By Lise Funderburg
Ruth Reichl remembers the uproar when her biting 1993 story about how unknowns are treated at the chic Le Cirque restaurant appeared in the New York Times. “As my husband said, you’d think I’d exposed police corruption,” she says. Now editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, Reichl made her reputation by chronicling not just the sensory attributes of food but its emotional and psychosocial qualities as well. She brings those same skills to writing about her life in Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table (Random House; 302 pages; $24.95).
The stories in both her memoirs (a widely praised predecessor, Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, came out in 1998) are delicious reads: witty, reflective accounts of her experiences in, around and through food. They are perfectly balanced meals accompanied by recipes: the shrimp curry she cooks as a farewell to her Berkeley commune, the mushroom soup she makes to console her mother during a financial crisis, the lemon pasta Danny Kaye concocts for her when he reveals that he’s a food-loving fellow traveler.
The new volume opens with Reichl reviewing restaurants for New West magazine in the late 1970s. Amid the burgeoning California food scene, she witnesses the rise of celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, the ascendance of the seminal restaurants Chez Panisse, Chinois and Michael’s, and the increasing regard for locally grown ingredients. She rises too, eventually moving to the Los Angeles Times, where she heralds America’s embrace of Asian cuisine.
Reichl, 53, credits her successful reviewing career (which later peaked at the New York Times) to a convergence of forces. “I feel as if I was just a little bit ahead of the curve,” she says, “because in the ’60s almost nobody I knew was interested in food. And suddenly there I was writing about the subject in New York City, in the ’90s, when
Americans were interested and knowledgeable and the city had the money to go out and eat. There I was, placed as the person; whose voice was the loudest.”
Comfort Me with Apples recounts how that voice was nourished, intertwining Reichl’s professional coming of age with her not-unrelated emergence into full-blown womanhood. As such, it is a very adult meditation on love. The title borrows a line from the Song of Solomon that Reichl discovered in her confirmation Bible: “Comfort me with apples, for I am lovesick.” The book luxuriates in her adulterous affair with her New West boss, Colman Andrews, who once greeted Reichl at an airport not with flowers but with fraises des bois flown in from France. “He kissed me and said, ‘Close your eyes and open your mouth,'” Reichl writes. “I sniffed the air; it smelled like a cross between violets and berries, with just a touch of citrus. My mouth closed around something very small… the size of a little grape but with a scratchy surface. ‘Do you like it?’ he asked anxiously. I tasted spring.”
The affair ends badly, but not before it unleashes her capacity for carnal and gustatory lust. With her food-critic lover, Reichl tastes balsamic vinegar for the first time, one of myriad discoveries that make the romance “a moment of pure magic.” The book ends with Reichl in love with her current husband, pregnant with their child, and still in Los Angeles. She doesn’t rule out a next installment, but at the moment she’s more eager to see how people — including her husband, ex-husband and ex-lover — react to this one. She also wonders how other readers will view her infidelity, about which she is only partly repentant.
Reichl is now happily at the helm of Gourmet, where both circulation and advertising have increased since she took over in 1999. “In the book I say I felt as if I’d been preparing my whole life to be a restaurant critic,” she says. “The truth is, I was preparing to do this. Now I get to talk about the stuff that’s deeply important to me: the sociology of food, the politics.”
There is ample examination of the food world’s pretensions and arrogance in Comfort Me, but much of the sociology is personal, directed at Reichl’s closest relationships — her parents, friends and lovers.
Reichl didn’t begin writing her memoirs until after her parents died. She was protecting their feelings, she says, but she also needed to give the tales a chance to simmer. “It takes a long time to be sure of what the stories are. You find that the good ones, over time, float to the top.”