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Book: Comfort Me With Apples

October 16, 2009

I read Tender At The Bone a few years ago and loved it. What’s not to love about Ruth Reichl? She’s a great writer, she’s had a great, interesting life, she loves food, she’s funny and tender… it was a great book.

And so, with great anticipation, I read Comfort Me With Apples (another one of my sidetracks from RIP). And was not disappointed. What a life!

I can’t remember where Tender At The Bone leaves off, but we pick up in Comfort Me With Apples in Berkeley, where Ruth lives in a communal house with her husband, Doug (an artist just beginning to become successful). She works at The Swallow restaurant (owned by collective) and has just started reviewing restaurants for the West Coast branch of New York Magazine, New West.

Since I live very near Berkeley (about a 15-minute drive away) and have been to many of the landmarks in the book (including Chez Panisse — the cafe, anyway), it was especially fun to read about the beginnings of the California-style food movement. Food is a Big Deal here in California and especially in the Bay Area. Reading about Alice Waters starting up her now-infamous restaurant was particularly amusing.

So anyway. Ruth is starting to review restaurants, and she’s really good at it. Her husband is starting to travel more for his work. She begins to travel to Los Angeles to review restaurants. Soon, almost before she knows it, she is involved in an affair with her editor (I think he’s her editor, anyway). I must admit to being mildly shocked by this. I mean, she’s so nice, right? And she loves her husband! And… what’s she doing with this pompous foodie guy? But, it was the 70s, and it becomes clear over the course of the next few chapters that all was not right with her marriage anyway (successful, handsome artist husband travelling all over the country does not exactly bode well for his faithfulness either). And she’s still a nice person. In fact, it was nearly impossible not to like her intensely as I read. I love her writing style and she approaches food and people with such curiosity and openness.

Eventually, her melodramatic affair with her editor comes to an end, and she attempts to rebuild her marriage. Still, their combined successes seem to be contriving to pull them apart, and eventually she has another affair (with the man who eventually became, and still is, her current husband).
As she navigates now-landmark restaurant openings and closures, encounters the giants of the food world (Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck), and learns how to stick with a good thing (her husband, Michael), she never gets pompous or heavy — she talks about affairs and food with the same light touch, which was perfect for my mood.

Later on, she talks about the adoption of her daughter, which unfortunately did not have a happy ending. At one point, she says, “I had to learn that sometimes even your best is not good enough, and then you have to just get through it and move on.” That was good to hear. Even this person, so successful and blessed and talented, had to face something terrible and there was nothing she could do about it. She had to accept it, absorb it, and move on. And of course life had more surprises in store for her. Of course life always has more surprises in store for each of us.

So, I loved this book. It was fun, fast, lighthearted. It was inspiring, but not in an in-your-face way. It was mostly inspiring because although she knows she’s good at what she does, she never talks about having dreams and making goals and such. At 35, she did not have health insurance, had no savings, had no idea where her life was going to lead. But what she DID do, was enjoy herself, take opportunities as they came, made the most of them, and had a lot of fun along the way. I find that very inspiring.

I’m now reading Garlic and Sapphires, the last of the three, in which she talks about her time as the New York Times restaurant reviewer. This was such a notoriously powerful position that she had to resort to wearing disguises. I’ve only read the first chapter, but it was immediately addicting. I think I will be polishing off this book tomorrow.

I was sad to learn that Gourmet Magazine, of which she’s been editor for the past 10 years, recently shut down. I never subscribed to Gourmet but would occasionally treat myself to an issue. I’m sad it won’t be around, although I do wonder what Reichl will be doing next.
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