Family. Calling it complicated is an understatement. Ruth Reichl knows this as well as anyone. In her delectable memoir Tender at the Bone, Reichl presents her early years, before The New York Times and Gourmet, to offer a bittersweet glimpse into the personal development of a one-day celebrated food critic and editor.
Reichl’s mother certainly had a way with food. She prided herself on her ability to devise a meal out of anything. “Everything Stew,” for example, evolved from a casserole concoction made out of a two-week-old turkey carcass. In an effort to save guests from her mother’s, er, ingenuity, young Ruth began to pay close attention to people’s tastes. “Like a hearing child born to deaf parents, I was shaped by my mother’s handicap, discovering that food could be a way of making sense of the world.”
Mom’s whimsy was, in fact, mental illness in the form of manic depression. Reichl found little stability within the walls of her family’s New York City apartment. From unwittingly poisoning her son’s future in-laws at an engagement party to serendipitously enrolling her thirteen-year-old daughter in a French-speaking boarding school, Mom was an unpredictable, often unreasonable force. Reichl found comfort through other females in her life— Aunt Birdie, a surrogate grandmother; Alice, Aunt Birdie’s cook; and Mrs. Peavy, the Reichls’ maid. Under their care, Reichl’s food education began. She accompanied Alice on shopping excursions to local food vendors, learning to “pinch fruit and ask questions.” Mrs. Peavy, herself an unrealized chef, taught Reichl among other things, to make her father’s favorite dish of wiener schnitzel. As such, food becomes Reichl’s anchor, intrinsically intertwined with her sense of self.
Reichl’s exploration takes her around the globe: a camp counselor gig off the coast of France, college and restaurant jobs in Michigan in the ’60s, a trip to North Africa, European travels with her husband and friends, lower Manhattan in the early ’70s, and then Berkeley as a restaurateur turned food critic. All the while, Reichl battles loneliness, gloominess, and fear. Yet there are moments of awakening, too. Of introducing the man she would eventually marry to her parents for the first time, she says, “Doug looked at me, a quick glance of compassion that thrilled me to the tips of my toes. We were in this together.” And of working at The Swallow, the restaurant in Berkeley, Reichl maintains, “when I was in the restaurant I felt grounded, fully there.” Even when contemplating her mother, she finds understanding: “in her own strange way she was the glue that kept us together. Being a family meant dealing with Mom.”
Reichl’s family issues induced within her panic attacks to such a degree that she develops a fear of driving. But one day, after food with friends, she discovers her courage and takes the wheel. It is an inspiring moment of transcendence, suggesting that perhaps we, too, can accept the ones we love, overcome fear, and cross scary bridges with gusto.
Citation: Reichl, Ruth. Tender at the Bone. New York, Random House, 1998. Print.