Sunday, December 7, 2008

Comfort Me With Apples--Ruth Reichl (Book Review)

I read Comfort Me With Apples as part of the New Classics Challenge.

So...a new Classic? Really, Entertainment Weekly? Because a classic, to my mind, should stand the test of time. At only seven years old, Comfort Me already seemed dated to me.

Ruth Reichl writes about the time when she became a restaurant critic in the seventies, adding a recipe for each period of her life. There's a whole chapter about the cuisine-world's discovery of the merits of garlic. Though she's writing twenty-five years later, Reichl doesn't give the sense of distance that would make this ironic and fun. Even the recipes seem dated to me, like something out of one of my mom's old cookbooks. Maybe that's the point, but Soy Sauce Chicken, made with ten cups of soy sauce and ten cups of sugar for a 3 1/2 pound chicken? Yikes. Soup made with 1/2 stick of butter, heavy cream, four eggs and Gruyere cheese? Not in this house. Fried Capers and Calves Brains with Sherry Butter Sauce, ooh, I think my dad made something like that in the seventies. Maybe I should write a food memoir of my own.

I tend to stay away from celebrity memoirs because the name dropping drives me nuts--I couldn't care less how Famous Person X first met Famous Person Y. It didn't occur to me that this would be a celebrity memoir because I'd never heard of Ruth Reichl. I'd also never heard of many of the people whose names she dropped (or, rather, clunked) into the prose. Clearly, I'm out of the culinary loop, because "Nancy Silverton baked [my wedding] cake, and Alice cut it, along with Marion Cunningham and Cecilia Chiang" meant little to me (though I did know who Cunningham was) until I hit Google for help. Then at least I knew why I was supposed to go, "Ooooh, wow!" instead of rolling my eyes. As for Wolfgang Puck, who plays prominently in the narrative, as canned soup goes, his brand is pretty good. So, the author Knew Him When, and a bunch of famous people called him on the phone one day while she was with him. Are you impressed yet? If so, you might love this book.

I will say this for Reichl--the lady has guts. As she recounts a period of her life when she bounced from one infidelity to the next, with stops along the way for self-indulgent six-hour meals that made my stomach hurt just reading about them, I found myself simply feeling sorry for the two men she was torn between. Then a child became involved, and, oh my goodness. Never have I read a memoir in which the writer/narrator made herself into such a blatantly unsympathetic character.

Ruth Reichl also wrote Tender to the Bone, which I've heard is very good, and more recently, Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic, as well as a number of other books about food.

The Soundtrack: I chose Joni Mitchell's Free Man in Paris, in honor of Reichl's magical two weeks there with another man while her husband was busy building sculptures across America.


  1. The only thing worse than name dropping is when they're dropping names you don't know. I think I'll skip this book.

  2. Oh, too bad it wasn't very good. I liked Garlic and sapphires, but I'll pass on this one.

  3. I loved Garlic and Sapphires, but I haven't picked this one up yet. Since I am very interested in the culinary world, I will probably give it a go, eventually.

    The one thing I have to disagree on is the name-dropping. That's the whole reason people read celebrity memoirs! I mean, you certainly don't expect someone who is famous and works with famous people and socializes with famous people and is probably married to a famous person...not to mention any famous people in their book! But I do agree that it can be skillful or it can be clumsy, depending on the skill of the writer.

  4. Lisa, I'm sure you're right. Funny that the reason people read celebrity memoirs is the same reason I normally avoid them! It sounds like this book might be a good fit for you.

    I think what irritates me is when the famous person isn't especially relevant to the storyline. Wolfgang Puck is a big part of this story, and so is Alice Waters, but the others are only mentioned to let us know they were there. Maybe others enjoy that in a book, but it's not for me.

  5. This is my least favorite of her three books; she is rather annoying in it. I really enjoyed her other two, though.

  6. I really enjoyed Garlic & Sapphires and I can't find it! (WHO did I loan it to?, darn it.) The recipes were good and I don't remember any name-dropping.