That would be “Mmmmm: A Feastiary” published in 1972.
TENDER AT THE BONE is the story of Reichl’s life and how it led her to the kitchen from early childhood to the present. This is not really a cookbook although it does contain some of Reichl’s favorite recipes, including Aunt Birdie’s famous potato salad and Alice’s apple dumplings with hard sauce.
Many of Reichl’s experiences in life struck a familiar chord – when she tells of being sent to a French girls school in Canada—where everyone except Ruth spoke French—and how out of place and foreign she felt – I was instantly reminded of my first year at a Catholic Girls’ High School where everyone seemed to know where to go and how to behave, except me, (one nun never forgave me for walking into the cloister to get to my science class, not believing that I had no idea what “cloister” meant—although fifty years later when we celebrated the 50th anniversary of our graduation, Sister Seraphia—reading my confession about the cloister in the school’s quarterly booklet—conceded that I probably didn’t really know what “cloister” meant). As for me, I made it my business forever after to learn the meaning of any word I was unfamiliar with. It was a good lesson). And while my mother may not have been quite as outrageous as Ruth’s, mine may have run a close second. It took many years for my siblings and I to discover that it wasn’t the food we disliked; it was the way mom cooked it. (Oh? You mean rice isn’t intended to be a hard sticky ball like library paste?) Ruth says her mother was taste-blind, as some people are color-blind. My mother was pre-occupied with managing to feed seven people with one pound of hamburger meat (you keep adding bread to the ground beef. None of us knew what a real hamburger tasted like until we grew up and could order something from a local Frisches’ diner.)
TENDER AT THE BONE, write the publishers, is the story of a life determined, enhanced, and defined in equal measure by unforgettable people, the love of tales, well told, and a passion for food. In other words, the stuff of the best literature.
The journey begins with Reichl’s mother, the notorious food-poisoner, known forevermore as the Queen of Mold and moves on to the fabled Mrs. Peavey, onetime Baltimore socialite millionairess, who for a brief but poignant moment, was retained as the Reichl’s maid. Then we are introduced to Monsieur du Croix, the gourmand who so understood and yet was awed by this prodigious child at his dinner table that when he introduced Ruth to the soufflé, he could only exclaim “What a pleasure to watch a child eat her first soufflé!…”
In an Amazon.com Internet interview with Ruth Reichl, she explains that she didn’t start out thinking she was writing a memoir; she just really wanted to do some writing that was not just restaurant reviews. We also learn from the interview that Ruth is a kindred spirit to us all—she has hundreds of cookbooks. The Fannie Farmer cookbook is one of her all-time favorites (and in TENDER AT THE BONE you discover her introduction to, and friendship with, cookbook author Marion Cunningham who wrote the latest version for the Fannie Farmer Cookbook.
Ruth says she loves Marian Morash’s vegetable book THE VICTORY GARDEN COOKBOOK and was greatly impressed with Rozanne Gold’s RECIPES 1-2-3, (previously reviewed on my blog).
Ruth Reichl also loves Richard Olney’s books, especially SIMPLE FRENCH FOOD and says that one more book she really loves and has had for about twenty years is GOOD FOOD OF SZECHWAN.
TENDER AT THE BONE is available on Amazon.com for $12.09 or from one of many private vendors starting at $3.95 for a pre-owned copy. Alibris.com also has pre owned copies starting at 99 cent.
Review by Sandra Lee Smith