Penguin Press HC, New York, 2009. ISBN 978-1-594-20216-2.
Reviewed by Barbara L. Heller
Posted on 08/03/2009
In a speech to accept an award from Women in Communications, Ruth Reichl shocked her audience by admitting, "My mother was a great example of everything I didn't want to be and to this day I wake up every morning grateful that I'm not her."
Reichl left her family home at the age of 16 "to escape from my mother's unhappiness." In her writings about her childhood and about her visits with her mother when she was an adult, Reichl's description of the quirky Mim edges on caricature. A classic Mim tale told by Ruth is when her mother turned her brother's engagement party into a UNICEF fundraiser and a number of the guests suffered the effects of food poisoning as a result of Mim's questionable cooking habits. Snappy stories seem to be the way that Reichl depicted how she distanced herself, geographically and emotionally, from her mother.
Not Becoming My Mother & other things she taught me along the way differs in tone and style from her earlier works. This slim volume serves as a tribute and apology. More serious and less comedic, this book is Reichl's reconsideration of her now-deceased mother and a reconciliation with her memory.
The focus of this story is Reichl's mother's jottings and journals which Reichl found in a forgotten box in her basement. From these scraps of paper, Reichl pieces together the story of her mother's difficult life and how her mother developed, personally and culturally, into the woman she was.
This is a story emblematic of many woman of Mim's generation—pushed by parental and cultural expectations into marriages that didn't fit and sacrificing their own interests and dreams. Mim's parents, under the guise of being protective, were extremely critical. They unfairly divided their two daughters, assuming that Mim's younger sister's beauty would reward her with a good marriage and that Mim, who they considered smart but not pretty, wouldn't be able to lure a husband.
Later in her life, Mim was diagnosed with manic-depression and years of unsympathetic therapy and multiple medications followed. A saddened Mim, referring to her mental illness, told her daughter, "Just because I am this way, doesn't mean that you will be, too." The message seemed not only about mental illness but also described a mother's hope that her daughter would have more life choices.
A reader new to Reichl's work may not truly appreciate Not Becoming My Mother without reading the previous books and being introduced to the Mim tales. For these readers, I recommend Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me With Apples, the first two volumes of Reichl's three previous memoirs.
Reichl says that she was initially reluctant to replace the mother she thought she knew with someone else, but she relents and does it well in this lovely book. Reichl discovered her mother through her mother's writing and—with an openness to change her own mind and her narrative—Ruth, the daughter, honors her mother. Reichl dedicates Not Becoming My Mother simply: "For you, Mom. Finally."
Ruth Reichl is Editor in Chief of Gourmet magazine since April 1999. She came to the magazine from The New York Times, where she had been the restaurant critic since 1993. She is the author of a number of food-related books and articles. Her popular memoirs include: Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table, Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, and Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along The Way.
Reichl is the executive producer of the two-time James Beard Award-winning "Gourmet's Diary of a Foodie", which airs on public television across the country, and the editor of the Modern Library Food Series. For more information about Reichl online, check out her website, her twitter page, and Gourmet magazine's website (her twitter account is the most active and current).
(See other reviews of this book, which was later published as For You Mom, Finally, here and here)
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