Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl

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I loved listening to the author who, when this was written in 1998, was restaurant critic for the New York Times. Here, she tells how she came to love good food. I had read her laugh-out-loud book Garlic and Sapphires more than 10 years ago, so I was not surprised to find this one, too, has many funny stories. I’ll start with one of the best about her mother, who was a terrible–and dangerous–cook, a woman who said, “I can make a meal out of anything.”

She liked to brag about “everything stew,” a dish invented while she was concocting a casserole out of a two-week-old turkey carcass. The very fact that my mother confessed to cooking with two-week-old turkey says a lot about her. She put the turkey and a half can of mushroom soup into the pot. Then she began rummaging around in the refrigerator. She found some leftover broccoli and added that. A few carrots went in, then a half carton of sour cream. In a hurry as usual, she added green beans and cranberry sauce, and then somehow, half an apple pie slipped into the dish. Mom looked momentarily horrified, then she shrugged, and then she said, “Who knows, maybe it will be good.” And she began throwing everything in the refrigerator in along with it: ¬†leftover pat√©, cheese ends, a few squishy tomatoes.

At a young age Ruth took on the role of trying to discourage people from eating these concoctions that might make them sick. Ruth had the good fortune to be around others who introduced her to good food and some who taught her to cook it.

She tells of being dropped off at a boarding school in Montreal with no warning. She was quite lonely until she learned French and made friends with a fellow student who took her home for weekends. It turns out the father of her friend was a gourmet who loved seeing the young Ruth’s joyous reaction to fine French food and insisted she come every weekend.

She recounts her experiences relating to the love of food as she grew up, including what she learned from the women who cooked for her family, cooking for her friends as a teenager, learning to be a server at a short-lived great French restaurant in Ann Arbor, eating great food in Tunisia, and being in the Swallow Collective (in Berkeley). But even more important than learning about cooking wonderful food, somehow she learned to write.

Ruth Reichl, Tender at the Bone, Random House, 1998, 282 pages (I listened to the audiobook read by the author). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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