Ruth Reichl is a commanding and daunting figure in American culture. Beginning in the 1970s, she played a key role in revolutionizing food and restaurant journalism, wielded make-or-break influence as a restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times and later The New York Times, and continues to loom large as editor in chief of Gourmet magazine.
With her fourth book, Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way, however, Reichl looks backward and inward in an attempt to understand and explain her mother, both to herself and to us.
At barely 100 pages, Not Becoming My Mother is a meditation rather than a memoir but is no less affecting for its brevity. Reichl is performing in public what is, after all, a rite of passage: the contemplation of a deceased parent. In that sense, her little book is an exploration of one of life's biggest mysteries.
Ironically, Reichl's mother, named Miriam but known as Mim, was an eccentric and sometimes reckless cook whose misadventures in the kitchen included at least one incident of mass food poisoning. The book opens with an account of the day Mim prepared a snack for her daughter's Brownie troop by throwing together various items from the kitchen, including a bowl of moldy pudding. Not only did the little girls survive, but one of them asked if Mim would give the recipe to her mother.
"I couldn't do that," Mim replied. "The recipe is an old family secret."
Reichl readily admits that she has trafficked in quite a few of what she calls "Mim Tales," including the food poisoning incident that opens her first memoir, Comfort Me With Apples.
"Although I omitted the most embarrassing tales, the first time I held the printed book in my hands I winced," she writes here. "I could not keep from thinking that I had betrayed my mother." With this new book, then, she "wanted to make it up to her."
So, on what would have been her mother's 100th birthday, Reichl sets to the task. She begins by composing a speech in which she gives a brief, harsh but insightful portrait. We learn that Mim's youthful aspirations to become a doctor were squelched by her parents: "You're no beauty, and it's too bad that you're such an intellectual," they told her. "But if you become a doctor, no man will ever marry you."
Instead, Mim earned a doctorate in musicology and ran a bookshop until she married at nearly 30, after which she retired into a comfortable idleness.
"My mother, like most of her friends, literally had nothing to do," Reichl observes, quoting the speech she wrote. "I have never known so many unhappy people. They were smart, they were educated, and they were bored. Some of them did charitable work, but it wasn't fulfilling. Their misery was an ugly thing, and it was hard on their families."
Here we encounter the sort of generational disconnect that turned so many women of Reichl's generation into Stakhanovites in various fields of endeavor.
But Reichl continues to ask questions of herself and her dead mother, and finds answers in a cache of letters and diaries, notes and clippings. Some are unsettling - she learns that her father was "an ardent lover" - and others are shattering.
"I hope Ruthy won't rush into marriage the way I did that first time," Mim writes about her failed first marriage. "What if I had never married? Would my life have been better?"
As she gathers fragments of information and insight from these artifacts, Reichl shows us how untimely death and financial crisis distorted her mother's life and how her grandparents' Old World assumptions weighed on Mim's self-esteem.
She gives us glimpses of remarkable moments in an otherwise unnoticed life: Among her mother's papers is a love letter from Bertrand Russell. But she also tracks her mother's descent into dysfunction as she wanders from doctor to doctor, from Librium to lithium, in a futile effort to hold back a "tsunami of pain."
We clearly see how Reichl's career can be understood as a reaction to her mother's attitude toward food and work.
Yet to her credit, Reichl is not content with facile psychological insights. Ultimately she realizes - and allows us to do so also - that her mother was more complex than "the charming character of the Mim Tales." According to her daughter, "she led by negative example," as if to offer caution against making the same mistakes she did.
"Parents yearn for their children's respect," Reichl notes. "And yet my mother deliberately sabotaged my respect and emphasized her failings. She loved me enough to make me love her less. She wanted to make sure that I would not follow in her footsteps."
Not Becoming My Mother is open-hearted, gracious and endearing, but it is hard to imagine a harsher verdict for a child to pronounce against her mother - and, indeed, against herself.
Jonathan Kirsch is the author, most recently, of "The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God."