Savoring the Depth of Ruth Reichl’s Writings

Garlic and Sapphires

by Ruth Reichl, editor of Gourmet magazine, was on the
best-seller table at the Morgan Hill Library. At the time, I didn’t
know Ruth Reichl from Rachael Ray or Steve Reichlen.
“Garlic and Sapphires” by Ruth Reichl, editor of Gourmet magazine, was on the best-seller table at the Morgan Hill Library. At the time, I didn’t know Ruth Reichl from Rachael Ray or Steve Reichlen. But because I’m interested in food, writers and food writing, and because there weren’t any new murder mysteries, I checked it out. The book is a memoir of Reichl’s days as food critic at the New York Times.

I started reading it in the parking lot of the library and enjoyed it so much that I finished it in a couple of days. I reserved a copy of “Tender at the Bone,” her first volume of memoir, from the library, and the next day I bought a copy of Gourmet.

“Tender at the Bone” was so good, and there were so many resonances between her story and mine (early travel, love of France, group living in the ’70s) that I read it in about two sittings, ordered a subscription to Gourmet and went online to reserve the middle volume in the series, “Comfort me with Apples.”

I just finished reading this last book in one all-night session. Reichl’s passion, her candor and yes, her recipes have been a real treat.

“Tender at the Bone’s” subtitle is “growing up at the table,” and it recounts Reichl’s early days in a home where her mother did the cooking, but had such a wild approach and thorough disregard for freshness and food safety that – for one example – the meal she served at her son’s wedding reception gave most of the guests food poisoning.

Reichl realized later that her mom’s erratic behavior, in the kitchen and elsewhere, was the result of untreated manic depression. But as a young girl, she took over kitchen duties on the many occasions when her mother had repaired to bed, unable to cope.

Far from turning the young Ruth away from the kitchen, this early experience meant that cooking became completely natural and later became a way to help Ruth respond to unhappiness and problems in her own life.

By the end of “Tender at the Bone,” she has begun to outgrow her commune life in the “People’s Republic of Berkeley,” where she has cooked professionally at The Swallow restaurant as well as for her housemates and has begun writing on food and restaurants for the magazine New West. Alice Waters and Marion Cunningham have become mentors and friends.

Then, in “Comfort Me With Apples,” the Los Angeles Times offers to make her its restaurant critic. She divorces, remarries, visits China, tries to adopt a child, is mugged at gunpoint and eventually has a child of her own. Of course, these skeletal facts do little to convey the richness of the writing or the stories.

Here is a brief excerpt. To set the scene, Ruth is observing and writing a piece on the process of Wolfgang Puck opening his restaurant Chinois. She becomes fascinated by Puck’s megalomaniac girlfriend Barbara, who claims to have been a performer, a medical student and a chemist, and who did actually design the place.

As Barbara orchestrates the chaotic final pre-opening days, Ruth is debating whether to accept the offer from the Los Angeles Times to become its food critic. The conversation glances off Ruth’s desire to have a child.

“Ruth wants to have a baby,” she announced. “What do you think?”

“Babies are good,” (Puck) said, which seemed to be the perfect answer.

“You just want a child to take to the tennis courts and to teach how to cook,” she said. “But I would be the most fabulous mother in the world. It’s true! I’ll do that in my next life.”

She looked at me in the mirror and asked, “What are you planning to do in your next life?” She said it casually, as if it were the kind of question people asked each other every day. I answered in that spirit.

“I’ve been thinking about that,” I said. The Los Angeles Times offered me a job. I think I’m going to turn it down.”

Barbara looked at me, and her astonishment showed.

“Turn it down?” she asked. “Why?”

“I don’t like Los Angeles,” I said. “And I don’t think I’m ready to be the restaurant critic of a big-city newspaper.’

Barbara didn’t say anything. She didn’t have to. I knew what she must have been thinking. She had been a musician, a chemist, a medical student, a designer. And I was merely a wimp.

I think it would be great to share a meal with Ruth Reichl, and because I haven’t tried any of the recipes from these books – I’ve been too busy reading – I thought I would share the menu I would serve if she came to our house.

I would like her to taste the bounty of our region: the organic greens, the peppers and of course the garlic; the organic chickens and eggs; the remaining apricots, to name a few.

I would let her choose the wine.

Menu for Ruth Reichl

Roasted red peppers with garlic mayonnaise

Roast chicken

Mashed potatoes

Salad of baby lettuces with homemade vinaigrette

Apricot tart

Apricot Tart

(This recipe also works with fresh apples or canned peaches and probably other fruits we haven’t tried yet.)

1 quart canned apricots

juice of 1 meyer lemon (about 1 Tbs.)

1 tsp. grated lemon zest

1 cup sugar

1 stick butter

pastry for a double crust 9-inch pie

Step 1: Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Step 2: In a bowl, stir together the apricots and their juice, the lemon juice and zest and the sugar. Stir gently so the apricots retain their shape.

Step 3: Melt the butter over medium-low heat in a 9-inch cast iron skillet or other heavy skillet that can go in the oven.

Step 4: Pour the apricot mixture into the skillet and reduce the heat to low. Stir gently for about 10 minutes or until the sugar begins to caramelize.

Note: This is not tricky, but you must watch it carefully during this time, or it will quickly turn into a charred black mass that will be impossible to remove from the pan.

Step 5: Roll out the pastry to larger than the size of the pan and drape it over the fruit. Trim pastry to size of pan, reserving excess for another use, and tuck it in around the fruit on all sides.

Step 6: Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and continue cooking for another 10 to 15 minutes until the pastry is golden brown.

Step 7: Cool before serving.

“Tender at the Bone,” paperback edition 2001, Random House, Inc., New York

“Comfort Me with Apples,” paperback edition 2002, Random House, Inc., New York

“Garlic and Sapphires,” c. 2005 by Ruth Reichl, Random House, Inc., New York

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