Ruth Reichl has been a food editor and restaurant critic for the LA Times and NY Times and is now the editor of Gourmet Magazine, but if you're thinking that Tender at the Bone is just another foodie book, think again. Sure, it has recipes (18 of them, most simple, all tantalizing) and plenty of mouth-watering descriptions of food, cookery, and dining. It's also a tasty, tantalizing book, a smorgasbord of entertaining character sketches and often hilarious food adventures.
But Tender at the Bone has its serious side. It tells the disturbing tale of a family thrown into chaos by Ruth's manic mother, the "Queen of Mold" whose idea of a gourmet meal is a stewed two-week-old turkey carcass. It is an almost-classic rite-of-passage journey of a lonely young girl whose dysfunctional parents abandon her to the care of others, leaving her to discover that good food can comfort the lonely (Alice's Apple Dumplings), that food can seduce the unwary (Devil's Food Cake), and that food always expresses our deepest cultural and familial longings (Serafina's mother's Coconut Bread). As she meets helpers who encourage her to outgrow her controlling mother, Ruth graduates from waitress to commune cook to restaurant chef to food writer, stumbling into her vocation along the way in this wonderful journey of self-discovery. Food is a "way of making sense of the world," Ruth says in an introspective moment, or as another character succinctly remarks, "I have to keep tasting."
Tender at the Bone is a sweet, funny, light-hearted memoir whose lessons are dished out with a deft hand. At the same time it is a revealing self-study that offers insights into the forces that limited Reichl during her childhood and teen years, as well as those that brought her new experiences. The author's insatiable appetite for life, her compelling need to "keep tasting": to savor adventure, sample many lifestyles, delight in diversity, relish discovery, learn, create, and grow. It is a nourishing book, in all its various dimensions.
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