Tuesday, August 23, 2011

August Book of the Month: Tender at the Bone

This month my reading recommendation is Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table.


This book has been in my "to read" pile for over two years. I put it off for so long in part because I was expecting it to make me hungry and crave comfort food. There are lots of appetizing recipes and descriptions of delicious meals, but the focus isn't eating.

Instead, author Ruth Reichl describes all the significant events in her life as they relate to cooking (that's her on the cover). What a great theme for a memoir. I didn't realize it before I started reading, but Reichl is the Editor in Chief of Gourmet Magazine (check out her bio on their website). Knowing that her career path led to the restaurant industry makes her stories even more interesting.

Landmarks in her development as food aficionado:
Her mom's nickname was "the Queen of Mold." As a little girl, Ruth warned dinner guests about which dishes to avoid, having seen her mother scoop mold off the top before serving it [gag].

Her family's maid and her grandmother's maid were both amazing cooks (recipes for Aunt Birdie's Potato Salad and Alice's Apple Dumplings with Hard Sauce are included).

She was sent to a girls' school in Montreal to learn French. There, she befriended a girl who brought her home on weekends. Her classmate's family introduced her to all kinds of fancy dishes, prepared by their kitchen staff.

After finishing high school at home in New York, she attended college in Michigan (to get as far away from her chaotic home life as possible) She and her roommate (from Detroit) discover the local farmer's market and get creative cooking for themselves.

She worked for a summer at a health camp on Île d'Oléron off the coast of France (she describes the "camp" as a place where poor French children are sent for a free month in the country). The purpose of the camp was for the kids to gain weight. While in the France, she met a local cheese maker and learned to make a fruit tart from scratch (recipe included).

Back in Michigan, she worked in a fancy French restaurant (and impressed her snooty co-workers by speaking flawless French and knowing more than her fair share about cooking).

She and her college roommate traveled to northern Africa on a whim, and spent time in Tunisia and Algeria. Their adventures were harrowing and exciting. They pushed the limits of personal safety while making friend there, even considering it was the late '60s.
The book reads like an anthology of world cuisine; I felt jealous of all the experiences Reichl described from her own far-flung and richly-appreciated life. 

My favorite chapter was about moving to Berkeley, California in 1972. As newly-weds, she and her husband formed a commune with several friends. They were all passionate about living simply and eating healthy. I think I liked it so much because I could picture the same scenario in my hippie-friendly town. I laughed out loud at several passages about one roommate in particular. He convinced the whole household they needed eight bags for household recycling.
"Nick would not be moved. The bags were ugly and recycling was annoyingly time consuming, but it was the right thing to do. We grumbled; we recycled. We could also agree that Nick was right when he asked us not to buy Nestlé’s product, although I no longer remember why. We agreed with the ban on Welch's (they supposedly supported the John Birch society) and Coors (fought with unions). Grapes, of course, were completely forbidden, but is was a moot point: the farm workers had such strong support in Berkeley that grapes were simply unavailable. But the day Nick came home saying that coffee was unhealthy and henceforth we should all drink tea we went into open revolt."
That same roommate packed their cupboard with chamomile. He discovered biorhythms and made charts for every body living at the house. He discovered grains, bee pollen, nutritional yeast, bean sprouts, homemade yogurt. Then they all decided it was cheaper to forage from garbage cans for discarded food, including steak from a dumpster. All their principals changed when they decided that wasted food was morally worse than eating from the top of the food chain.

I found it fascinating.

The book uses food as a basis, but Reichl seamlessly incorporates universal themes such as self-discovery and family loyalty by describing her most influential relationships, the era she grew up in, and her international travel. Her use of recipes is a nice bonus. I appreciated her wit and self-deprecating humor.

This book whet my appetite for reading, writing, and eating. I highly recommend it.


  1. Sounds like a fun story. I enjoyed your review! In a way the book reminded me of Dare To Succeed by Mark Burnett of Survivor fame. Except less food and more business with his adventures. :)

  2. I can't see the banning of coffee going over well in either of our households.