Tender at the Bone

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In TENDER AT THE BONE: GROWING UP AT THE TABLE, NEW YORK TIMES restaurant critic Ruth Reichl remembers the people who taught her how to cook and live. Reichl’s unfailingly entertaining stories of family and friends invariably turn to descriptions of what they cooked and what they liked to eat. Reichl’s tales begin with a disastrous engagement party thrown by her mother and how Reichl, then twelve, struggled vainly to prevent guests from eating the casserole her manic-depressive mother (“The Queen of Mold”) concocted out of leftovers from Horn and Hardart’s Automat.

Having established that neither her culinary talent nor her sensitive palate could have come from her mother, Reichl introduces her Aunt Birdie and Birdie’s cook Alice (and includes their recipes for potato salad and apple dumplings); Mrs. Peavey, the well-bred Reichl family maid who enchanted eight-year-old Reichl with bedtime stories of “galantine, forcemeat, aspic, florentine;” teenage friends she entertained at drunken parties with devil’s food cake; and a beloved college roommate whose shattering self-discovery pulled their friendship apart.

Reichl’s tales of travels in Europe, life in a Berkeley commune, and her eventual entry into professional writing are all punctuated with memorable characters. A French waitress teaches Reichl to properly bone a fish; a college professor is delivered from unrequited love in an Italian sculpture garden; a commune dweller hilariously epitomizes the social conscience of early 1970’s youth.

A dark undercurrent runs through Reichl’s tales due to her mother’s manic-depression and the often phobic fear that she herself will also succumb to mental illness. As the book closes, Reichl finds inspiration in strong women who cook and eat wonderful food, to overcome her mother’s manic energy and her own paralyzing fears.