At an early age, Ruth Reichl discovered that “food could be a way of making sense of the world. If you watched people as they ate, you could find out who they were.” Her deliciously crafted memoir Tender at the Bone is the story of a life defined, determined, and enhanced in equal measure by a passion for food, by unforgettable people, and by the love of tales well told. Beginning with her mother, the notorious food-poisoner known as the Queen of Mold, Reichl introduces us to the fascinating characters who shaped her world and tastes, from the gourmand Monsieur du Croix, who served Reichl her first foie gras, to those at her politically correct table in Berkeley who championed the organic food revolution in the 1970s. Spiced with Reichl’s infectious humor and sprinkled with her favorite recipes, Tender at the Bone is a witty and compelling chronicle of a culinary sensualist’s coming-of-age.
BONUS: This edition includes an excerpt from Ruth Reichl's Delicious!
Praise for Tender at the Bone
“A poignant, yet hilarious, collection of stories about people [Reichl] has known and loved, and who, knowingly or unknowingly, steered her on the path to fulfill her destiny as one of the world’s leading food writers.”—Chicago Sun-Times
“While all good food writers are humorous . . . few are so riotously, effortlessly entertaining as Ruth Reichl.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Reading Ruth Reichl on food is almost as good as eating it. . . . Reichl makes the reader feel present with her, sharing the experience.”—Washington Post Book World
“[In] this lovely memoir . . . we find young Ruth desperately trying to steer her manic mother's unwary guests toward something edible. It's a job she does now . . . in her columns, and whose intimate imperatives she illuminates in this graceful book.”—The New Yorker
“A savory memoir of [Reichl’s] apprentice years . . . Reichl describes [her] experiences with infectious humor. . . . The descriptions of each sublime taste are mouthwateringly precise. . . . A perfectly balanced stew of memories.”—Kirkus Reviews
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About the Author
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:January 16, 1948
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:B.A., University of Michigan, 1968; M.A., University of Michigan, 1970
Read an Excerpt
Most mornings I got out of bed and went to the refrigerator to see how my mother was feeling. You could tell instantly just by opening the door. One day in 1960 I found a whole suckling pig staring at me. I jumped back and slammed the door, hard. Then I opened it again. I'd never seen a whole animal in our refrigerator before; even the chickens came in parts. He was surrounded by tiny crab apples ("lady apples" my mother corrected me later), and a whole wreath of weird vegetables.
This was not a bad sign: the more odd and interesting things there were in the refrigerator, the happier my mother was likely to be. Still, I was puzzled; the refrigerator in our small kitchen had been almost empty when I went to bed.
"Where did you get all this stuff?" I asked. "The stores aren't open yet."
"Oh," said Mom blithely, patting at her crisp gray hair, "I woke up early and decided to go for a walk. You'd be surprised at what goes on in Manhattan at four A.M. I've been down to the Fulton Fish Market. And I found the most interesting produce store on Bleecker Street."
"It was open?" I asked.
"Well," she admitted, "not really." She walked across the worn linoleum and set a basket of bread on the Formica table. "But I saw someone moving around so I knocked. I've been trying to get ideas for the party."
"Party?" I asked warily. "What party?"
"Your brother has decided to get married," she said casually, as if I should have somehow intuited this in my sleep. "And of course we're going to have a party to celebrate the engagement and meet Shelly's family!"
My brother, I knew, would not welcome this news. He was thirteen years older than I and considered it a minor miracle to have reached the age of twenty-five. "I don't know how I survived her cooking," he said as he was telling me about the years when he and Mom were living alone, after she had divorced his father and was waiting to meet mine. "She's a menace to society."
Bob went to live with his father in Pittsburgh right after I was born, but he always came home for holidays. When he was there he always helped me protect the guests, using tact to keep them from eating the more dangerous items.
I took a more direct approach. "Don't eat that," I ordered my best friend Jeanie as her spoon dipped into one of Mom's more creative lunch dishes. My mother believed in celebrating every holiday: in honor of St. Patrick she was serving bananas with green sour cream.
"I don't mind the color," said Jeanie, a trusting soul whose own mother wouldn't dream of offering you an all-orange Halloween extravaganza complete with milk dyed the color of orange juice. Ida served the sort of perfect lunches that I longed for: neat squares of cream cheese and jelly on white bread, bologna sandwiches, Chef Boyardee straight from the can.
"It's not just food coloring," I said. "The sour cream was green to begin with; the carton's been in the refrigerator for months."
Jeanie quickly put her spoon down and when Mom went into the other room to answer the phone we ducked into the bathroom and flushed our lunches down the toilet.
"That was great, Mim," said Jeanie when Mom returned.
"May we be excused?" is all I said. I wanted to get away from the table before anything else appeared.
"Don't you want dessert?" Mom asked.
"Sure," said Jeanie.
