Sweet Reads: Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl

Tender at the BoneFood and cooking may be one of my greatest loves, but books and reading occupy a space just slightly above them in my heart. It’s only obvious, then, that I’m just as fond of reading about food as I am of reading about trips down the rabbit hole and plain English governesses and the mysterious noises they hear upstairs. While I by no means read exclusively about food, I figured I’d share some of my thoughts on food-related reads here.

Earlier in the year I picked up Ruth Reichl’s memoir Tender at the Bone, which I’d had sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time. I must have picked this up at a used bookstore or a fair somewhere because I’ve never read Gourmet, the defunct magazine for which Reichl served as editor. That made no difference, as the book is a collection of stories about Reichl’s life, from youth through marriage, and the role that food played in shaping who she was. Reichl is a talented enough memoirist that knowledge of her professional accolades need not be a requisite for becoming fully entranced in this book.

Much of Tender at the Bone is centered about Reichl’s relationship with her mother, a woman who she describes as serving raw, moldy, or otherwise completely inedible food at the extavagant parties she liked to throw. Reichl considered herself the protector of the guests, doing her best to prevent some of the most offensive dishes from making an appearance. We follow her through this childhood embarrassment to her times as a rebellious teenager, drunkenly baking cakes for friends at six in the morning, to her time as a camp counselor of sorts in France, where a strange turn as hitchhikers brings her and a friend the best berry tart they’ve ever experienced. We see Reichl feeding friends in college, taking a turn as a waitress where she acts out the part of a poor French girl to milk bigger tips from her customers, and living practically free in a San Francisco commune. The connection through all of this is food – how it nurtures, how it defines, how it sustains, and how it opens one up to becoming a different person.

The point at which I began to fall in love with this book was in Reichl’s recounting of her time spent at a French-speaking girls school in Canada. Titled “Mars,” Reichl describes how her mother abruptly shipped her away to a place where she knew no one and could speak not one word of the language. Through chance she is invited to her classmate’s lavish home and is amazed by the food served at the family dinner. The description of her first taste of a carrot soup is as inviting as I imagine the soup itself must have been: “With the first sip I knew that I had never really eaten before. The initial taste was pure carrot, followed by cream, butter, a bit of nutmeg. Then I swallowed and my whole mouth and throat filled with the echo of a rich chicken stock. I took another bite and it began all over again. I ate as if in a dream.”

Although Reichl includes recipes of some of her most influential dishes in the book, it’s these bites that really bring the memoir to life. True, they are quite evocative for the lover of food, but more than that they serve as a reminder to taste, savor, and fully embrace the experiences around us. To try something amazing for the first time is a moment to relish, to let roll around the tongue and down the throat, to discern each complementing flavor, to eat as if in a dream. That is exactly what Reichl has done here, with both her life and her food, and I feel fuller for having consumed it.

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