Book Review: Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl
I have recently discovered food memoirs. Before this year, I really did not know they were considered a genre. But after reading Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef and Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life earlier this year, I decided to read more of the genre. I can cook but am still learning, so I always appreciate good recipes and how people discovered their love of cooking. Growing up, my parents both worked full-time, so we ate staple foods (like spaghetti or taco salad) and ate out a lot, mostly at Longhorn or local Mexican restaurants (not too many options back then in my hometown). So my cooking life has been relatively new, but I am drawn to those who have made it such a big part of their lives. I picked up Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone from the library after reading that it was one of Shauna Niequist’s recommended books on food writing in her book Bread & Wine. Reichl is best known for being the Los Angeles Times and New York Times food critic, as well as the Editor in Chief of the former Gourmet magazine. Tender at the Bone is the first of several food memoirs.
Reichl grew up in New York City with older parents, her mother a manic depressive and her father a book printer. Her mother was a terrible cook, but Ruth learned to appreciate food from others, specifically her Aunt Birdie and Alice. Aunt Birdie is actually Ruth’s father’s first mother-in-law, so not really related to Ruth, but she loved her all the same. And Alice is Birdie’s long-time maid and cook. As a little girl, Alice taught Ruth to cook. As she grew older, Reichl learned how to master certain recipes and in high school, during (well, mostly after) parties, she was always cooking and/or baking for friends. She attended the University of Michigan for both undergraduate and graduate school, working in a French restaurant while there and learning a lot about the restaurant business and food in general. She went on to meet her husband Doug, and they spent their honeymoon in Europe. Her story on the food in Italy made me want to go back immediately. What is it about Italian food? Authentic Italian food is truly scrumptious. After returning from Europe, they lived in New York for a while before moving to Berkeley, California, where she became part owner of the Swallow Restaurant.
Honestly, I really only enjoyed the first half of the book’s stories. Once she got into grad school and was living with her husband and their friend Pat, I lost interest in the stories and focused more on the recipes. It was probably because of how much of her stories revolved around the anti-societal movement prevalent in the 70s. Once she and Doug moved to Berkeley, they basically lived in a commune and adopted extreme anti-bourgeois house rules. I am sure it made sense at the time with their beliefs, but I just cannot imagine being a newlywed and living with other people. No thank you.
Anyways, her early stories were much more entertaining. She spent several years at a French school in Montreal. She befriends Beatrice and is invited to her family’s home. Beatrice’s father is immediately taken with Ruth’s interest in great French food. That chapter was definitely a mouth-watering one. I also loved all the stories with Aunt Birdie and Alice. Alice's cooking reminded me of quintessential Southern cooking, even though she was from Barbados. My grandmother does not like to cook as much now that she is older, but I still remember going to her house when I was younger and being entranced by her cooking. Her cornbread is one of my all-time favorite foods. Reichl included several great recipes that I cannot wait to attempt: Devil’s Food Cake, Pumpkin Soup, and Con Queso Rice.
I liked the style of Reichl’s writing, so even though the back half of the memoir fell a little flat for me, I still want to read her other works. I even ordered her cookbook, My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life, and her first novel, Delicious!, on Book Outlet during their Black Friday weekend sale. I’ll report back on how those are. I give Tender at the Bone 4 stars, mostly for the mouth-watering recipes that don't seem too tedious.
Let me know what your favorite food memoirs and cookbooks are.