Tough and tender

Halfway through Ruth Reichl's memoir Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table (Random House, $23, 288 pp.), I realized with disappointment that the story was not moving fast enough to get to the author's experiences as a restaurant critic at the New York Times. Instead, it concludes as Reichl launches her writing career on the West Coast, long before the Times or her position as editor of Gourmet magazine.

I continued to turn the pages because I like the mother-daughter genre, and Reichl had plenty of material. Her mother, Miriam, suffered from manic-depression. Life was full of grand projects, but her enthusiasm waned long before completion. Child-rearing itself fell into this category.

Their relationship is described in deadpan prose. Among Reichl’s colorful anecdotes was a description of her brother Bob's engagement party, after which 26 guests were hospitalized with food poisoning. Imagine growing up with a mother who is not just inept in the kitchen, but potentially lethal. A kid might learn to cook in self-defense.

Reichl learned to cook from her grandmother's maid; the book includes tempting recipes (though one wonders why she included recipes from her mother).

Unfortunately, there aren’t enough insights into Reichl’s emotional past. One Friday afternoon her mother picked her up after school and announced a weekend trip to Montreal. Her bags were in the car. Her friends drooled with envy, but it soon became clear that her mother intended to leave her at a Catholic boarding school. "Well, you did say you wanted to learn French, dear."

Reichl describes her depression at being abandoned, but there the insight ends. She explains that her father, who might have been receptive to her pleas to come home, never got to the phone first.

The success of the mother-daughter genre depends very much on the author's insight, and there is a critical dimension of emotion missing in Tender at the Bone. The book reads more like a résumé than a work of literature.

A long chapter is devoted to a trip to France with a sommelier, and thus we know that Reichl has filled in a gap in her gastronomic education, but the chapter doesn't help us to understand any of the lead characters.

By the conclusion, we know why Reichl is qualified to critique restaurants. What we don't know is how she resolved the turmoil that her childhood must have produced. Especially obvious is Reichl's characterization of her father as "sweet and accommodating." Where is the anger at the passive father who allowed his mentally ill wife to make all the crucial decisions about their child? He was complicit, but Reichl has no harsh words for him.

Fear of inheriting her mother's mental illness brings the book to an unconvincing climax with a panic attack that Reichl conveniently resolves in a trip back and forth across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Even so, it was fun to learn that the New York Times' esteemed restaurant critic finished her last years of high school living alone in her parents' apartment (they moved to the country house); senior year was a blur of drinking and smoking dope. After college (U-M!) Reichl headed for Berkeley and became a flower child living in a commune. Eventually she joined a restaurant collective, and the rest, as they say, is material for Part 2. —Elissa Karg


You have to reserve six months in advance to eat at the Napa Valley’s famed French Laundry restaurant — but on Thursday, July 20 and Friday, July 21 you can sample some of its dishes at Morels (30100 Telegraph, Bingham Farms). Reservations for the prix fixe dinner are still required, but easier to get. Call 248-642-1094, ext. 3. … Visit your nearest Papa Romano’s restaurant before October 15 for a pizza and Pepsi, and you’ll get a free kids’ ticket to Cedar Point, as well as $10 in coupons toward adult tickets.

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