"No!" I said. But Mom had already gone to get the cookies. She returned with some strange black lumps on a plate. Jeanie looked at them dubiously, then politely picked one up.
"Oh, go ahead, eat it," I said, reaching for one myself. "They're just Girl Scout mint cookies. She left them on the radiator so all the chocolate melted off, but they won't kill you."
As we munched our cookies, Mom asked idly, "What do you girls think I should serve for Bob's engagement party?"
"You're not going to have the party here, are you?" I asked, holding my breath as I looked around at our living room, trying to see it with a stranger's eye.
Mom had moments of decorating inspiration that usually died before the project was finished. The last one, a romance with Danish modern, had brought a teak dining table, a wicker chair that looked like an egg and hung from a chain, and a Rya rug into our lives. The huge turquoise abstract painting along one wall dated from that period too. But Mom had, as usual, gotten bored, so they were all mixed together with my grandmother's drum table, an ornate breakfront, and some Japanese prints from an earlier, more conservative period.
Then there was the bathroom, my mother's greatest decorating feat. One day she had decided, on the spur of the moment, to install gold towels, a gold shower curtain, and a gold rug. They were no problem. But painting all the porcelain gold was a disaster; it almost immediately began peeling off the sink and it was years before any of us could take a bath without emerging slightly gilded.
My father found all of this slightly amusing. An intellectual who had escaped his wealthy German-Jewish family by coming to America in the twenties, he had absolutely no interest in things. He was a book designer who lived in a black-and-white world of paper and type; books were his only passion. He was kindly and detached and if he had known that people described him as elegant, he would have been shocked; clothes bored him enormously, when he noticed them at all.
"No," said Mom. I exhaled. "In the country. We have more room in Wilton. And we need to welcome Shelly into the family properly."
I pictured our small, shabby summer house in the woods. Wilton is only an hour from New York, but in 1960 it was still very rural. My parents had bought the land cheaply and designed the house themselves. Since they couldn't afford an architect, they had miscalculated a bit, and the downstairs bedrooms were very strangely shaped. Dad hardly knew how to hold a hammer, but to save money he had built the house himself with the aid of a carpenter. He was very proud of his handiwork, despite the drooping roof and awkward layout. He was even prouder of our long, rutted, meandering driveway. "I didn't want to cut down a single tree!" he said proudly when people asked why it was so crooked.
I loved the house, but I was slightly embarrassed by its unpainted wooden walls and unconventional character. "Why can't we have the party in a hotel?" I asked. In my mind's eye I saw Shelly's impeccable mother, who seemed to go to the beauty parlor every day and wore nothing but custom-made clothes. Next to her, Mom, a handsome woman who refused to dye her hair, rarely wore makeup, and had very colorful taste in clothes, looked almost bohemian. Shelly's mother wore an enormous diamond ring on her beautifully manicured finger; my mother didn't even wear a wedding band and her fingernails were short and haphazardly polished.
"Nonsense," said Mom. "It will be much nicer to have it at home. So much more intimate. I'd like them to see how we live, find out who we are."
"Great," I said under my breath to Jeanie. "That'll be the end of Bob's engagement. And a couple of the relatives might die, but who worries about little things like that?"
"Just make sure she doesn't serve steak tartare," said Jeanie, giggling.
Steak tartare was the bane of my existence: Dad always made it for parties. It was a performance. First he'd break an egg yolk into the mound of raw chopped steak, and then he'd begin folding minced onions and capers and Worcestershire sauce into the meat. He looked tall and suave as he mixed thoughtfully and then asked, his German accent very pronounced, for an assistant taster. Together they added a little more of this or that and then Dad carefully mounded the meat into a round, draped some anchovies across the top, and asked me to serve it.
My job was to spread the stuff onto slices of party pumpernickel and pass the tray. Unless I had bought the meat myself I tried not to let the people I liked best taste Dad's chef d'oeuvre. I knew that my mother bought prepackaged hamburger meat at the supermarket and that if there happened to be some half-price, day-old stuff she simply couldn't resist it. With our well-trained stomachs my father and I could take whatever Mom was dishing out, but for most people it was pure poison.
Just thinking about it made me nervous. "I've got to stop this party," I said.
"How?" asked Jeanie.
I didn't know. I had four months to figure it out.
My best hope was that my mother's mood would change before the party took place. That was not unrealistic; my mother's moods were erratic. But March turned into April and April into May and Mom was still buzzing around. The phone rang constantly and she was feeling great. She cut her gray hair very short and actually started wearing nail polish. She lost weight and bought a whole new wardrobe. Then she and Dad took a quick cruise to the Caribbean.
"We booked passage on a United Fruit freighter," she said to her friends, "so much more interesting than a conventional cruise." When asked about the revolutions that were then rocking the islands she had a standard response: "The bomb in the hotel lobby in Haiti made the trip much more interesting."
