Monday, November 29, 2010

First cut.

Ruth Reichl is the former New York Times food critic and editor. She left the Times to edit the now-defunct (but missed) Gourmet magazine that met its demise in the Great Magazine Die-off of the past two years. Reichl has also edited some great cookbooks.

Tender at the Bone is Reichl's first memoir. Her second, Comfort Me With Apples came out about 10 years ago, and another book, Not Becoming My Mother was published just last year.

Reichl is an undeniably gifted cook. But what I've always liked about her is how entwined her life and cooking are. Food is one of those things that comes with so much psychological baggage that it's kind of refreshing to see a food writer go, hey, the hell with it, I fully admit I eat my feelings.

Reichl learned to cook from a succession of maids, the most memorable being her Great-Aunt's maid Alice of the apple dumplings and the indomitable Mrs. Peavey, who taught the young Ruth how to pound a paper-thin schnitzel. Reichl's mother, the creative, self-centered, and manic-depressive Miriam had the habit of feeing guests spoiled food, so Reichl began to cook out of self-preservation.

I can sympathize; I come from three generations of women who can't cook. Now, you say, what about all those pictures of cupcakes?! Bake, not cook, which I think are two pretty different things. Baking has a lot less room for creativity than cooking, which for someone like me is a good thing (I didn't do too well with "unstructured play time" as a toddler either). With baking, as long as you have a dependable recipe, you're golden.

My mom's cooking is characterized by a charming naivete and childlike sense of experimentation, which has led to things like a bleeding meatloaf and some ill-advised potato puff things that not even the dogs would eat. My grandmother prefers to carbonize things and serve them burnt-side-down. Like Miriam, my mom also has a creative approach to sell-by dates, which has filled me with a lifelong trepidation about unfamiliar milk cartons.

Tender is, like most of Reichl's writing, funny. She approaches things with tongue firmly in cheek and a hefty dose of self-deprecation, but underneath the humor, Tender is also very sad. Living with such an irrational and unstable parent clearly took a toll on Reichl, and although she was able to turn her love into her life's work, she still writes of experiencing panic attacks and those middle-of-the-night doubts.

Tender ends after Reichl's first marriage (I'm looking foward to reading Comfort) and includes recipes from her childhood and young adulthood, including her first souffle and that famous schnitzel recipe. Tender is a nice change from the unsufferably pompous food writing or sustainability polemics that have come to dominate the industry in the decade since its publication - although, for every Alice Waters demanding I know where my sprouts come from, there's a Skinnygirl telling me to coat stuff in crushed Funyuns.

And in further food news: November is my favorite month for food magazines, because Cook's Illustrated releases both it's Holiday Baking Guide and Holiday Cookie Guide between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year, the Cookie Guide looks amazing - color photos (a rarity for Cook's) and over thirty recipes that are probably made of win, dunked in awesome, and wrapped in Chris Kimball's bowtie of love. The Baking Guide was kind of a bust though - I have most of the recipes already (my one gripe with Cook's is that I think they recycle their recipes more than they should across their different collections) and if you have their Baking Bible (and if you don't, what are you waiting for?!) than you really don't need the Baking Guide.

The Cookie Guide is definitely worth the eight bucks though, and I will be posting cookies from it soon.


  1. Love this post and I need to steal that book. Also:

  2. I have a copy of it from the library, it's a pretty quick read. I really want to read her second memoir and her latest book about her mom.