February 26, 1998
Since Ruth Reichl took over as the restaurant critic of The New York Times, avid readers like me have grown accustomed to learning nearly as much about the reactions of diners seated both near and far from her as about her own. We've also read more than seems strictly necessary about how her late mother and father might have reacted to the restaurant and food under discussion. But none of this has been overly distracting. Reichl's voice is so clear, and her opinions are so forthright and informed, that her views have become essential to everyone who cares about eating. Now, in her new memoir, Tender at the Bone, Reichl lets us in on the fascination that observing and describing others -- especially her parents -- has always exerted over her.
Her mother was hardly the aproned, comforting maternal figure you might expect would produce an eminent restaurant critic. For one thing, she couldn't cook. That didn't stop her from trying out any odd or bargain-priced ingredient (mussels, sea urchins, cactus fruit, lychee nuts) she came across, however old, with the result that she frequently came close to poisoning her friends and family. Miriam Reichl, "taste-blind and unafraid of rot," would "brag about 'Everything Stew,' a dish she invented while 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.)"
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Previously in Corby's Table:
South America's well-traveled cuisine.
Just in time for the holidays, a look back over the year's best.
A book to help one get wise to the whys of cooking.
More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound
Culinarily impaired mothers are surprisingly common among food writers and
cooks, who find in cooking a way to best one parent and please the other.
Although Reichl adored her elegant graphic-designer father, born to a rich
Berlin family and as cultivated as he was modest, she seems to have been less
occupied in a contest for his affections than joined with him in coping with
the charming, charismatic, and very difficult woman at the center of their
lives. Miriam Reichl was more than a recklessly madcap cook with a taste for
the exotic and an unhealthy lack of fear of mold. She was manic-depressive.
Her daughter never knew when she might go on a decorating or cooking jag that
would wreak havoc on the house or the dinner table. For the only child of such
a mother and an adorable but mild-mannered father baffled by his wife's moods,
learning to cook and to observe skillfully were survival strategies.
Survive Reichl did, often by befriending women with strong personalities. My two favorite chapters in Tender at the Bone come one after the other: "Mrs. Peavey," about a sort of alcoholic Mary Poppins who came to live with the Reichls when Ruth was eight, and "Mars." Mrs. Peavey, who had in a former life been a very rich Baltimore wife and mother, taught Mrs. Reichl how to set the table and entertain with more style than she had had, read Ruth stories in French and German, and saved her greatest efforts for elegant, adventurous cooking. She did all this when she wasn't disappearing for unpredictable periods -- and, of course, one day she left for good, living out H. H. Munro's aphorism, "The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go she went." But she left with courageous resolutions, and the reader will probably be nearly as tempted to shed a tear at her departure as was the girl in her charge.
"Mars" is the wonderful account of Reichl's years at a Montreal boarding school, where she discovered the rapture and release that beautifully prepared food can offer. It began in pain and bewilderment, as her mother invited her for what Ruth thought was a weekend of tourism; instead she was dropped off at a girl's boarding school. The aching loneliness eventually turned to curiosity, unlikely alliances, and a fairy-tale adoption by the gourmet father of the richest girl in school. I have included here the lemon soufflé that helped the author to bond with an initially snobbish French classmate, and the kind of marvelously old-fashioned hearty French stew that she rediscovered on a wine tour she took with Kermit Lynch, the literate and opinionated wine merchant based in Berkeley, California, where during the 1970s Reichl lived and cooked in commune-style restaurants. Throughout Tender at the Bone food is the key that unlocks the mysteries of the self and others. It's easy to see why Reichl made it her life, and tempting to want to follow her explorations.
-- Corby Kummer
Excerpts from Tender at the Bone, by Ruth Reichl (Random House)
Separate the eggs carefully; if there is the tiniest bit of yolk in the whites they will not beat properly, so be sure to separate them thoroughly and to put the whites into an extremely clean, dry bowl. You will need all of the whites but only 4 yolks. Eggs are easiest to separate when cold, but they are easier to beat at room temperature so do this step first to allow the yolks to warm up.
Butter a 1 1/2-quart soufflé mold very well. Throw in a handful of sugar and shake the soufflé dish until it has a thin coating of sugar. Shake out excess. Set aside.
Melt the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pan. Add the flour and whisk until well blended. Slowly stir in milk. Cook, stirring, until the mixture has almost reached the boiling point and has become thick and smooth.
Add lemon juice and sugar and cook for 2 minutes more. Remove from heat, add vanilla, and cool slightly.
Add 4 yolks, one at a time, beating to incorporate each one before adding the next. Add lemon rind, then return the pan to the stove and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute more over medium heat. Remove and let cool.
Add a pinch of salt to the 6 egg whites and beat with a clean beater until they form soft peaks. Stir a quarter of the egg whites into the sauce, then carefully fold in the rest.
Pour into the soufflé mold and set on the middle rack of the oven. Turn heat down to 400° and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until the top is nicely browned and the soufflé has risen about 2 inches over the top of the dish.
Strain the meat and vegetables from the marinade, reserving marinade. Dry the meat with paper towels.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet and brown beef pieces, a few at a time, removing to a bowl with slotted spoon when browned on all sides. Season with salt and pepper.
Cook bacon until lightly browned. Remove with slotted spoon and add to reserved beef. Cook onions in bacon fat until lightly browned but not crisp. Remove and add to reserved meat.
Pour off remaining fat. Add 1/2 cup marinade to skillet and bring to boil, stirring to remove crisp bits from bottom of pan. Pour back into reserved marinade.
Heat remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in casserole with a cover and add onion and carrot from marinade, stirring until soft. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly, until it turns brown. Keep stirring as you add the reserved marinade and the broth. Return meat and vegetables to pan, add tomato paste, crushed garlic, salt, and pepper and bring to a boil. Cover tightly and set in a 300° oven for 3 hours. Stir occasionally, adding water if needed.
Meanwhile, melt butter in skillet and cook mushrooms until lightly browned.
When meat is cooked, stir in mushrooms and simmer on top of stove for 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve with boiled potatoes.
Copyright © 1998 by Corby Kummer.
Recipes from Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl. Random House: New York 1998. Hardcover, 282 pages. ISBN: 0679449876. $23.00. Copyright © by Ruth Reichl.