I don’t believe I’ve ever read Gourmet magazine, but I was still sad to learn this week that the magazine was closing up shop because I was just getting acquainted with its editor, Ruth Reichl, through listening to the audio version of Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table, the second of her memoirs (and the first that I’ve read). This book traces Reichl’s early years as a food writer, a career she began by writing freelance articles that eventually led to a primo gig as the food critic for the L.A. Times. It’s part foodie memoir, part travel journal, and part personal story of self-discovery, and the mix works.
Reichl began her food writing career in the 1970s, when Alice Waters’s restaurant, Chez Panisse, was still relatively new, and before Wolfgang Puck was a celebrity. It was an interesting time to be a food writer, and Reichl was in the right place to make the best of it. Reichl writes of many fine and not-so-fine meals, including a dinner cooked by Danny Kaye and a Thanksgiving meal using a Medieval turkey recipe. (You’ll have to read the book for yourself to find out which was fine and which was not so fine.) Many of her assignments took her into the kitchens of famous restaurants, so readers get a behind-the-scenes look at restaurant openings and meal preparation. I’m no cook, so a lot of the nuances of why a particular ingredient or tool was important went over my head, but the human drama was interesting. There are also stories of dining in France, Spain, China, and Thailand, where Reichl finds the adventures are not confined to the table.
Although Reichl’s career is different from my own, I enjoyed reading about her transition from beginner to knowledgable professional. That’s a transition I’ve made myself in the past few years, and just as Reichl was startled that the L.A. Times thought she was seasoned and smart enough to write for them, I’m often startled when long-time professionals in my own field ask my opinion, and even more surprised when they follow my suggestions. It was affirming to hear another person going through the same thing—especially since she went on to be so successful.
Reichl mixes her professional story with her personal story. She struggles with her marriage, her desire for children, and her relationships with her parents, especially her outspoken mother, and she writes candidly about her mistakes. She did make a few doozies, but as is so often the case in life, sometimes great good can come out of what seems to be the most unwise choice. There were a few times when I wanted to shake her because she just couldn’t make up her mind or say what needed to be said, but I don’t know that I would have been any bolder or braver, and I appreciated her honesty.
Most of Reichl’s stories were the usual relationshippy seasons-of-life tales that you might expect from a memoir about a woman in her 30s. There was, however, one story, toward the end of the book, that was more upsetting than any story that had gone before (and that includes her tale of being held up at gunpoint). I hesitate to say much about it, because it could constitute a spoiler regarding some of the choices Reichl struggles with, but it was the kind of story that anyone trying to become a mother does not want to hear—it’s a nightmare scenario.
The audio format worked well for this book; I find that it usually does with memoirs. Lorelei King reads expressively, and if some of her voices are annoying, they still seemed to fit the people she was depicting. The book also includes recipes, but recipes don’t translate well onto audio. Most of them didn’t sound like something I’d make (I cook from scratch, but usually simple food), but they did sound yummy.