Don't miss these two books about the cooking life

April 4, 1999
Elisabeth Sherwin --

Don't miss these two books about the cooking life

Until recently, I hadn't read a really good book about cooking and eating since Calvin Trillin's 1978 classic "Alice, Let's Eat."

But I'm happy to say that I now have two more wonderful books to add to that shelf: "Tender at the Bone" by Ruth Reichl and "The Man Who Ate Everything" by Jeffrey Steingarten. Both books are available in paperback.

Reichl is the restaurant critic for The New York Times; Steingarten writes for Vogue and the on-line magazine Slate.

I slightly preferred "Tender at the Bone" because Reichl's book is a cooking memoir while Steingarten has written a collection of cooking essays.

His nearly eight-page guide to perfect mashed potatoes was a little too scientific for me. He suggests, for instance, that the use of a thermometer in the process is vital, this to test exactly how hot your boiling water is before the addition of potatoes (and not just any potato, either, and not cut any old way).

When I make mashed potatoes, I don't worry about how hot hot is, I just boil the water in the microwave. He doesn't even mention the word "microwave" in his instructions.

But when he's not being overly compulsive, he's very funny. Especially at odd moments when he throws in a line about his wife.

In one chapter he describes his attempts to understand why people flock to theme restaurants, choosing as an example The Castle in Lyndhurst, N.J., in which he was so dispirited by the meal that he barely described the food. Instead, he focused on the mock jousting and the enthusiasm of the crowd. "The people around me had a much more positive attitude than I; one woman cheered and stamped so deafeningly that I considered asking the management to calm her down, until I looked over and saw that it was my wife."

He also goes to bat for a food that I consider unfairly mocked and that is the Christmas fruitcake. I'm pretty sure that I'm going to try his recipe for Smith Family White Fruitcake when we get a little closer to the season.

Steingarten and I both agree that Trillin did a disservice to the noble fruitcake when he made the oft-repeated joke that there is only one fruitcake in the world, never eaten but just passed on year after year.

Every great food writer also is a world traveler and so it is with Steingarten. His chapter on "Kyoto Cuisine" is mouth-watering. His search for the perfect choucroute in Alsace made me yearn to try sauerkraut and sausage. But several chapters describing the raptures of fresh seafood left me cold. No thanks. Steingarten spends some time trying to shame the timid eater into throwing off the shackles of food phobias, but I don't want to even try.

I felt more at home reading Reichl's "Tender at the Bone."

"My parents entertained a great deal," she writes near the beginning of her memoir, "and before I was 10 I had appointed myself guardian of the guests. My mission was to keep Mom from killing anybody who came to dinner."

You think she's kidding? She's not. Her mother, a manic-depressive with a cast-iron stomach, was fond of saying things like "Oh, it's just a little mold" as she scraped away blue-green fuzz before putting the suspect dish on the dinner table.

Twenty-six people were hospitalized with food poisoning after eating at Reichl's brother's engagement party, catered by her Mom, a few years later. So Reichl's early introduction to food was purely defensive. If she cooked, she knew what she was eating.

Fortunately, this was OK with Reichl who developed a talent and then a passion for cooking and good food. She tells of travels in Italy and France and her adventures learning to appreciate wonderful food.

The memoir also covers a period in the early '70s when she and her young husband fled to Berkeley to get away from Mom in New York. She describes living in a Berkeley commune and working at a cooperative restaurant called The Swallow and makes it sound like a wonderful time.

Reichl, too, includes some recipes in her book. I swear I'm going to try her Artpark Brownies and Marion's Deviled Eggs.

The Marion in question is Walnut Creek's Marion Cunningham of the Fannie Farmer cookbooks. Reichl and Steingarten both include descriptions of time spent and lessons learned with her. Cunningham shows Steingarten how to make the perfect pie crust, easily, and she introduces a young Reichl to James Beard and encourages her to stay the course as a cook and writer.

I'm glad she did.

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books [ Click Here ]

[Author Menu] [Date Menu] [Genre Menu] [Printed Matter Home]
The Davis Virtual Market