We gave it an A
When last we heard from Ruth Reichl — wild-haired cook, esteemed food critic, passion-prone chomper of life, mistress of prose so juicy you want to suck the marrow out of her sentences
well, when last we heard from her, in her best-selling 1998 memoir Tender at the Bone, Reichl had narrowly missed driving off San Francisco’s Bay Bridge.
Panic attacks were plaguing her. Then again, given the flamboyant unwieldiness of her life — daughter of an energy-consuming manic-depressive mother, child of hippie days in Greenwich Village and Berkeley commune resident, boisterous experimenter in the kitchen, wife of a peripatetic artist — panic attacks were small potatoes. But readers drawn to her warmth and zest wished her happiness. Anyone who loves food and feeding so generously deserves affection and support.
It’s a pleasure to report that the attacks seem to have subsided in Comfort Me With Apples: More Adventures at the Table. Or maybe it’s just that this magnificent, riotous, erotic follow-up memoir moves Reichl, who is now editor in chief of Gourmet magazine following a six-year enlightened reign as restaurant critic of The New York Times, away from dangerous bridges. The author takes her elegantly apt title from that most voluptuous of biblical sources, the Song of Solomon (Reichl’s precise, German-Jewish father would have known it as the Song of Songs): ”Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love,” the poet croons in the King James Version. And indeed, Comfort is an extended, lilting song about lovesickness and the restorative succor of good food. In between stories, as she did in her first book, and as her worthy idol M.F.K. Fisher did before her, Reichl supplies recipes for real, succulent meals.
In this second installment, the author evolves from working as a cook to working as a food critic. She’s a young woman making her way in a shark’s world of food journalism, encouraged by a Los Angeles food editor who, in 1979, becomes her lover. ”There were baked oysters wrapped in lettuce, sprinkled with caviar and bathed in beurre blanc. There was terrine de foie gras with warm toast. The flavors danced and the soft substances slid down my throat,” she writes of their seduction meal at Ma Maison, her descriptions as sexy as the situation was overwhelming. ”I woke up crying, stunned by my recklessness….I was the least promiscuous person I knew.”
The recklessly aroused Reichl embarks on a swooning tasting tour of Paris with her lover. (”Each forkful,” she writes of perfect scrambled eggs, ”was like biting off a piece of the sun.”) She returns to California, meets Wolfgang Puck and Michael McCarty and all the inspired young chefs just starting an American food revolution in Los Angeles. Her writing career advances. Her marriage erodes. She travels exotically, tastes everything, drinks happily, eats joyously. Her mother demands, intrudes, needles, nakedly needs. Reichl wants children. She meets another man…
For as much as the memoirist unselfishly invites strangers to share the messes in her emotional kitchen, and for as much drama she gulps down in her life, Reichl also maintains a lovely sense of propriety, of amour propre, and a full-bodied sense of humor. She’s not coy, and she never wriggles trickily away from facts; she never oversalts the truth. She describes her complicated relationship with her extraordinary, exasperating mother with particular hard-won maturity and dignity. And rarely has giving oneself over from one husband to another — an experience that defies recipe — been described with such attention to flavor.
Comfort Me With Apples ends in Barcelona, where Reichl, at the time restaurant critic of the Los Angeles Times, has gone with foodie friends, including the doyenne of San Francisco cooking, Alice Waters. She has just been through an experience of awful maternal heartbreak. She has not yet even entered the kingdom of New York journalism and cuisine! Two courses of Reichl’s literary cooking will leave still-ravenous readers hoping for a third serving soon.