Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tender at the Bone, by Ruth Reichl

Reviewed by Christina

Published: 1998

It's about: Ruth Reichl, former New York Times restaurant critic and Gourmet magazine editor, describes her girlhood, adolescence, and young adulthood within the framework of the foods she ate and cooked throughout the years. Recipes are interspersed.

I thought: I admire Ms. Reichl, and I enjoyed reading about her life. She has traveled to some fantastic places (France, Italy, Tunisia) and eaten some enviable foods. For such a respected and successful person, she writes quite humbly about herself and her experiences. Her tone is always sincere (if a little rose-tinted) and never condescending. This book came highly recommended to me, and I wanted to love it.

But I just didn't. The writing was clear and precise, but not artful. Much of the book is spent describing delicious foods, but those passages always felt strained to me. To be fair, it is difficult to write about taste. Where most of us would just say, "Mmmm, that was sooooo good," Ms. Reichl has to come up with something more specific. I just tired of reading accolades like "the chicken was so tender it evaporated in my mouth." I found myself really wanting to read a description of something that tasted terrible, just for a little variety.

There were also a few sloppy glitches, like a fairly unusual adjective being used multiple times on the same page, or very similarly structured sentences within the same paragraph. I was surprised to see a couple of amusingly inappropriate uses of the word "literally." ("...literally put his money where his mouth was...") I suppose if Ms. Reichl's style had been more engaging I might have overlooked these little flaws. I also hate the sappy title, and am irked that it doesn't relate in any way to anything in the book.

The most interesting and relateable parts of this memoir are those that deal with young Ruth's relationships to people and places. Her bipolar mother is a larger-than-life character who I loved reading about. Her life in lower Manhattan and Berkeley in the 60's and 70's fascinated me. I like reading about food and cooking, and Ruth Reichl had a memoir-worthy life, but I won't be running to the library to pick up her other memoirs because I just didn't appreciate her writing style.

Verdict: In-between. It's interesting and enjoyable, but it's not going to change your life or anything.

Reading Recommendations: Try to turn off that analytical part of your brain, relax, and soak in Ruth Reichl's past. You can "click to look inside" this book on Amazon and read a few pages to test out whether or not this one is for you.

Warnings: none.

Favorite excerpts:
She held out a plate with large, smooth olives, unlike any I had seen. "Chinese olives," said Cecilia proudly.
I bit into one. "Lawrence Durrell," I said, wondering if I was pronouncing the name right, "said that olives had a taste as old as cold water." I rolled the musty pit around in my mouth, thinking that if I could come up with just one description as good I could call myself a writer.