When they returned she threw herself into planning the party. I got up every morning and looked hopefully into the refrigerator. Things kept getting worse. Half a baby goat appeared. Next there was cactus fruit. But the morning I found the box of chocolate-covered grasshoppers I decided it was time to talk to Dad.
"The plans are getting more elaborate," I said ominously.
Table of Contents
1 The Queen of Mold 3
2 Grandmothers 20
3 Mrs. Peavey 34
4 Mars 50
5 Devil's Food 72
6 The Tart 88
7 Serafina 106
8 Summer of Love 119
9 The Philosopher of the Table 134
10 Tunis 149
11 Love Story 168
12 Eyesight for the Blind 185
13 Paradise Loft 199
14 Berkeley 214
15 The Swallow 228
16 Another Party 242
17 Keep Tasting 256
18 The Bridge 269
A Reader's Guide 285
Reading Group Guide
A classic, bestselling memoir, Tender at the Bone captures the colorful beginnings of Ruth Reichl's career in the food world. Long before she was editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine or a creatively disguised restaurant critic for The New York Times, Reichl was developing a keen awareness of the ways in which food could define an era, or even a life. From the risky concoctions prepared by her mother (a notorious food-poisoner known as the Queen of Mold) to the Berkeley innovators who championed the organic food movement of the 1970s, Reichl recalls the fascinating characters who shaped her world and her tastes. Blending humor, evocative scenes, and marvelous recipes, Tender at the Bone is a delicious culinary chronicle. Whether you savor it with your book group, cooking club, or on your own, we hope that the following topics will enhance your experience of this unforgettable memoir.
1. The first two chapters of Tender at the Bone feature the culinary shortcomings of Ruth Reichl's relatives, particularly her mother. To what do you attribute prowess in the kitchen? Is the ability (or inability) to cook a reflection of other traits? Who are the most notorious cooks in your family?
2. Besides a perfect recipe for Wiener Schnitzel, what other gifts did Mrs. Peavey impart to Reichl?
3. How was Reichl affected by her three years at boarding school in Montreal? What do you think her mother's true motivation was in enrolling her there?
4. In the absence of parents, what role did cooking take while Reichl was a teenager? Why did feeding her friends become her primary joy? Does chapter 5, "Devil's Food," express unique or universal notions aboutadolescence and self-image?
5. In what way does the topic of mental illness shape the memoir overall, particularly the bipolar disorder that afflicted Reichl's mother? What do the book's images evoke regarding the psychology of indulgence and hunger?
6. How does the tenderness mentioned in the title manifest itself throughout the book? How do Reichl's sense of humor and her wry honesty play off one another?
7. What were Reichl's early impressions of France, including her summer on the Île d'Oléron? How did her casual immersions in French cooking shape her attitudes toward cuisine in general? How did they help her on the job at L'Escargot and when she later embarked on the vineyard tour?
8. At the end of chapter 7, Serafina writes "I hope you find your Africa" in a note to Reichl. How was Reichl's view of humanity being transformed by Serafina and Mac?
9. Did traveling in North Africa bring Reichl closer to or farther from a sense of fulfillment? How did this travel experience compare to her previous ones?
10. As Reichl watched Doug bond with her parents (he even elicited previously unknown details about her father's life) she felt a new level of exasperation with her family. What models for marriage did she have? Was winter in Europe, with Milton often at the helm, a good antidote?
11. Reichl writes that in 1971, lower Manhattan was a cook's paradise. What did life on the Lower East Side, from the gefilte fish episode to Mr. Bergamini's Veal Breast recommendation, teach Reichl about how she would define a successful meal? Why was the Superstar so insistent that great cooking was the sure way to seduce a man? With Mr. Izzy T. as navigator, what did the Superstar and Reichl both learn about themselves?
12. How does the idealism of Channing Way compare to the organic food movement of today? Have any of Nick's tenets become part of mainstream life in the 21st century?
13. The now-legendary Swallow Collective was as innovative in its management style as in its menus. What chapters in culinary history are captured in Reichl's recollections of working there?
14. Tender at the Bone ends with an image of Reichl conquering her bridge phobia while accompanied by Marion Cunningham, who says, "Nobody knows why some of us get better and others don't." What ingredients in Reichl's life may have helped her to "get better" and achieve such tremendous success in the years that would follow this scene?
15. Food writing presents the unusual challenge of conveying distinct, intangible flavors through mere words. How would you characterize Reichl's approach to the task? Does she approach haute cuisine and comfort food in the same way? How would you have responded to her mother's comment that by developing a career as a food writer Reichl was "wasting her life"?
16. How would you characterize the recipes Reichl selected for Tender at the Bone? Do they possess a common "personality"? What recipes represent the most significant turning points in your life?