A challenging chapter: using recipes to convey range of emotions

July 03, 2002|By ROB KASPER

RUTH REICHL was struggling. She was writing a chapter in Comfort Me With Apples, the second volume in her three-book memoir. She was trying to sum up the demise of her first marriage, the process of falling in love with her next husband and the pain of losing her father while coping with her manic-depressive mother.

She had tried several approaches and had tossed out the results. "I did not want any purple prose. I did not want it to be maudlin; there were layers of emotion here," she said, recalling some of her thought processes.

Then she had what she described as a "real epiphany." "I saw that I could do it with recipes, that all the emotions could come out in the recipes, ... and it would be very clean."

To illustrate the parting of ways with her first husband, Doug, she wrote of making his favorite apricot pie just as he was going out the door on one of his frequent out-of-town trips. "Will you bake me another when I come back?" he asked. I shook my head. "By the time you come back," I said, "apricots will be out of season."

To exemplify her growing ardor for Michael, the man who would become her second husband, she wrote of baking him a massive chocolate cake for his birthday party. "As I watched myself cream 10 pounds of sugar into seven pounds of butter I began to understand what I was really up to. ... This was more than a cake; it was a declaration of love in front of 300 people and we both knew it."

To symbolize the sorrow that engulfed her as she sorted through her departed father's belongings and moved her unhappy mother from the couple's country home, she wrote of making mushroom soup every night. "It's the most soothing soup I know, with no sharp edges to jar the palate, no sneaky unexpected spices. It is the perfect prescription for those in need of solace."

The technique of linking sentiment with supper is vintage Reichl, one of America's top food writers. During her career as restaurant critic for New West magazine in California, The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times and as author of Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me With Apples, she has regularly drawn thoughtful parallels between the business of eating and living.

The other day during a telephone conversation from her Gourmet magazine office, where she is editor in chief, she talked about food writing. She drew some examples from Comfort Me With Apples, published last year, and some from Endless Feasts, a recently released collection of food writing that she edited, drawn from the archives of Gourmet.

She told me the recipe chapter in Comfort, the shorthand name for her book, was the most difficult one for her to write. She had put off working on this piece of the book and was spinning her wheels until she hit upon the idea of conveying the mood by describing the food.

A marriage ends with the passing of the apricot season, a new relationship is cemented by a towering birthday cake, lost and failing parents are remembered by making a soup from childhood. "When I did it, I saw that this was really what the book was about," she said.

One of the characteristics of good food writing, she said, is not limiting yourself to a simple description of the fare. "Good writers, like the ones whose work appear in Endless Feast, go beyond what is on the plate," she said.

"I learned long ago that you really limit yourself if you simply stick to describing the flavor. You have to think with all of your senses," she said, "to close your eyes and ask how does this make me feel."

For example, she said novelist Lawrence Durrell once wrote of "olives as old as cold water." "When you hear that phrase, you know what the writer was feeling," Reichl said. "He could have simply described the olives as salty, but that doesn't get you nearly as far as saying the olives are as old as cold water."

When it comes to writing restaurant reviews, Reichl said there were "two schools" of thought on how to approach the job. "One is the judgmental school, the one in which you say, `I am the expert and am going to tell you that this is good and this not,' " she said.

"I prefer the other school, the one that tries to take people along on the experience. So I would write about the conversations I heard of the people sitting around me. About 98 percent of the people who read a restaurant review are not going to immediately go out and eat at that restaurant."

Reichl, who is 54 years old, said the next volume of her memoirs would focus on her experiences as a restaurant critic.

Editing Endless Feasts had opened her eyes, said Reichl, who assumed the top post at Gourmet four years ago. The Gourmet she was familiar with had more emphasis on recipes than writing. But as she probed the archives, she saw that writers such as Ray Bradbury, A.J. McClane, Annie Proulx, William Hamilton, Pat Conroy, Edna O'Brien, Paul Theroux and George Plimpton had contributed vivid pieces to the magazine.

The idea of considering almost nothing outside the scope of the writer's purview, of allowing writers to follow their own appetites, was something that Reichl, the former art history major at the University of Michigan and Berkeley commune dweller, could identify with. But it had been going on long before she or other members of her generation of writers were aware of it.

"There was a long tradition at Gourmet that I did not know about," Reichl said. "It humbled me. And it showed me I have a lot to live up to."

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