Comfort Me With Apples: More Adventures at the Table by Ruth Reichl

Published by Random House

302 pages, 2001


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A Taste For Life

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning

 

On her first job as a restaurant critic in a posh place called Trader Vic's, California food writer Ruth Reichl bears witness to the following surreal scene between two gourmet journalists at the table:

The food editor immediately summoned a wine list. It appeared, and the two men began speaking in tongues.

"Macayamas Chard?" asked the food editor, raising his eyebrows as he peered down the list.

"Hasn't been through malolactic," Phil replied.

"Francophile myself," said the editor. "Preferably bone."

"Caymus?" asked Phil.

"Malolactic?" the editor replied.

"Of course," said Phil, nodding.

Ruth Reichl has just plunged into an odd sort of Wonderland with a rarefied vocabulary all its own. How she comes to make sense of the world of high-end food appreciation and even thrive as one of its most vivid scribes, forms the main story line of Comfort Me With Apples, the second volume of her personal memoirs.

The first book, Tender At the Bone: Growing Up At the Table, was a tough act to follow: funny, poignant, honest and unaffected. Young Ruth, a New Yorker with a colorful but mentally unstable mother, came to realize that "food could be a way of making sense of the world. I was slowly discovering that if you watched people as they ate, you could find out who they were." This survival skill gradually evolved into a way of being and Reichl trained in France to become a fine chef at The Swallow restaurant in Berkeley, California.

The second volume takes up the story again in 1978, when Ruth, living with her artist husband Doug in a commune, begins to feel the stirrings of a new ambition. Instead of preparing food, why not write about it? Her new venture is met with flat disapproval from her socially conscious housemates in the "People's Republic of Berkeley": "You're going to spend your life telling spoiled, rich people where to eat too much obscene food?" they cry. (One of them even says, "You're giving up good honest work to be a parasite.")

But Reichl is firm in her resolve: "Food was my major passion; I had been feeding people since I was small. I had been a cook, a waitress, a kitchen manager; I had even written a cookbook. Now I understood that all along I had been training myself to be a restaurant critic."

Once Reichl sets her mind on something, she pursues it with single-minded passion. Soon hired as a critic for New West magazine, she proves more than worthy in being able to wrap words around food's sensual impact: "The foie gras was molten velvet in my mouth, and when I took a sip of wine the flavor became even more intense, richer and rounder than it already was." Mere scrambled eggs become a sort of religious experience: "Each forkful was like biting off a piece of the sun."

Throughout this entertaining memoir Reichl's lavish success as a food writer runs counter to a frustrating, naggingly unhappy personal life. Her relationship with Doug, though tender and enduring, is more of a brotherly friendship than a marriage and this chronic lack of fulfillment pulls her off the narrow path of fidelity more than once.

"When I told my mother that I was planning a trip to France, she was immediately suspicious," writes Reichl. " 'Is that food editor of yours going to be there?' she demanded.

"He has nothing to do with it," I replied with as much dignity as I could muster. "He doesn't even know I'm going."

"But he will be there," she said.

"Yes," I replied in a very small voice. "He will."

"Pussy Cat," she said, "You're asking for trouble."

Though Reichl's turbulent Parisian fling with her editor Colman Andrews muddies the waters of her personal life, it does gain her entry into another sort of world where prices are irrelevant and only the best will do. The food world is an elegant, exciting place full of colorful characters: the young chef Wolfgang Puck, just gaining a reputation which will evolve into legend; restaurateur Alice Waters, "a petite, pretty woman who swept through town trailing disappointed men in her wake"; and renowned writer M.F.K. Fisher, Reichl's idol from childhood. "How did you get to know her?" a friend asks. "I wished," Reichl said, "wished so hard I actually made it happen."

It's easy to believe it, for doors seem to swing open for her that might have clanged shut for a lesser personality. Beyond sheer force of will, it's her passion and that indefinable quality called luck that carries her along. Thus, on a trip to China, a friend of a friend wangles her an invitation to meet one of the foremost chefs in the country. And on the way to a posh party, she stops at a convenience store and grabs a $30.00 bottle of wine that turns out to be a 1961 Cheval Blanc.

Sadly, this Midas touch does not translate to her home life. Unable to leave Doug, she embarks on another affair with a journalist named Michael Singer: "It was as if all the ions inside of us yearned toward each other, and for the first time in my life my body felt completely awake, as if it was in the place that it was meant to be."

Though her prose can be, if not purple, then at least a deep shade of lavender, this larger-than-life quality is delicious to behold in her descriptions of memorable meals, such as this one at the New Boonville Hotel in San Francisco:

We began with a deep green vegetable puree sprinkled with herbs. It was followed by pasta that looked like a Jackson Pollock painting on a plate: The noodles were as bright as marigolds, and they were tossed with goat butter and tangled with deep purple hyssop flowers .... Afterward we had raspberry ice cream that was the color of a Renaissance sunset. I held it in my mouth, loath to let the flavor vanish. Just churned, it did not taste as if it had been made by human hands. The cream seemed straight from nature, from happy cows who had spent their lives lapping up berries and sugar.

Not content to describe many of her favorite dishes, Reichl generously includes recipes as contrast to the carefully-guarded mystique of the food snobs. Refreshingly, this is real eating food; there's not a low-fat item in sight.

As she graduates to a prestigious job with the Los Angeles Times, Reichl eventually finds the inner strength to divorce Doug and marry Michael. Discovering that at 39 she cannot conceive, the two decide to adopt a child. This passage, though brief, is the most poignant, even wrenching in the whole book: they take home a beautiful baby girl named Gavi, only to lose her several months later when the birth mother demands her back.

Friends insist Reichl come to Barcelona, where five master chefs whip up a meal that turns out to be a complete disaster. But the experience is therapeutic for Ruth, who realizes, "I needed to find out that sometimes even your best is not good enough. And that in those times you have to give it everything you've got. And then move on."

Reichl unwittingly sums up her greatest strength, both as a writer and a human being, in that statement. Perhaps the key to all this so-called luck is her willingness to give life everything she has and when it doesn't work out, to move on, not bitterly, but with a sort of clear-eyed optimism. That the book ends with a happy surprise is consistent with Reichl's self-made luck, reflecting the taste for life that makes this memoir such a pleasure to read. | May 2001

 

Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.