Review: Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl is a memoir of the editor of Gourmet magazine’s childhood. I love to read, and I love to eat, so this book, combining two of my favorite things, seemed like a natural choice for me. It’s about food, yes, but it’s more about growing up in a dysfunctional home and finding comfort wherever you can.

Ruth has a complicated relationship with her manic and delusional mother, aka The Queen of Mold (“I can make a meal out of anything”). Mom brings chaos to the family with culinary disasters that include poisoning the entire guest list of her son’s engagement party with soup made from crabmeat that was left out for two days to thaw. While it smelled iffy even to her, she just added more sherry to the soup and declared it fine. Later, when guests started calling to let them know how sick they were and wondered if it had been the food, she said, “Nonsense. We all feel fine. And we ate everything!” You had to have a strong stomach to grow up in the Reichl household!

Her dysfunctional parents leave young Ruth to her own devices much of the time. A lonely Ruth finds love and affection through food preparation with other people, picking up lessons and learning to care for others while expressing herself creatively in the kitchen.

She makes apple dumplings and potato salad with a grandmother (who isn’t really her grandmother) and was later sent to boarding school in Montreal where she meets a true gourmet. The book follows her through high school (where she makes devil’s food cake for a boy, again connecting food with affection) and college (learning to make coconut bread with her roommate’s Caribbean mother) and into young adulthood, where she works at a doomed French restaurant in Detroit. She later marries Doug and has adventures and wonderful meals, the best one being on a hill in Greece. She even becomes a cook in a commune in California, where on one memorable Thanksgiving the idealistic group makes dinner entirely from supermarket discards. I worried that this meal would poison others, completing the circle with Ruth’s mom and that fateful engagement party in the beginning of the book, but Ruth’s meal turns out fine.

It was interesting to see how much the people she met and cared for influenced the way she felt about food. Throughout we see how food and relationships shaped the life of the future famous restaurant critic and editor. Food is “a way of making sense of the world” according to Ruth.

Packed with colorful characters and recipes, this is a sweet and charming memoir of Reichl’s early life. I read and enjoyed Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires a while back, which is a memoir of her days as a restaurant critic for the NY Times. Tender at the Bone was even better. I highly recommend it for foodies and non-foodies alike.