For Ruth Reichl, the New York Times restaurant critic, learning to taste (and eventually, to cook) may have been a simple matter of self-preservation. Reichl spent her childhood in New York's Greenwich Village with a manic-depressive mother who was not only taste-blind but utterly unafraid of rot. "Oh, it's just a little mold," her mother would chirp, scraping "fuzzy blue stuff" from one pile of leftovers or another. For the young Reichl, a sense of duty kicked in: "My mission was to keep Mom from killing anybody who came to dinner." This wasn't always easy. In the wake of one of her mother's parties, 26 gut-sick guests checked into a hospital.
"Tender at the Bone" is Reichl's account of how a sense of duty blossomed into a matter of love -- it's about her discovery that "food could be a way of making sense of the world." Thus we follow her on a series of culinary adventures: to private school in Montreal, where a rich friend's parents initiate Reichl and her precocious taste buds into the world of haute cuisine; through high school, where she became popular ("I wasn't a cheerleader or a dancer and nobody ever asked me to the drive-in") by cooking for her expanding circle of friends. Later, we tag along as she attends the University of Michigan in the late '60s and then moves to Berkeley, where she lives in a commune, drives a battered Volvo, begins cooking for a staff-owned restaurant and gains notoriety as a "gypsy chef." Reichl punctuates the sections of this memoir with homey recipes; as with many foodies, they're as much a part of her autobiography as anything else.
It's easy to imagine New York's anxious restaurateurs poring over this text with an almost Talmudic rigor, seeking clues to Reichl's tastes and psyche. It's also easy to imagine them nodding off right into their consommi. Reichl is a fine, fearless critic -- she single-handedly cracked open the Times' star-based rating system, infuriating the old guard as she awarded high marks to noodle shops as well as the usual French temples du cuisine -- but "Tender at the Bone" is remarkably flat and underseasoned; reading it is like ordering mushroom soup at La Grenouille and watching as the chef heats up a can of Campbell's. Nothing is at stake here; Reichl piles anecdote upon anecdote with little supporting matter, and after a few chapters you're already tired of reading about how her "eyes start to tear" after gratefully sampling one delicacy or another. Reichl's prose, so pointed in the Times, here seems charmless and banal, lacking both A.J. Liebling's cheerful, streaming ease and M.F.K. Fisher's rough-hewn good sense. Her sentences are rarely bad enough to single out for censure, but en masse they're stupefying. Clichis are sprinkled like canned Parmesan cheese: "We passed through the bar on the way in; it was cold and dark, filled with ham-fisted men holding tall glasses of frosty beer."
I suspect Reichl knew this memoir had gone off the rails. Late in the book she tosses in, apropos of very little, a bit of forced drama -- she's suddenly terrified of driving over the Bay Area's bridges. With the help of a fellow foodie, she overcomes her phobia and arrives safely for a meal at a swank Asian restaurant. Using "silver-tipped ivory chopsticks" she devours something called drunken squab. Meanwhile, readers will be calling out for double espressos -- and the check, please.