Robyn's Reviews > Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table

Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl
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's review
May 26, 12

bookshelves: culinary, nonfiction, biography-or-memoir, given-away
Read from May 25 to 26, 2012

The culinary memoirs I've read prior to this one have been written by a different sort of chef. Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, Marcus Samuelsson. With that kind of background, it's probably not too surprising that I feel let down by Reichl's first memoir. The beginnings (of both the book and her life) were pretty good. Interesting, fun, funny, and one anecdote seemed to lead to the next easily. The stories of Alice and Aunt Birdie were the best parts of the book. My main complaint with the early years was a pet peeve of mine: authors who insist on peppering their English writing with non-English conversations that can only be guessed at. Agatha Christie was a big offender in this way with her Poirot novels, but at least the context made it clear what Poirot was saying for those of us who don't speak French. Reichl did not do the reader that favour, and I ended up using the Google Translate app in order to truly understand Reichl's time in Montreal. Otherwise, I found the first part of the book to be enjoyable.

Then Reichl returned from Montreal and, frankly, became someone I wouldn't want to know. Throughout the rest of the book she seemed so self-satisfied and arrogant. She also seemed to feel that it was important that she constantly remind the reader that this was the 1960s and while everyone around her was racist, SHE just was NOT! ~rolls eyes~ After all, SHE had a black best friend, and a black close friend who was nearly a boyfriend, and a black family that she welcomed into her house as their social worker, and she visited all sorts of Puerto Rican establishments and and and...blech. Just too proud of herself and not seemingly aware at all of her massive privilege. She grew up in a family that summered in a different home than they wintered. She was sent, impulsively, to a boarding school in another country. She was taken, again impulsively, to Europe. She knew she was headed to college as a matter of course, and was able to do so out-of-state. She vacationed in North Africa. She was able to live in her parents' New York apartment because they lived elsewhere. With that background, a lot of her talk of drunk partying, bohemian lifestyles, and stopping in at filthy neighborhood fishmongers felt like she was slumming self-congratulatorily.

I did get a kick out of some of the New York neighborhood bits, in that I recently watched an episode of some Food Network show that visited culinarily-historic NYC businesses, and several of those were places Reichl mentioned. It was funny to read her 1960s memories of those places compared to the public 2012 face of the same spots.

I had hopes that the NorCal section would make up for the negative Ann Arbor and post-Masters-degree NYC years, since I'm a Bay Area girl born and raised and Berkeley is a part of me. But no. She seemed to be both full of pride in her crunchy-hippie lifestyle and full of judgment for the crunchy-hippies she lived with.

Much of the book was a denouncement of her bi-polar mother, and yeah, life with an undiagnosed "manic-depressive" (as it was still being called at the time) parent is not a picnic. But all sympathy that was built up on that score was lost when Reichl wrote that if her mother had been normal, she (Ruth) wouldn't have been present for the 100th birthday celebration of one of her favourite people. She wrote that her mother's illness was the dysfunctional glue that held them all together. If that's true, and with a "normal" mother she would have just walked away from her family and ignored all holidays, events, etc., then it doesn't say much for Reichl. Even as a married woman of 29 she was presenting herself as a spoiled child, grumpy and snotty when she wasn't getting attention but her husband was, shouting at people who suggested she help her mother, ignoring her father's pleas for assistance, and metaphorically stomping her feet about not getting to just do what she wanted and instead having to go straighten out the mess of a loved one's special day.

An impulsive wine-tasting trip to France with a near-stranger was a story that seemed shoehorned in, and the dumpster-diving politically-correct vegetarian bohemian suddenly eating shark's fin soup and sea turtles was a jarring ending. If I didn't know there was a second volume I'd have been very confused at the abrupt finish.

Because I enjoyed the beginning of this one, and because I already have it, I'm giving Comfort Me With Apples a try. Here's hoping that she relaxed about herself a bit in the 3 years between writing the two books.
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