On her first job as a restaurant critic in a
posh place called Trader Vic's, California food writer Ruth Reichl bears
witness to the following surreal scene between two gourmet journalists
at the table: The food editor
immediately summoned a wine list. It appeared, and the two men began
speaking in tongues.
"Macayamas Chard?" asked the
food editor, raising his eyebrows as he peered down the list.
"Hasn't been through malolactic,"
"Francophile myself," said
the editor. "Preferably bone."
"Caymus?" asked Phil.
"Malolactic?" the editor
"Of course," said Phil,
Ruth Reichl has just plunged into an odd
sort of Wonderland with a rarefied vocabulary all its own. How she comes
to make sense of the world of high-end food appreciation and even thrive
as one of its most vivid scribes, forms the main story line of Comfort
Me With Apples, the second volume of her personal memoirs.
The first book, Tender At the Bone:
Growing Up At the Table, was a tough act to follow: funny, poignant,
honest and unaffected. Young Ruth, a New Yorker with a colorful but
mentally unstable mother, came to realize that "food could be a way
of making sense of the world. I was slowly discovering that if you
watched people as they ate, you could find out who they were." This
survival skill gradually evolved into a way of being and Reichl trained
in France to become a fine chef at The Swallow restaurant in Berkeley,
The second volume takes up the story
again in 1978, when Ruth, living with her artist husband Doug in a
commune, begins to feel the stirrings of a new ambition. Instead of
preparing food, why not write about it? Her new venture is met with flat
disapproval from her socially conscious housemates in the "People's
Republic of Berkeley": "You're going to spend your life
telling spoiled, rich people where to eat too much obscene food?"
they cry. (One of them even says, "You're giving up good honest
work to be a parasite.")
But Reichl is firm in her resolve:
"Food was my major passion; I had been feeding people since I was
small. I had been a cook, a waitress, a kitchen manager; I had even
written a cookbook. Now I understood that all along I had been training
myself to be a restaurant critic."
Once Reichl sets her mind on something,
she pursues it with single-minded passion. Soon hired as a critic for
New West magazine, she proves more than worthy in being able to wrap
words around food's sensual impact: "The foie gras was
molten velvet in my mouth, and when I took a sip of wine the flavor
became even more intense, richer and rounder than it already was."
Mere scrambled eggs become a sort of religious experience: "Each
forkful was like biting off a piece of the sun."
Throughout this entertaining memoir
Reichl's lavish success as a food writer runs counter to a frustrating,
naggingly unhappy personal life. Her relationship with Doug, though
tender and enduring, is more of a brotherly friendship than a marriage
and this chronic lack of fulfillment pulls her off the narrow path of
fidelity more than once.
"When I told my mother that I was
planning a trip to France, she was immediately suspicious," writes
Reichl. " 'Is that food editor of yours going to be there?' she
"He has nothing to do with it,"
I replied with as much dignity as I could muster. "He doesn't
even know I'm going."
"But he will be there," she
"Yes," I replied in a very
small voice. "He will."
"Pussy Cat," she said,
"You're asking for trouble."
Though Reichl's turbulent Parisian fling
with her editor Colman Andrews muddies the waters of her personal life,
it does gain her entry into another sort of world where prices are
irrelevant and only the best will do. The food world is an elegant,
exciting place full of colorful characters: the young chef Wolfgang
Puck, just gaining a reputation which will evolve into legend;
restaurateur Alice Waters, "a petite, pretty woman who swept
through town trailing disappointed men in her wake"; and renowned
writer M.F.K. Fisher, Reichl's idol from childhood. "How did you
get to know her?" a friend asks. "I wished," Reichl said,
"wished so hard I actually made it happen."
It's easy to believe it, for doors seem
to swing open for her that might have clanged shut for a lesser
personality. Beyond sheer force of will, it's her passion and that
indefinable quality called luck that carries her along. Thus, on a trip
to China, a friend of a friend wangles her an invitation to meet one of
the foremost chefs in the country. And on the way to a posh party, she
stops at a convenience store and grabs a $30.00 bottle of wine that
turns out to be a 1961 Cheval Blanc.
Sadly, this Midas touch does not
translate to her home life. Unable to leave Doug, she embarks on another
affair with a journalist named Michael Singer: "It was as if all
the ions inside of us yearned toward each other, and for the first time
in my life my body felt completely awake, as if it was in the place that
it was meant to be."
Though her prose can be, if not purple,
then at least a deep shade of lavender, this larger-than-life quality is
delicious to behold in her descriptions of memorable meals, such as this
one at the New Boonville Hotel in San Francisco:
We began with a deep green vegetable
puree sprinkled with herbs. It was followed by pasta that looked like
a Jackson Pollock painting on a plate: The noodles were as bright as
marigolds, and they were tossed with goat butter and tangled with deep
purple hyssop flowers .... Afterward we had raspberry ice cream that
was the color of a Renaissance sunset. I held it in my mouth, loath to
let the flavor vanish. Just churned, it did not taste as if it had
been made by human hands. The cream seemed straight from nature, from
happy cows who had spent their lives lapping up berries and sugar.
Not content to describe many of her
favorite dishes, Reichl generously includes recipes as contrast to the
carefully-guarded mystique of the food snobs. Refreshingly, this is real
eating food; there's not a low-fat item in sight.
As she graduates to a prestigious job
with the Los Angeles Times, Reichl eventually finds the inner strength
to divorce Doug and marry Michael. Discovering that at 39 she cannot
conceive, the two decide to adopt a child. This passage, though brief,
is the most poignant, even wrenching in the whole book: they take home a
beautiful baby girl named Gavi, only to lose her several months later
when the birth mother demands her back.
Friends insist Reichl come to Barcelona,
where five master chefs whip up a meal that turns out to be a complete
disaster. But the experience is therapeutic for Ruth, who realizes,
"I needed to find out that sometimes even your best is not good
enough. And that in those times you have to give it everything you've
got. And then move on."
Reichl unwittingly sums up her greatest
strength, both as a writer and a human being, in that statement. Perhaps
the key to all this so-called luck is her willingness to give life
everything she has and when it doesn't work out, to move on, not
bitterly, but with a sort of clear-eyed optimism. That the book ends
with a happy surprise is consistent with Reichl's self-made luck,
reflecting the taste for life that makes this memoir such a pleasure to
Comfort Me with Apples: A Journey...Amazon.UK