Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl

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Last year I went through a period where all I wanted to read was non-fiction. I still love memoirs, history books and social science type reads, but in the past few months I’ve been choosing fiction with increasing regularity and enjoying it with renewed vigor.  There’s simply nothing like plowing through a story with a main character that feels like your best friend.  Sometimes, however, I just want to read about real life; about real people doing real things.  When that urge comes, it hits with surprising ferocity and I oblige, bounding over to the New York Public library and choosing a book that’s available immediately.

When this happened after finishing The Help, I downloaded Tender at the Bone by restaurant critic Ruth Reichl.  I already had it bookmarked so it was an appropriately quick choice when I was extremely busy.  After a few seconds, it was sitting in my kindle and I began reading.

I was shocked at how fast I flew through it, despite barely finding the time to read.  The book was most similar in organization to A Homemade Life, with chapters that focused on a specific person or topic and had a recipe to accompany it.  The similarities ended there.  Reichl write longer chapters and weaves her story into a full story that follows her until she gets her first job as a restaurant critic.

While Reichl’s story is particular — isn’t everyone’s? — she manages to make the story completely relatable.  You will feel as if you know the characters she encounters, even if they are strange or out-dated for you.  You will laugh and be shocked and feel the struggles that she goes through.  Food isn’t necessarily the star of the show here, but simply the way in which Reichl is able to retrospectively organize her life.

Sometimes memoirs are hard to read because of the distinct lack of organization in people’s lives and, while this is an obvious fact of being human, makes them difficult to read.  Reichl is able to sort her life into a beautiful linear story with distinct sections and components that makes the story — which would be a joy to read without a clear trajectory — clear to follow and understand.  You have the time in her life when she’s at university, when she’s living a hippy life, when she’s a kid; it all lays out much clearer than real life does.  This may put some people off the story, but I loved it.  Memory isn’t always about reality, but a different beast entirely.

There are recipes to accompany each chapter, which are placed in the middle of the narrative.  Although I thought it was an odd choice at first, after reading Reichl’s assertion that the recipes were meant to stand in for photos of the people she was discussing, it made perfect sense.  These recipes aren’t just to say, ‘hey, try this! it’s good!,’ they allow the reader to understand something deeper about the characters and personalities about which they are reading.  I certainly want to try some of them.  If you were reading this book for a book club, they would make a perfect addition to your meeting.

Tender at the Bone was one of the best food memoirs I’ve read recently.  I would recommend it to any one interested in food, family relationships or discovering what they want in life.  While some food memoirs become books that only talk about esoteric experiences working in restaurants and eating aubergines, Reichl’s memoir talks about living life with food as a way to organize memories.  That’s something we all can relate to.

What food or meal stands out for your from your memories?

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