You know those books that you always know you’ll read eventually? Tender at the Bone was one of those for me. I’ve enjoyed Ruth Reichl’s writing ever since she became the restaurant critic for the New York Times in 1993, and her memoirs (this is one of three) have been big sellers. Besides that, why would you not want to read about a woman who found her way in life through food? Especially when she is as good at portraying character as she is at describing a meal?
And there are some memorable characters in this book. In fact the very opening chapter, “The Queen of Mold,” sketches Reichl’s mother in colorful, funny, disturbing and affectionate colors — for one of the aspects of life Reichl must deal with is her mother’s mental illness. She sets this up really well, and it’s one of the key qualities that makes Tender at the Bone more than just a food memoir. At first we wonder why Mrs. Reichl has such odd ideas. Comments made by family friends puzzle little Ruth. When her mother’s mental illness is finally named, we aren’t surprised, but by that point she has us completely hooked.
Hooked on what? Generosity. Humor. Vivid description of sensory material. And enough narrative tension to keep us turning the pages. How will Ruth manage in a francophone Montreal boarding school at age 13? Or as a camp counselor on the French island of Oléron? Will she ever have a boyfriend? Will she and her friend Serafina survive their girls-only trip to Tunis? Above all, what does Reichl owe her mother? Toward the end of the book she describes coming back to her parents’ house as an married career woman, well on the way to earning a reputation as a professional cook. Her mother is in a manic state. “I pushed the door open and hesitated, dreading the moment when I would lose myself. Crossing the threshold, I had a falling sensation, as if I were careening backward in time. I tried desperately to grab onto the Gypsy chef, but she was gone, along with the restaurant owner and wife. All that was left was a little girl.” If you’ve ever known people who made you lose your footing as a reasonable, functional adult, this will be a familiar nightmare.
We all find our ways to cope with life, and Reichl’s, to our benefit, turned out to be food. She tips her hand early on, describing her honorary grandmother’s cook: “Alice would have snickered derisively at the notion, but she was the first person I ever met who understood the power of cooking. She was a great cook, but she cooked more for herself than for other people, not because she was hungry but because she was comforted by the rituals of the kitchen.” Order; precision; repetition; the exercise of familiar skills. Comfort, creation, and yumminess at the end. Thanks, Ruth.