Take equal parts family history and food history, simmer with humor, and you get Ruth Reichl’s irresistible, self-styled genre: the culinary confessional (recipes included). A renowned restaurant critic who left the Los Angeles Times for The New York Times before moving on to the editor-in-chief post at Gourmet magazine, Reichl (pronounced “Rye-shill”) understands herself -- and human nature -- as well as she does food.
Reichl, who arrived at the Times in 1993, changed the way the newspaper reviewed restaurants; her columns were witty, high-spirited, honest, irreverent, and determined, it seemed, to demystify the intimidating world of high-end dining establishments. Although her innovations were maddening to some in the old guard, Dwight Garner, writing in Salon, claimed “Reichl has been a real democratizing force,” and lauded her “outsider's perspective about the snobbery and pretension of some well-known New York restaurants, and … the sexism that often confronts women while eating out.”
1999’s Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, Reichl’s first memoir, was an unsparing look at her chaotic childhood -- one that seemed unlikely to produce a first-rate food writer. Reichl’s mother, a manic-depressive whom Reichl describes as “dangerous” in the kitchen, was so undone by domestic duties that she poisoned the family with a bacteria-infested dinner meant to celebrate her son’s engagement. Reichl got the better of the situation by taking on the cooking tasks herself, and later left New York for California, landing in Berkeley as the co-owner of a collective restaurant and launching a life and that has always revolved around food.
Stylistically, Reichl is a descendant of legendary food writer M. F. K. Fisher, whose essays and memoirs braided personal autobiography with culinary commentary. In Tender at the Bone, Reichl takes the reader from her childhood in New York to her work as a chef in the '70s, her early restaurant writing, and the intersection of her passions for food, writing, and certain men. As The New Yorker put it, “Reichl writes with gusto, and her story has all of the ingredients of a modern fairy tale: hard work, weird food, and endless curiosity.”
In Comfort Me With Apples: More Adventures at the Table (2001), Reichl picks up where she left off in the first book, this time covering the dissolution of her first marriage, her father’s death, her second marriage, and the birth of her son. The book includes recipes, which may seem incongruous, but for Reichl, for whom all aspects of life -- especially the sensual -- are interconnected, the combination works. The result is sweet, sad, unruly, and engaging, all at the same time.
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To help her sneak undetected into restaurants she was reviewing for The New York Times, Reichl maintained a disguise wardrobe of phony eyeglasses and five wigs.
The cook-turned-critic-turned-memoirist started her working life at the other end of publishing -- her earliest job was as a book designer.
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